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Sun 27th Jun 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
McDonald’s has been lovin’ it during lockdown: Maccy D’s is supersizing itself. It is recruiting at least 20,000 workers and opening 50 new restaurants in Britain and Ireland. Paul Pomroy, McDonald’s UK boss, says he’s not replacing jobs lost or furloughed but creating 20,000 new posts, to be followed by thousands more in individual restaurants run by franchisees. The new direct hires will include burger flippers, drive-thru staff and meeters ’n’ greeters who will help customers use the electronic ordering systems. “The great British high street is going to continue and we’re going to be a big part of it,” Pomroy says. The Golden Arches might seem an unlikely beneficiary of the biggest economic shock in living memory. The pandemic has laid waste to retailers and finished off dozens of mainstream restaurants, including burger chains. Byron Burger, Zizzi’s and Carluccio’s have either shut down altogether or closed restaurants to stave off bankruptcy. Even Pret A Manger looks wobbly, as working from home becomes the norm. “The value destruction is epic,” says Mark Robinson, chairman of the government’s High Streets Task Force. However, Nellie Nichols, a food consultant dubbed the “sandwich queen” for her work creating snacks for companies including Starbucks and M&S, is not surprised. She admits McDonald’s may not be everyone’s first choice “but it has never messed up the one thing people want more than anything in good times and bad: great taste – in its case the holy trinity of fat, salt and sugar. The burgers are always juicy and the special sauce sweet and tangy. The fries are always super-hot and perfectly seasoned. And the chocolate milkshake tastes like liquid ice-cream.” Covid has helped McDonald’s in other ways. Allyson Stewart-Allen, a business strategist who advises another lockdown winner, brewer SAB Miller, whose beer sales have risen sharply, says in hard times “people go back to brands that are comforting and reassuring”. It helps in a pandemic that McDonald’s food is seen as safe. “Consumers trust McDonald’s to serve well-cooked food in clean restaurants – and if they don’t want to go in, they can use the drive thru or delivery.” (Sunday Times)

Bosses fear furlough ‘flashpoint’: More than two million people are working fewer hours than they did before covid-19 amid fears of an “economic flashpoint” as the furlough scheme starts to unwind. From Thursday, chancellor Rishi Sunak will pay 70% of the wages of furloughed staff, rather than 80%. Employers will have to contribute 10%. That government payment falls to 60% in August and September, when the scheme will end. The Resolution Foundation think tank calculates that 2.3 million people are still not working fully compared with their activity before the pandemic. This is based on the number of people still on furlough – about 1.5 million – and the fall in employees and self-employed workers. There have been concerns that furlough – credited with limiting unemployment to 1.7 million, against the doomsday scenario of more than three million – is causing job shortages by keeping people out of the labour market. Dan Tomlinson, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, said it was “critical that we focus on getting these workers back to work before the scheme ends completely”. He added: “While the signs are encouraging, there are still a lot of people not working in Britain as the government starts to phase out the job retention scheme.” Craig Beaumont, at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “This Thursday is fast becoming a serious economic flashpoint, as business support starts to wind down...even though the lifting of restrictions in England has been delayed from 21 June to 19 July.” (Sunday Times)

Looking for work? There is an employment hole crying out for Britons to fill hospitality, lorry driver and meat factory roles: If you’re unemployed there are three industries currently crying out for workers to fill hundreds if not thousands of vacancies, including the logistics, meat-processing and hospitality sectors. They are suffering from a shortage of staff thanks to a perfect storm. This includes Brexit, a clampdown on immigration, backlogs in training due to the pandemic, lack of funding in training and apprenticeships, lack of experienced, available staff and changes in taxation rules, particularity around IR35. According to reports and industry experts, the lack of willing new workers in these three sectors could result in food shortages, a spike in food inflation and a hike in the cost of dining out. The hospitality industry is suffering a shortfall of around 30% of its work force. As with the meat processing and logistics sector they are crying out for people to fill vacancies as those that traditionally worked in the industry (European workers) have been put off working in the UK because of Brexit. The desperation to fill roles has however opened up more opportunities for jobs seekers looking to progress speedily up the career ladder and get well-paying work. Some are even going to extreme measures to entice British workers to the industry. Restaurant group, Hawksmoor, for instance is offering a £2,000 bonus to workers who recommend friends to fill roles. While the industry is struggling to lose the image of one that offers poor pay and long hours, recruiters point out that this is changing due to the shortfall. Job seekers can expect to earn £22,000 for entry level roles and earn as much as £60,000 in certain restaurant manager roles. (Mail on Sunday)

