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Sun 2nd May 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Social distancing one-metre rule to scrapped on 21 June: Boris Johnson promises to scrap the ‘metre plus’ social distancing rule from 21 June, and, within days, issue the first list of ‘green’ countries that holidaymakers can visit without quarantine. Venues will instead be able to set their own capacity limits consistent with the ‘metre plus’ social distancing rule. It will apply to both indoor and outdoor services. The distancing rule will itself be dropped from 21 June, heralding the advent of a near-normal summer. A source said: “We will be able to go pretty far on abolishing social distancing.’ However, businesses will be encouraged to keep in place some measures, such as glass screens. It has not yet been decided whether masks will be retained in certain settings, while some restrictions might be kept ‘in reserve’ in case there is a serious third wave of infections next winter, despite the success of the vaccination programme.” (Mail on Sunday)

Hospitality industry warns of looming crisis of billions in unpaid rents: In a letter sent to housing secretary Robert Jenrick on Friday that has been seen by the Financial Times, UKHospitality argued that “there is a moral obligation on landlords… to make rent concessions to businesses forced to close”. The ban has prevented evictions since it was introduced last March 2020 but ends on June 30. It suggests the government should extend the eviction moratorium until December to allow businesses to recover after lockdown ends, and develop an adjudication process on sharing losses between tenants and landlords with at least 50% of rent debt written off. Ministers have asked tenants and landlords for their views on six potential ways forward, with submissions due by Tuesday. These range from simply ending the eviction ban to a binding adjudication process for landlords and tenants. UKHospitality estimates that £2bn in rent is owed by hospitality businesses with 40% of premises still negotiating over current unpaid rent with landlords. A further 20 to 30% are still in discussions on how to settle debts from last year’s lockdowns, it said. A group of landlords, led by British Land, Land Securities and trade body the British Property Federation, put forward their own proposal on Thursday. They argue that businesses should pay rent from the end of June, by which time trading will have resumed under the government reopening plans. If a settlement cannot be reached, the landlords propose a binding arbitration process. “Ultimately you need something to bring people to the table,” said Mark Allan, Landsec chief executive. They also propose that unpaid rent built up since March 2020 would be ringfenced and tenants protected until the end of 2021, giving time for them to reach agreements about how much will be written off, deferred or paid. David Abramson, chief executive of commercial property consultancy Cedar Dean, said the problem was particularly acute for smaller businesses that did not have the resources to employ advisers to negotiate with landlords. Peter Thornton, chief financial officer of Piano Works, which runs two bars in London, said they had rent arrears of £687,000 and had not reached agreement with either of their two landlords on when or how the money should be paid. “We have a huge financial risk once we get back and trading… we are at the mercy of the landlord,” he said. Hospitality businesses argue their recovery could be crippled by having to pay rent so soon after they have been permitted to reopen fully on 21 June, combined with the business rates holiday that also finishes at the end of June. (FT Weekend)

Osmond – “There is zero chance of hospitals being overwhelmed”: The former boss of one of Britain’s largest pub chains has argued that there is now ‘zero chance of the NHS being overwhelmed’ because the government’s modelling has been proved wrong by hard data on the vaccines. Serial sector Hugh Osmond, ex-chief of Punch Taverns and formerly PizzaExpress, said that Boris Johnson’s roadmap was costing his industry £200 million each day on the basis of projections which now lag weeks behind the actual figures which prove the scientists were wrong about vaccines, hospitalisations, cases and deaths due to covid-19. “We were told it would be data not dates,” Osmond told Radio 4. “Well now we have some very hard data which the government has not denied. It has shown that firstly the vaccines have proved more effective than the Sage models assumed, there’s been greater uptake, they’ve been more effective at preventing severe disease and they’ve been more effective at preventing transmission than the models assumed. And similarly cases have fallen faster than the models predicted, hospitalisations have fallen much, much faster than the models predicted, and deaths have fallen even faster than that. So there is now zero chance of the NHS being overwhelmed, simply because of all this data is further ahead of any of the models used.” The drop in figures means the government will likely approve the next stage of England’s lockdown easing on 17 May, but Mr Osmond says that this date should have been brought forward. He told the BBC: “It’s reaching the stage where it’s becoming academic because unfortunately hospitality needs two weeks to open and it’s scheduled to open on 17 May anyway. Everyday it costs hospitality alone £200 million when it’s fully closed, and hospitality has approximately three million people on furlough, so we don’t know if they will have jobs to go back to. I have been walking round the high streets of the UK over the last three, four weeks and in 30 years I have never, ever seen this level of devastation to shops, hairdressers, cafes, pubs, bars. It’s worse than coming out of the 1990s recession – so many closed places that will not reopen when lockdown ends.” (Mail on Sunday)

