London Chefs Ask If One Meter Will Save Their Business

(Bloomberg) — The easing of lockdown rules in the U.K. got mixed reviews from London chefs and restaurateurs, with some hoping to revive their business with innovations like takeaway service while others are more doubtful they can stage a comeback even with looser social-distancing regulation.

“Even with the one-meter rule, we’ll be scraping to get by to make any kind of money,” said Anna Haugh, the owner of Myrtle restaurant in Chelsea , referring to the updated required space between guests.

Before the lockdown came into effect, Myrtle would  typically seat about 30 guests. Now Haugh thinks she can accommodate 18 as a minimum and possibly go up to 25 with bigger tables. But even the most creative reshuffle of the existing space can’t mask the fact that making money will be much harder, forcing her to innovate.

Haugh will attempt to diversify with a new delivery brand, Anna’s Bistro, scheduled to launch next month. She said she hopes that income stream will help offset lost sales in her fine-dining restaurant, for which a reopening date has yet to be set.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on June 23 that he was reducing the minimum social distancing in England to one meter (3.3 feet) from two, and that hotels, pubs, restaurants and cinemas can reopen from July 4.  But getting health-wary customers to come back won’t be easy, and some restaurants are either delaying a reopening or branching out into new fields to make ends meet. Others, still, have permanently closed, like London celebrity hangout Le Caprice.

Ravinder Bhogal of Jikoni restaurant is trying her luck with a vegetarian home-delivery brand called Comfort & Joy. She’s also in negotiations with her landlord regarding rent for her restaurant in the fashionable Marylebone district and plans to re-open on July 4.

“One meter is more sensible operationally,” Bohgal said, calling anything farther apart “difficult to make it work financially.”

Tonkotsu, a ramen chain, is doing away with printed menus altogether. Guests will be invited to scan a bar code with their phones or order online, said Emma Reynolds  who co-owns Tonkotsu with her business partner Ken Yamada.

She’s planning to reopen two outlets on July 4 before others follow. There will be smaller menus and hand-sanitizing stations around the restaurants, but there’s no decision yet on face masks.

Other chefs are keeping their venues shut, even with the new, less restrictive rules in place.

Among them is Asma Khan, who said she has has no immediate plan to reopen her restaurant Darjeeling Express in Soho. Khan said her priority is to protect her staff, who rely on public transport to get to work. Besides, even the one-meter rule will make it hard to run a functioning operation, she said.

“How do you serve people?” she asked. “You can’t be one meter away from the table — no one has arms that long — so there is still going to be an issue going to restaurants. I wish all those who are reopening all the best.”

Natalie Diaz-Fuentes, who owns the Mexican restaurant Santo Remedio, with her husband Edson, thinks they can make it work.

“One meter is a game changer,”  she said. “One meter is the difference between whether we can get through this successfully or not.”

Santo Remedio previously had 94 seats, and that may drop by about half. The staff will wear masks and there will be a shorter menu to make life easier in the kitchen. Staff will also don disposable gloves, which they will change each time they serve guests. Tables will have hand-sanitizers and there will be disposable menus.

The key to any recovery will be what agreement chefs and owners can reach with their landlords. After more than three months of lockdown and the prospects of months of reduced capacity, proprietors say pre-Covid-19 rents no longer make sense.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Selina Kiazim, co-owner of Oklava restaurant in Shoreditch and Oklava Bakery + Wine in Fitzrovia with her business partner Laura Christie. She said one of her landlords is being understanding, while the other less accommodating.

“Everything is on a knife edge,” she said. “Rent is the million-dollar question for us.”

Richard Vines is Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines and Instagram @richard.vines.