The scramble to find staff for another staycation summer: The English Riviera ferris wheel on Torquay Marina gently rotates in the sunshine as the sound of Buddy Holly wafts up from a stereo below. Amid such tranquil scenes, it can be easy to think the pandemic has not yet touched this beautiful corner of Britain. Look a little closer, however, and the signs are there. The purple gondolas on the ferris wheel are open-air rather than enclosed bubbles and the hulking cruise ships sitting deep out in the Channel are not going anywhere. Tourists from abroad are also thinner on the ground and a sign is appearing in more and more doors: staff wanted. “We are fighting the fight and we are just about ok but I know there are places all around the harbour struggling to recruit enough staff,” says Anthony Jones, owner of Twenty1 bar and restaurant overlooking Torquay harbour and its pleasure boats. “At one point we rang an agency and they said they had to fill 30,000 hours in our area. They said there is no point putting you on that list – it’s not going to happen.” Picturesque Devon and the south-west is one of the areas hardest hit by a national shortage of labour that has taken experts and industry bosses by surprise. Instead of workers fighting to land the jobs that have survived the pandemic, it is bosses who are competing for the employees. Many have left the area and returned to their families during the pandemic, been poached by online delivery giants or have decided to change roles while on furlough. Alistair Handyside, chair of the South West Tourism Alliance, says 49% of businesses in the visitor economy in the south-west say they are short of staff, and some are having to cut hours as a result. Combined with ongoing social distancing measures, it is agonisingly difficult for business owners to take advantage of growing numbers of staycationers, putting a break on recovery plans even as demand booms. “People drive around the countryside looking for a lovely pub for lunch and it’s closed, and they wonder why as the government has said pubs are open,” says Handyside. “We worry that politicians will see crowds in Cornwall and think the recovery has begun, but I would say the visitor economy in the south-west is not trading profitably.” (The Telegraph)

UK facing summer of food shortages due to lack of lorry drivers: The country is facing a summer of food shortages likened to a series of “rolling power cuts” because of a loss of 100,000 lorry drivers due to covid and Brexit, industry chiefs have warned. In a letter to Boris Johnson they have called for an urgent intervention to allow eastern European drivers back into the country on special visas, similar to those issued to farm pickers, warning that there is a “crisis” in the supply chain. They have said shortages of workers in warehouses and food processing centres are also having an impact with packing food for supermarket shelves. Tesco bosses raised the issue at a meeting with the transport minister Lady Vere, last week warning that the vacancies were creating 48 tonnes of food waste each week, the equivalent of two truckloads. “There is an enormous shortage of HGV drivers that we estimate at between 85,000 and 100,000,” said Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association. “We are weeks away from gaps on the shelves, it is as serious as that,” he added. (The Observer)

Covid to cost pubs 1m pints during England v Germany match: Brits will flock to their local pubs and down five million pints when England play Germany in their upcoming Euro 2020 game – but it’s one million fewer than if there were no covid restrictions. A pub trade body hopes eight million pints will be pulled on Tuesday, with 5.25 million of those served during the last-16 fixture between the Three Lions and Germany. Under the current England covid-19 social distancing rules, punters must follow the rule of six, or two households, when they visit the pub. They also have to continue to adhere to social distancing and consume food and drinks at tables and not at the bar. The limitations mean beer sales are expected to be 1.3 million pints lower during the upcoming match than if pubs were free of restrictions, The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) estimates. The trade body says this would result in more than £5 million in revenue lost to boozers in England. It added some of its members reported beer sales were lower than what was hoped during the Euro 2020 games so far. The BBPA also conducted a survey of 1,000 pub-goers at the end of May, where 85% of footie fans believe the current covid restrictions will negatively impact their experience of watching the Euro 2020 at pubs this summer. Half said they would be more likely to watch matches at the pub if there were no restrictions. Emma McClarkin, BBPA chief executive, said: “No matter the occasion, England versus Germany is always a big match. We know many pubs haven’t experienced the boost to their trade which they’d hoped for from the Euros. No standing and limits on group sizes, as well as social distancing, are severely reducing the number of people who can enjoy the Euros at the pub. To secure our pubs for future tournaments and national occasions like the Euros, there can be no further delays to the lifting of restrictions. On 19 July all restrictions on pubs must be lifted. We are counting down the days to freedom for our pubs.” (Daily Star)