Covid modellers ‘optimistic’ third wave may not happen at all: New modelling to be presented to ministers ahead of stage three of reopening on 17 May will show the risk of a “third wave” of covid cases in the UK has diminished dramatically and may not happen at all, according to experts. The last set of projections, published by Sage on 31 March, presented ministers with a difficult dilemma because they suggested a third wave of infections could be expected to kill another 15,000 to 20,000 people in the late summer if steps three and four of the exit roadmap were implemented as planned. Ministers are now expected to proceed with step three of the roadmap, with the return of indoor household mixing and hospitality on 17 May, with confidence as the modelling teams which provide projections via the SPI-M subgroup of Sage are said to be more optimistic. Professor Adam Kucharski of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who works on modelling provided to Sage, pointed to the new real-world data on vaccine effectiveness. “There was considerable uncertainty about the impact of vaccines on infection and transmission earlier this year, but recent studies are landing at the more optimistic end of the scale – at least for the dominant B.1.1.7 variant,” he told the Telegraph. “We could still see some increase in transmission as things reopen, but the resulting impact could be relatively low if the vaccine programme stays on track and we don’t end up with variants that can partially evade immunity.” (Sunday Telegraph)

UK clubbers return to Liverpool for trial night: UK clubbers have returned to the dance floor for the first time since the pandemic began, as part of trials to see how venues can reopen. Some 6,000 partygoers are expected at a warehouse in Liverpool across a two-day event that started on Friday. Ticket-holders don’t need to socially distance or wear face coverings, but they’ll need a negative covid test result before being allowed in. Liverpool is also set to host the UK’s first restriction-free gig since covid. Circus’s The First Dance club nights, which are part of a series of government trials on crowd safety during covid, are at the Bramley-Moore Dock warehouse. Sven Väth, the Blessed Madonna and Jayda G are all performing on Friday night. Fatboy Slim is headlining on Saturday. Scientists are using this weekend’s event to look at whether crowds mixing and dancing indoors increases transmission of the virus. Public health expert Prof Iain Buchan, who is leading the research, tells Newsbeat his team will use carbon dioxide monitors to detect “pockets of stale air” in the venue. There will be also be small cameras for the scientists to monitor people’s movements. Prof Buchan says a key question the trial event needs to answer is: “With all of those measures in place, do people still enjoy themselves?” “That’s a really important part of making these events sustainable,” he says. Those attending the club nights must have a negative covid test result from a lateral flow test within 24 hours of the start of the event. The test cannot be done at home but instead must be carried out at a local testing centre. This is because the government wants to look at the role these centres could play as big events return. Partygoers will also be encouraged to take a PCR test five days after their night out, to make sure any spread of the virus is properly monitored. (BBC Online)

