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Mon 6th Jul 2020 - Operators report low-key reopening weekend
Operators report low-key reopening weekend: Operators have reported a low-key start to trading during the weekend, with turnover in many cases well below the corresponding weekend last year. Some companies reported turnover of less than 50% of normal. Nevertheless, operators said the subdued weekend trading gave them a chance to test new systems. The Restaurant Group chief executive Andy Hornby described the weekend as “uneventful”. He told Propel: “We are so pleased to be up and running, although poor weather in the Brunning & Price heartland definitely constrained demand in our large pub gardens. Pre-bookings were inevitably far stronger than ‘walk in’ business. Consumer reaction to the safety measures has been positive. All indications are this will be a slow but steady journey to rebuild.” Kent brewer and retailer Shepherd Neame said trading was below last year’s levels in “all but a few outlets”, but overall it was a “really encouraging start”, with its suburban and food pubs doing well. A spokeswoman told Propel: “Our teams have been really pleased by the reaction from consumers. Several told team members they had been feeling apprehensive about their visit but were reassured by the extensive mitigating measures in place. We also received a large amount of positive feedback. We asked our customers to support us by following the new rules, and they did. There was a really positive atmosphere in the sites – staff were energised about being back with colleagues and customers were excited about returning to their local.” Simon Potts, chief executive of The Alchemist, told Propel trading was “in line with expectations”. He said: “We are pleased guests and teams feel overwhelmingly confident in the systems and measures we have in place. Overall, my sense is guests are incredibly relaxed about the situation and it’s important to remember those out this weekend were always going to be the more fearless set. There was a much broader range of age groups than initially expected.” The Rick Stein Group said 5,046 guests dined during the weekend in the ten restaurants it reopened. Chef director Jack Stein said: “It was such a buzz being back in the kitchen. We’re really happy with how it went. Our customers respected social distancing and were clearly as happy to be back as we were. Safety was our number-one priority and our new measures, from one-way systems and table spacing to adding fully sterilised and sealed cutlery pouches to every table, proved a great success.” Wine and spirit adviser Charlie Stein added: “Bookings are looking good for the remainder of the summer season. However, we’re not naive enough to think the next few months will be plain sailing.” Regarding Super Saturday, Des Gunewardena, chief executive of D&D London, said the day was “very good in terms of customer service”.  He added: “Teams did extremely well managing full restaurants on their first day back after three-and-a-half months. There were no issues with customers respecting social distancing and enjoying themselves without partying too hard. PPE and safety procedures were not too intrusive – all were well received by customers. Overall revenues were about two-thirds of prior year, broadly in line with capacity reductions. Restaurant revenues held up well, with increased spend making up for some of the impact of lower covers. On the bars and terraces, drinks revenue was much lower with the combined impact of safety restrictions and poorer weather than last year. Among strongest performers were Bluebird, our restaurants at Butlers Wharf – especially Le Pont de la Tour and Butlers Wharf Chophouse – Skylon on the South Bank and, more surprisingly, Coq d’Argent and 14 Hills in the City, which were both very busy with customers who presumably live in or close to the City. Overall, I was pretty happy with the weekend but I always knew we’d be busy on our first day back. What’s important now is how our forward bookings grow this week. Weekends for the rest of July look strong. Weekday business, especially at lunch, looks a bit more challenging. I’m hoping for some sunshine this week to get the weekdays busier too.” Jonathan Arana-Morton, founder of The Breakfast Club, said: “It will take a while to get a sense of how the dust is going to settle. Across the estate we were down about 45% on the same weekend last year. That’s with delivery, which we’ve only had since lock-down. It’s finger in the air stuff right now predicting sales and all your old assumptions go out the window. Historically our busiest cafe, in Spitalfields, was our worst performing, with sales down 80% on the corresponding weekend while the more residential locations, Battersea and Hackney Wick, were outperforming last year’s numbers. There’s still a huge demand for takeaway (food and drink) in these locations. For the weekend, buying takeaway pints and drinking them on the nearest pavement still seemed a big attraction. Therein lies one of the challenges if this weekend is anything to go by. Your big-rent, high-footfall office locations might prove to be ridiculously overpriced in the new reality. Try having that conversation with a landlord! ‘Sorry your prize asset isn’t quite so prized any more.’ In terms of the measures we’ve put in place, our business was always table service. Throw in the fact you have less customers and fewer tables in your cafe and it hasn’t been hugely challenging operationally to keep people safe. From a front-facing perspective we would appear to be fairly light touch – no obligatory masks, for example – but I suppose the analogy is a duck on water, the sense of security and confidence on the surface and all the hard work going on behind the scenes to get our cafes ready. As has been said a million times already, it has been our job since day dot to serve food in a clean and safe environment – nothing new here. Customers have been superb with a real sense of community and being on the same side. It has been an absolute joy in that respect. We’ve got a long way to go!” Incipio Group finance director Tom Brand said: “For our three sites that traded last year, capacity was reduced on average by 41% to enable social distancing. Despite that, sales were only 28% down, showing an encouraging spend per head. Our best performing site was only 7% below last year. Saturday exceeded expectations. Our venues were operating at a considerably reduced capacity but sales per head were higher across our sites. Sunday trading was more in line with what we expected. Ahead of reopening we received 8,340 booking enquiries with 16,360 guests wanting to join us on Saturday alone. There was certainly an appetite to head out and party on ‘Super Saturday’ and that was felt in our venues. The feedback was extremely positive across the weekend with guests respecting social distancing guidelines and being understanding and considerate to our teams and other guests. Like many others we were left to the last minute to interpret guidelines. Customers are confused on what they can and can’t do. We’re working closely with local authorities, licensing and EHO and the feedback from our guest register platform was well received.” Tim Foster, co-founder of four-strong Yummy Pub Co, told Propel the company saw about 85% of last year’s trade across the three sites it reopened. He said while it was “great to be trading again and have things back in our hands”, he stressed there was a “long road ahead”. He said the Gorringe Park in Tooting and The Victoria in Mile End had “good Saturdays”. Meanwhile, The Wiremill, near Lingfield in Surrey, saw 675 covers during the two days and turned away another 390. Foster said the company ran booking slots of two-and-a-half hours and about 20% of guests stayed on longer. Of the covers turned away, 175 have rebooked for this weekend. The menu at The Wiremill had to be changed seven times during the weekend because it ran out of certain ingredients. Foster said after the initial nerves disappeared the team flourished and many customers said how well they “learned to dance around one another”. Foster added: “We decided not to go down the route of masks and gloves but made sure we had plenty of hand sanitiser and regular cleaning. This went down well with guests. We’re still learning as we go but it’s great to be trading again.” Yummy plans to reopen The Somers Town Coffee House, near Euston, on 20 July. Knead Pubs, operator of six pubs and a hotel, mostly in south Lincolnshire, reopened four of its outlets on Saturday. Owner Michael Thurlby told Propel that Smiths of Bourne, the Lord Nelson in Oakham and The Tobie Norris in Stamford all traded at below 50% of last year. He said many regulars had indicated they planned to visit in the next couple of weeks or so as they “want things to settle first”. Thurlby said The Crown in Stamford opened with a marquee in the car park and food and beverage sales will be up on the same period last year. He added the company had a table booking with a deposit paid system in place that was “really well used”. Thurlby said he was trying to get a marquee on Red Lion Square in Stamford to run drinks and street food out of Patens. He said the business was being cautious with Newark as it is a “trickier town” but intends to get Patens, The Prince Rupert in Newark and Jubilee in Bourne open in the next ten days. Sector analyst Peter Backman said restaurants still had a “mountain to climb” and described business on Super Saturday as “underwhelming”. He said on a visit to Muswell Hill on Saturday lunchtime half the 25 restaurants on the high street were open and business was “ok but certainly not brisk”, while the chains were “noticeable by their closures”. He added: “In the evening I visited Hampstead. Bear in mind this is a Saturday in July when in normal times you can’t get a seat anywhere without arriving very early or booking in advance. Again, half the sites were closed – some permanently. Chain restaurants – Cote, PizzaExpress, Wagamama for example – weren’t open. In total, I saw about 30 tables occupied – that amounts to about 25% of all seats available. So 50% open with 25% occupancy – that’s 13% of possible business.” Backman pointed out the weather may have kept diners away. He added: “I haven’t seen press coverage highlighting restaurants bursting at the seams in other places – despite scenes of pub crowds in Soho. So perhaps my short ‘discovery day’ safaris weren’t that unusual. As for other evidence of what was happening, the Huq Index stood at 21.0 on Saturday having barely shifted from the day before – when restaurants were closed. Bookings on OpenTable increased on Saturday but they certainly don’t reflect comments from some quarters about a surge in bookings during the week. Restaurants still have a mountain to climb. Let’s hope my samples aren’t representative. Let’s hope the weather improves. Let’s hope restaurant-goers rediscover their joy of eating out. Let’s hope.”

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