Majority of Brits say smoking and vaping should be banned in pub gardens: The majority of Brits are fed up with people smoking all over them in pub gardens – and want the habit banned completely. Out of a survey of 2,000 adults, more than 60% said they would support a total ban on smoking and vaping in pub gardens. Three quarters of those asked also said those lighting up should check with their non-smoking friends before they do. The survey comes after Oxfordshire announced it is planning a smoking ban for outdoor hospitality areas. It aims to become the first county to be smoke-free by 2025. Six councils in England have now banned smoking outside of pubs, cafes and restaurants – Newcastle City Council, Manchester City Council, Durham County Council, Northumberland County Council, North Tyneside Council and Gateshead Council. Almost half of those questioned in the survey (45%) admitted they had asked people not to smoke or vape around them. But 58% said they had resorted to switching tables or just moved away from friends to escape their smoke. A majority of people – 65% – think those who don’t ask before lighting up are “inconsiderate”. (Birmingham Mail)

West End is on the brink of collapse, theatre owner warns Boris Johnson: One of Britain’s most influential theatre owners has challenged Boris Johnson to “walk down the Strand and feel the pain” as industry leaders pile pressure on ministers to release the findings from their live event pilot scheme. Sir Howard Panter, the co-founder of the world’s largest commercial theatre company, Ambassador Theatre Group, and the UK’s second-largest operator, Trafalgar Entertainment, said the situation in the West End was “intolerable” and that a host of businesses were on the brink of collapse. In a direct appeal to the Prime Minister, he said: “Can I challenge Boris to walk down the Strand past my office and feel the pain of half to three quarters of all premises being closed? Which ones of those does he think is coming back? There is no activity in one of the main thoroughfares in one of the major cities in our country.” Sir Howard said it will take years to repair the industry, even if it has not already been damaged beyond salvation. (The Telegraph)

Padel tennis company takes shot at Westfield: A padel tennis company backed by Sir Andy Murray is to open three courts at one of London’s biggest shopping centres. The Edinburgh-based Game4Padel aims to establish padel tennis as a big sport in Britain. It has agreed a ten-year lease to operate the courts at Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. Padel tennis is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. A cross between tennis and squash, it typically is played in a doubles format on an enclosed court about a third of the size of a tennis court. Balls are allowed to bounce off walls and serves must be played underhand. The game requires less physical effort than tennis, which has made it appealing to a wide range of age groups. It is well-established in Spain, where there are six million players, and is growing in popularity in other countries. There are at present about 6,000 active padel players in Britain and 100 courts in 52 clubs, according to the Lawn Tennis Association, which has forecast a 400% growth in the number of courts by 2023. Shopping centres are trying to attract leisure operators to their locations that can offer visitors an experience that they cannot replicate online. Game4Padel was founded in 2018 and opened its first court in Edinburgh a year later. Murray, the former Wimbledon and US Open champion, invested in the company for an undisclosed sum in 2019. It has five sites and is in advanced discussion to open courts at thirty more locations in Britain, including at two big shopping centres. Jim McMahon, its chairman, is a founding partner of West Coast Capital, the investment business, and is chairman of Motherwell FC. (The Times)