‘Quite a challenge’ – UK restaurants and pubs face staffing crisis after Brexit: The hospitality industry is facing a staffing crisis as restaurants and pubs say that up to a quarter of those employed before the covid-19 pandemic will not return. The UK’s largest listed pub group, Mitchells & Butlers (M&B), has lost 9,000 of its 39,000 staff since last year; D&D, the owner of more than 40 upmarket restaurants including Le Pont de la Tour and Coq d’Argent, is looking for up to 400 recruits out of a total 1,300 UK workforce; and PizzaExpress is looking for 1,000 staff, having laid off thousands less than a year ago. Pubs and restaurateurs agree that there is a particular challenge in the south-east of England and London as a lack of supply of skilled people from the EU, post-Brexit, is causing issues with hiring staff, especially in the kitchen. More than 30% of hospitality workers across the UK are thought to have come from Europe pre-Brexit but that rises to more than half of those employed in London. Martin Williams, the head of Rare Restaurants which owns the 16-strong Gaucho chain and three M restaurants, is looking to fill 40 jobs out of a team of about 750. He said rivals had begun trying to poach key staff because of shortages of experienced chefs and managers. “People are offering silly money to reasonably low-level managers and chefs,” he said. Williams said the group was able to pool workers from its 19 restaurants to serve in the eight able to trade outdoors but shortages would become more acute on full reopening next month. He said Rare was not suffering as much as some rivals because it had worked hard to maintain good relations with its workforce, topping up furlough pay and keeping in touch with a health, welfare and educational programmes. But he added: “We are definitely seeing the European workforce not return.” The industry is raising £5m to support training up 10,000 new recruits as employers say workers have sought alternative employment or returned home to Europe after months of lockdowns kept businesses closed. The Springboard initiative, which is backed by the Savoy Educational Trust, drinks group Diageo and Baxter Storey group, aims to have young people fully trained by next summer. Fitch Ratings predicts that the shortages are likely to lead to increased costs and lower profit margins for hospitality businesses in the short term, as they have to increase wages and offer more training for less experienced staff. A note published by Fitch this week added: “We anticipate these pressures to gradually dissipate and the sector to increasingly recruit within the UK, including employees laid off from other client-facing sectors – such as retail due to permanent shop closures. Some extra costs could be offset by strategic price increases, such as removing food discounts by some pub operators.” However, Peter Borg-Neal, the chairman of pub owner Oakman Inns, said the real problems would not be revealed until the furlough system ends in September and it becomes clear how many workers would never return. He said the government would need to “rethink immigration principles” to allow hospitality businesses to bring in more workers from overseas. He added: “There is no doubt pay is going to go up. That is not necessarily a bad thing: the level of skill in back-of-house people has not been fully rewarded [in the past] and that drives recruitment issues. But people are going to have to pay more. They don’t want microwaved food, they want proper fresh stuff but it will have to be paid for.” Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of industry body UK Hospitality, said the shortages were “just more evidence of how hospitality has been uniquely hit by the pandemic and of the crucial need for government to continue its support of the sector”. “For hospitality to rebuild and play its full role in the economic recovery, additional support for jobs as well as long term plans to facilitate enhanced training and apprenticeships are vital,” she said. (The Guardian)

Pubs running low on certain beers after brewers underestimate post-lockdown demand: Pubs are running low on certain beers after brewers underestimated the level of demand following the easing of lockdown restrictions. Breweries are struggling to fulfil orders ahead of the bank holiday as groups of up to six people are now allowed to meet in beer gardens, the Financial Times reported. Owners of pub chains have said they are working hard to secure supplies, particularly of craft beers and premium lagers, to meet the demand. Some are said to be redirecting beer kegs to their busiest sites. Phil Urban, chief executive of the UK’s largest listed public group Mitchells and Butlers, said “suppliers aren’t able to move quickly enough to keep up”. Urban continued: “We are seeing where our most successful businesses are, so we are quickly rerouting it to make sure we have the right beer in the right places.” Budweiser, which brews Stella Artois and Camden Hells, has increased production to meet demand. The company is focusing on premium products as drinkers treat themselves to expensive beers. Jean-David Thumelaire, on-trade sales director Budweiser Brewing Group UK and Ireland, told Sky News: “Our teams have been preparing for weeks. Our three UK breweries operate around the clock, and we’re working hard to ensure demand from pubs can be met and fresh kegs can be delivered during this initial re-opening period. We haven’t seen significant shortages of our brands but we keep in close contact with our customers daily to support them in this dynamic re-opening period.” (FT/Sky News)

British non-alcoholic spirits firm valued at £100m after cash haul: Lyre’s, a British company making non-alcoholic “spirits”, will this week announce it has been valued at more than £100m, as it raises cash to tap into growing demand for alcohol alternatives. Lyre’s, which has already developed 13 non-alcoholic spirits, on sale in venues including Soho House, said it had raised £5m in cash from backers including early SpaceX investors Morgan Creek Capital. The company launched less than two years ago, and said it would be using the funds to broaden out its product range as more hospitality venues started reopening. The bridge funding round, which also included cash from the Bitburger brewing family dynasty, puts Lyre’s as the most valuable independent brand in the no-alcohol drinks market. Major restaurants and bars including the Nobu group and the Tippling Club bar in Singapore have started offering its products, as well as British Airways in its in-flight menus. (Sunday Telegraph)

Mr Mayfair works up appetite for comeback: Mayfair mogul Marlon Abela once declared that fine dining was “alive and well”. That was before the restaurants he ran – the Greenhouse, Morton’s, the Square and Umu – collapsed into administration, with bailiffs interrupting lunch service at the Square one day last year. They had only limped along thanks to hefty personal cash injections from Abela, who inherited his estimated £320 million from his father, Albert, a supplier of in-flight meals and caterer for hospitals and schools. The jewel in the crown of Abela’s empire was Umu, which had two Michelin stars in its heyday and was famed for its Kyoto Kaiseki menu at £180 a head (plus £220 each for a fine-wine pairing). Abela, 46, who has separated from his model wife Nadya, even flirted with bankruptcy. However, a year nursing his wounds has given him time to reflect. He is planning a comeback – only this time his focus is shifting. “I’m looking for something with more seats, more volume and more casual dining,” he says. “I want people to come out saying, ‘You know what? That was good value for money.’” The estimated price per head for diners? A snip at £50 to £70 – without wine. After all, this is still Mayfair. (Sunday Times)

