Can the hospitality sector bounce back?

28th Jul

So here we are, just out of lockdown, dining in on the memories of dining out.
The last week of foodie freedom pre lockdown was an absolute delight and, sadly, never to be repeated in quite the same way. On the Saturday my wife Jayne and I paid one of our most enjoyable visits to 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar. On the Monday a crowd of us gathered at Furley & Co for the last supper club before lockdown. Thursday lunchtime was spent with Phil Withers at Artemis Greek Taverna, where we all knew what was coming, but not when. We’re in a similar situation now, albeit hopefully at the other end of the catastrophe.
Perspective is all-important and the death from Covid-19 of Lawrance Dcruze, a very popular chef at Tapasya @ Marina, overshadowed everything else in the hospitality sector. There may have been more fatalities that we don’t yet know about, and the most painful aspect of the whole episode is that treasured memories of wonderful people have been swamped by the sheer weight of casualties.
Similarly, it’s likely to be some time, maybe months, before we see the full impact on the restaurants, hotels, pubs and café bars that have added to the quality and character of Hull and the East Riding in recent years.
Don’t let anybody tell you that everything was rosy before coronavirus came along. Place the blame wherever you like – Brexit uncertainty and cost-cutting, austerity, cut-price booze in supermarkets were all factors – but understand that well-established food and beverage businesses have been on a tightrope for three or four years and new arrivals have taken a big gamble.
Not many will admit it but the cancellation of this year’s Hull Fair triggered a huge sigh of relief. There was a time when the lull in pub and restaurant activity imposed by the Walton Street spending spree also signalled the last breather for the sector before the build-up to Christmas.
Remember the days of rushing to book the works do so you wouldn’t be stuck with early November? Last year you could have picked from most dates in December. One seasoned licensee who runs one of the busiest city centre pubs said the Christmas rush moved later and later until 2019 when it never really happened at all.
With the fair cancelled, the hope is that people will have more money to spend on going out, whether they do that in Hull Fair week or save it for half-term or a cracking Christmas.
There’s no doubt the industry needs it. Those venues that do come through this can count themselves fortunate whether it’s because of wealthy backers, substantial reserves or just good housekeeping. But there’s still no guarantee they’ll be here in the spring, because there are still tough times ahead.
Reputation and pedigree is no guarantee of survival. Take the examples of Willerby Manor Hotel, and 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar.
The hotel was once renowned as the best in the region. Former managing director Derek Baugh turned it into a destination venue for dining and functions, and wrote about it in Memories of a Dorchester Chef and Beyond. In the 1980s it was the home of the Hull Press Ball. In 1992 Jayne and I had our wedding reception there. Also in the 1990s it was the venue for the wonderful sporting lunch organised by the Sailors Children’s Society, still the biggest and best charity event in the region.
Both our kids went there for their school proms, Matthew wearing a jacket for the first time since day one in his junior school blazer. Our last visit was nearly a year ago. North Sea Ferries did a fair bit of business with Willerby Manor and, after Derek moved on, with his new venture, the Manor House at Walkington. Many of them were hosted by Tony Farrell, a prominent figure at the Ferries, whose death last summer brought familiar faces back to Willerby.
Media reports suggest the owners were swayed by a decent offer for the site and decided to sell it for redevelopment rather than endure the intensity of competing for the function business that had become a mainstay.
The closure of 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar highlights the vulnerability across the sector. October this year would have been the 10th anniversary of its opening as the Wilson, café bar by day, fine dining at night and the catalyst for so much exciting investment in the Marina area.
Five years ago it reinvented itself as the upmarket yet still laid-back speciality restaurant serving the finest local and imported authentic ingredients given a tapas twist. Alongside the superb seafood, succulent cuts of meat and array of beautiful Mediterranean veg you’d occasionally find parsnips, even sprouts, and you’d find it worked beautifully.Director and manager Deborah Spicer and her team won a REYTA in their first year, rode out the storm as high-profile sister restaurants came and went and they were in their strongest position for a couple of years with the confidence of a growing clientele and a dozen good events in the diary – I know because I brought them in.
All I can put it down to is investor fatigue; if the man with the money doesn’t want to do it any more, the only thing on the menu is toast.
The loss leaves a huge hole in the city centre restaurant scene with the only guarantee being one of more upheaval to come. We’ll see how venues cope with social distancing, remembering the ridicule that was heaped on the plastic screens, not unlike the Spinal Tap pods, used to protect diners at one restaurant in Paris.
Closer to home, the Westwood Restaurant led the way with its announcement of a collaboration with the Fox Group, a Hessle-based cleaning company that has invested in Covid-19 fogging equipment and stood ready to carry out a deep clean as opening day approached.
Michele Barker, who runs the business with her brother Matthew, told of the difficulties around planning a return to work with demand from diners but little firm knowledge of what sort of timescales and restrictions to expect.Speaking in early June, she said: “We’re in the same position as every other business in our sector. We want to welcome diners back and we’ve had calls from people who want to book but above all we have to make sure that everybody is safe.
“We will do whatever we need to do to ensure we operate safely. At the moment we don’t know what those requirements will be but we do know when the time is right we will have a deep clean of the restaurant by a specialist team.
“There are all sort of reports about when restaurants will be able to open and what social distancing will look like. Nobody really knows but we are absolutely certain about the importance of customer confidence so we are working with another local business to show everybody we operate in a clean, safe environment.”
Parallel with all of this is the renewed uncertainty of Brexit as the Government resists the notion of an extension and, for now anyway, appeared to be wedded to a system of uncontrolled imports and tariffs on exports. In theory that would appear to add up to win-win for domestic end-users who could find themselves targeted by overseas producers exploiting the opening and by British producers whose export prices will be artificially high. But it’s not sustainable.
And then there’s the “mother of all trade deals” with the United States. How will a UK food and beverage sector that has put so much hard work and investment into provenance and traceability deal with the threatened import of unlabelled chlorinated chicken and hormone-reared beef? And that’s before we even start on fishing!
It’s entirely likely that having won the confidence of customers over Covid-19 protection, restaurants will have to do it all over again for food standards.
Many operators have confronted the challenges head-on with innovation – Furleys was one of the first to offer takeaways and Dan Poole, head chef for three years at 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar, made a mark with Provide Kitchen, taking orders in advance and delivering restaurant-quality dishes ready to reheat to doorsteps across the region. At the time of writing that’s looking like our first supper club of the new normal, with Zoom optional!
When the doors open properly we’ll be back to Furleys to make up for the previous supper club, which came on the day that the Prime Minister advised people not to visit pubs and restaurants. During the hour that followed, cancellations reduced our number from 30-odd to about 16.
We’ll also return to Artemis Greek Taverna as a substitute for our Wine & Tapas event that was planned for April, and we’re looking forward to rearranging the May booking at Rupert & Darwin. Tanyalak, Thai House and Tapasya @ Marina are also high on the list.
We’ll see what else is around but the hospitality industry has to be ready to play its essential part in helping the recovery from all of this by bringing people together again and putting smiles on their faces as they share fond memories of family, friends and colleagues and approach life and the new normal with fresh vigour.

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire Autumn 2021

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