Herring sales boom and top restaurants put them on the menu: It was once the breakfast of indulgence across the country, perfect with buttered toast and a cup of hot tea, before it fell out of favour. But now, the kipper is having a comeback – as younger folk increasingly turn to it over avocado toast and it returns to the menus of Britain’s top restaurants. Herring sales have boomed over the last year according to the Marine Stewardship Council, and it is most popularly enjoyed soused in vinegar or smoked as a kipper. Michelin star-winning chef Richard Corrigan, who runs Bentley’s and Corrigan’s in Mayfair, said he has just put herring on his menu. He said: “I am a huge fan, let’s get used to them, they’re incredibly healthy. It will be on our Bentley’s menu, very lightly pickled with a pickled cucumber salad. Kippers have bounced out of the breakfast buffet onto the menus of London’s finest restaurants. A beautiful kipper crumbled very lightly and put into an omelette with garlic shoots…absolutely delicious. It’s a British fish, it’s a cultural phenomenon. No one does it like the Brits when it comes to a smoked kipper. I’d have kippers every day seven days a week. I smile after having a kipper.” In the UK, herring sales last year increased by 6% over the previous year to 2,365 tonnes. Consumer spend on herring hit a record £12.8m this year, a 16% rise from two years ago, and a 67.8% increase from five years ago. (Daily Mail)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews District, Manchester: Let me count the ways in which, before visiting, District caused my heart to sink to my spike-heeled boots. Oh goody, more men playing with fire, more white boys cooking Thai food. More, er, idiosyncratic publicity copy. On the booking platform (deposits required – and fair enough), they’re overheated about their set menus. Here’s “The Full Experience”, 12 courses at £85 a head: “Do questionable things,” it tells us. “See things you wouldn’t believe. All moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.” Or seven courses – “My First Crush” – at £40 a head. “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!” And there was me, just wanting my tea. (The lunch offering, Chue Chan, three regularly changing dishes for £20 a head, is devastatingly devoid of Philip K Dick fanboy prose.) The owners also have a noodle joint round the corner, Tokyo Ramen. Thai, Japanese – much of a muchness, innit? Then there’s the tedious social media tone of voice, all sweary and macho. Nor does the look of the place fill me with joy. Monochrome and sharp-edged, all tiles and those metal grid chairs that used to be known as high-tech (or might still be, for all I know). The downstairs bar is so gloomy it’s best avoided for anything other than a goth wake. Look at us, all butch and uncompromising, they’re saying, with our open grills and massive blowtorches and our shiny black placemats that look like switched-off iPads. Look at us setting the edgy agenda. It makes me weary before I even step over the threshold. And then the first small dish arrives and I’m poleaxed, startled into cartoonish gawping. “Raw wild bass nam jim | purple yam | Thai basil”: even the menu talks in steampunk. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk nam jim – a lime and chilli fish-sauce mix usually used as a dipping sauce or condiment – like broth before. But this is so perfectly balanced and thrilling, it’s slurpable. There are blobs of vivid green emulsion, liquoricey from the Thai basil, and tendrils of crisped purple yam. Astonishingly, this potential sensory overload doesn’t drown out the sweet freshness of the fish – as an opening salvo it’s jaw-dropping. And sets the tone for a remarkable meal. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Giles Coren reviews the Shed, West Wales: The super-charming Old Sailors at Pwllgwaelod beach has one of the loveliest pub garden views you’ll ever see; St David’s Gin & Kitchen in picturesque St David’s is quirky as hell and has a very lively landlord; and Llys Meddyg in Newport (the beautiful fishing village, not the city) has more outside seating in ingenious cabins thrown up across its sprawling grounds (over 150 covers) than anyone would have dared imagine possible in a pre-covid world. And all three served us food and tolerated our demob-happy, nutcase children. But if it’s exceptional cooking you are after along this coast, then I have found it for you in two gastronomic departments where it is both incredibly difficult to find and very, very important for family holidaying. The first is Pizzatipi: a breathtaking space in lovely Cardigan on the banks of the Teifi in the shadow of the 13th-century castle, with seating under the giant tepee in the courtyard or on a deck over the duck-babbling water. It gets very full and they don’t really answer the phone or reply to emails or texts (which seems to be quite a Pembrokeshire thing) but we pitched up at noon and were seated no problem. The menu is short and insanely well priced with big, flat, crispy, super-thin, char-edged, stone-baked pizzas starting at £7 for the gleaming marinara and rising no higher than £9 for the excellent “chorizo”, “maritime” or, ahem, Hawaiian. But definitely “worth a special journey”, as long as it is a journey on foot from Abereiddy, is the Shed at Porthgain. It is a stroll of 1.9 miles along the coastal path, through rolling fields and wildflowers, with views out to seals and dolphins and, early on, wet-suited tombstoning teenagers, plunging from great heights into the icy brine, whose squealing exploits seem to attract quite a crowd. This was as good as cod or haddock and chips can be: light, fresh and crispy but not with one of those deep bronze, inedibly crunchy, stupidly show-offy batters you find in your urban gastropub. And superb value at £5.95 for a giant half-portion, or £9.95 for a whole one. Turbot and john dory specials were on too, as well as other local fish, and Esther and the kids tucked into wildly good tiramisu and a warm walnut tart with crème anglaise. (The Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner reviews Sussex Bar & Restaurant, London: For a long time, it was the bistro where the great Bruno Loubet first paired scallops with black pudding. For a decade after that it was Arbutus, the flagship restaurant of chef Anthony Demetre, where you would always be fed very well indeed. London’s Soho has many places in which you can eat; surprisingly few of them are the sort where both you and the kitchen are invited to take your dinner seriously. Sussex stands in the noble tradition of what has gone before. It is the fourth restaurant from the Gladwin brothers, who also have The Shed in Notting Hill, Rabbit on the King’s Road and Nutbourne in Battersea. All of them big up the fact that they source a lot of their produce and some of their wines from the family farm in West Sussex. Apparently, it’s countryside cooking in the city. Inside, there is black-painted half-wood panelling and squelchy banquettes and the general mood of being in the dining room of a Farrow & Balled pub somewhere just outside Pulborough, where the air smells lightly of cow parsley and dung. It’s the starters which give a real sense of where we’re going here, which is out into the meadow. There are brilliant orange ribbons of cured trout, with proper bite and flavour, alongside diced pickled cucumber, cultured cream and dill. And then the star of the show: spears of asparagus of the deepest green, with dollops of a sprightly, frothy hollandaise made by someone who has whipped up a lot of it, and understands the mechanics of the emulsion. Many plates of these go out, a robust testament to the enduring appeal of simple things. Mains are robust and sturdy in a very good way. There’s an awful lot to like about Sussex. I want to be able to carry that love through to dessert, but I can’t. I was hoping for a classic Sussex pond pudding, though I can see that on a warm summer’s night, a sweet suet crust filled with a whole lemon, sugar and butter with its own gravitational pull might not sell. A squidgy chocolate and hazelnut torte with crème fraîche is fine. Honeycomb with mascarpone sounds like a great idea but isn’t. The only other choice is a strawberry mess. Dessert feels like an afterthought. (The Observer Magazine)