Cazoo billionaire chokes on rent: Tears in the borscht at Harry Morgan, the St John’s Wood institution that is closing its doors after serving up New York deli-style food since 1948. The northwest London restaurant is owned by tech entrepreneur Alex Chesterman, who bought it from tattered rag trader Harold Tillman in 2014. Manager Antonio Franco says its landlord, investment company Trophaeum, refused to give it breathing room on rent. Trophaeum says it offered a rent freeze. This might be small beer for Chesterman, 51. The Zoopla founder is busy listing his used-car business Cazoo in New York, a deal that will value his stake at £1.3 billion. He plans to revive Harry Morgan at another location, but that’ll be about as much comfort as a cold chicken matzo ball to the 15 staff set to lose their jobs. (Sunday Times)

Restaurants cook up new identities to lure Deliveroo customers: Restaurants are “misleading” customers by using different names on delivery apps to sell identical, or similar menus, cooked in the same kitchen. Delivery apps such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats allow restaurants to sell their food under more than one brand name if they offer different menus. However, some restaurants are simply duplicating menus to increase their presence on some apps and so boost sales. When a customer searches for “Italian food” on a takeaway mobile phone app, for example, they may believe they have found three Italian restaurants within a mile of their home. In fact, there is just one, using three different names. There are examples across the country of restaurants, including Thai, Korean, Chinese, Indian and American ones, repeating all or part of their menus. Critics said this could penalise restaurants with just one brand. It also enables businesses to create new identities on delivery apps to hide poor reputations. Often the only clear indicator that several brands are linked is that they have the same address listed in the information section on the restaurant. Delivery apps say that setting up virtual brands allows restaurants to test new dishes and cuisines, and innovate without the cost of setting up restaurants, as well as giving customers’ more choice. Deliveroo and Uber Eats said they removed duplicated menus when they were alerted to them. Deliveroo offers to help restaurants design and develop brands specifically for the app. In some cases, restaurants’ second identities have overtaken sales of their original one, it said. In 2019, Deliveroo said it had 2,000 “virtual brands” on its website with 1,200 “restaurant partners”. It describes virtual brands as an “online only concept which allows restaurants of all sizes to create new bespoke menus for customers from their current kitchen, under new branding”. Gini Newton, who runs commercial kitchens for mostly online-only restaurants in London with her sister Eccie, said she believed restaurants which “try to beat the algorithm” with numerous identities or repetitive menus would struggle to survive. She said: “Some of the companies with multiple concepts and menus, all under different cuisines, don’t have a food background but have a tech background. The result is often that the quality of food is very low. You see online-only companies with 20 different concepts, but the ingredients are very similar and there’s overlap between the recipes. There is a limited amount of people you can sell to in that area and people start to notice.” Henal Chotai, owner of Red Cup Cafe in Harrow, northwest London, who is co-developing an eco-friendly delivery service called FoodeBikes and does not use a food app, said: “I know there’s some businesses that are operating their normal businesses but have a side company with a different name serving the same food. It is good business from their point of view and it is more commission for the delivery apps, but for me it’s wrong.” Samantha Pascal, co-founder of Hot n Juicy Shrimp Ldn, which has just launched on Deliveroo after initially marketing itself on Instagram and attracting 33,000 followers, expressed some sympathy for restaurants launching brands. She said: “I think it is a panic strategy to gain as many customers as they can because restaurants are just trying to make money during the pandemic. It sounds like they’re just trying to keep their heads above water.” (Sunday Times)