Tom Parker Bowles review The Salt Room, Brighton: Brighton, on the first searing day of summer. And as we wander down the hill, dodging skateboards and electric scooters alike, there’s a merry spring in our step. In the distance, the Channel glitters beguilingly, while beneath the fug of chip fat, candy floss and fag smoke, is the bracing tang of salty sea air. Sure, there are prettier resorts, and more salubrious streets, but despite the tourist tat and faded grandeur, I love the place. Anyway, it’s half-term, and my son Freddy’s first visit, and our only dilemma is whether we eat first, then hit the arcades. Or blast a few zombies before lunch. Greed, as ever, wins out. And so we stroll down to the seafront, and The Salt Room. Here, in the most civilised of rooms, with the most civilised of staff, we slurp Maldon oysters, bracingly briny, and gaze out over the old iron bones of the old West Pier. Starters show a kitchen of some talent. A snowy pile of pristinely fresh crab, lovingly picked, sits in a puddle of refined ajo blanco, all elegantly soft, almond-scented whisper. There are small cubes of sharp apple, and slivers of radish, adding fresh bite and acidity to a truly subtle dish. Seabass crudo is equally assured, the slivers of sweet fish wearing charred peach, avocado and a decent jalapeño kick. Both are far more than mere pretty plates. Things get a little less refined, but no less joyous, with the ‘surfboard’, which is not, thank god, served on some Rip Curl longboard, rather a large white plate of char-grilled, garlic-butter-drenched generosity; plump scallops, fat prawns to be undressed and devoured; curls of deep-fried squid, a surfeit of mussels. The langoustines may be a little woolly, but this is a feast to sate Neptune. Brighton is always a fine place to eat, and The Salt Room is up there with the best. After lunch, we wander down to the Palace Pier. It’s hardly changed since my youth. We blast those zombies, waste two-pence pieces on the cash cascade, eat hot, sugary doughnuts and, miracle of miracles, actually win a toy on the grabber machine. ‘I like Brighton,’ says Freddy as we trudge back to the station. Me too, my boy, me too. (Mail on Sunday)

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