CBI lobby group calls for more detail on covid easing: The CBI has urged the government to provide more details about its plans to unwind covid-19 restrictions or risk the UK missing out on business investment. Britain’s biggest business lobby group is pressing for urgent answers on social-distancing rules, vaccine passports for global travel and whether certification will be extended for domestic activities. “Showing your hand sooner rather than later by communicating early and clearly will help businesses to plan, prepare and invest,” Lord Bilimoria, the CBI president, said. “For some sectors, this is mission-critical. The viability of their business over the summer months will be impacted by the outcomes of the ongoing reviews.” Businesses had complained last year that the last-minute nature of the decision to extend furlough to the end of June had forced them to make unnecessary redundancy decisions. Bilimoria, who founded the Cobra beer brand in 1989, said that as the country emerged from lockdown “firms are anxiously awaiting big decisions from government that will impact the way they run their businesses”. Vaccine passports would allow businesses to ensure that their employees have had the covid-19 jab or could be used to allow people to enter hospitality venues if necessary. However, industry figures have warned that they could be unenforceable and risk discriminating against those who have not had a jab. “Unlocking international travel through a scheme that can confirm vaccination or a negative test has always seemed a sensible path,” Bilimoria said, adding that it was “much more tricky on smaller domestic settings, like pubs”. (The Times)

Giles Coren reviews Cinder, London NW3: The icy polar wind lashed across our decks, whipping up unattended pens and paper, clothing, wallets, phones and scattering them to the four corners of the world, I gripped hard to my seat, flinched against the raging sleet that was sandblasting my face to the smoothness of a brass finial, snuggled ever tighter into the thick blanket that was keeping my legs alive, and hesitated between the seared tuna and the char-grilled chicken with confit lemon. For, yes, I was in a brand new, charcoal-driven north London Mediterranean restaurant, sitting outside on the “terrace”, inches from the whistling road. But this was Thursday, 15 April, day four of the latest iteration of “normal”, that has some restaurants in England open to the public (frabjous day!) and serving food and booze (callooh! Callay!) but only if we sit outside (booooooooo!), freezing our knackers off. Still, if you think I was brave to be sitting there, spare a thought for the proprietor of the joint, 32-year-old Jake Finn, who had opened Cinder only four days before. This wasn’t his original plan. Having worked at Coya, the Ritz and, most formatively, at La Petite Maison under Raphael Duntoye, who sparked his Mediterranean fervour, Jake had settled on a spot on Golborne Road for his first solo venture. He had his ducks in a row: finance, planning… And then, he told me after lunch, “2020 happened, so that was the end of that.” This is a great little restaurant and we are very lucky to have it, sprouted like a daffodil into these dismal days for eating out. And it is small: 700sq ft all told. But after his original project in west London fell through, Jake just had to have somewhere to cook. Anywhere. One day he spotted a boarded-up old pizza joint not far from his home. “There was a tiny hole in the shutters, so I put my camera phone to it and took a video and when I looked at it I saw there was an extractor hood and I said, ‘It’s got extraction! It’ll do!’” No doubt the site of the Ritz, Finn’s alma mater, was chosen with similar practicality and haste. But Cinder works. It’s good. It’s very modern in its use of fire and its vegetable-driven menu (you get halfway down it before you see your first fish, three quarters before the brief mention of meat) but old-fashioned in its local, friendly, personal touch. This part of town, Hampstead and its fringes, has never been blessed with restaurants. Certainly not with exciting start-ups. It’s mostly just chain food and grim old Italian joints that locals still go to because they’re too old to drive and too rich to get on the Tube. Cinder is taking bookings for its small inside from 17 May but until then, Jake tells me, the neighbours have been very generous, letting him put tables outside their shops and he’s doing a roaring trade to 40 covers. “I don’t want to see people outside in the freezing cold,” he says. “But if they want to sit out there and eat my food, then I’m delighted to be feeding them.” (The Times Magazine)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews The Bridge Arms pub in Kent: This beauty is the brand-new venture from Daniel and Natasha Smith, who wowed everyone, critics, diners, Michelin, with their Fordwich Arms a few miles away. Brave of them to launch right now. And right here – where locals expect certain qualities from their boozers and fine dining ain’t necessarily one of them. But their bravery is being rewarded with every table in the sprawling garden occupied by delighted punters, including us – much to the evident astonishment of the chap living in the flats next door, who has clearly got used to undressing without an audience. The Smiths live in the village and it shows – some of their prelaunch moves were so perfect, such as offering free previews of their soft-serve ice creams to the Bridge community. (Take that, Londis.) They’ve ticked all the boxes marked “Tradition” – vast inglenooks and leather chesterfields, hops and herringbone parquet – while being fully contemporary: a Josper grill, a drinks menu that stars white negronis and crisp fizzes from neighbouring vineyards. With the pub half-open, they’ve allocated discrete sections of both garden and interior for drinkers and diners. Their commitment to all-comers is demonstrated by climbing frames for the children on the one hand; on the other, louche hammocks for lounge lizards. Actually, maybe the latter is the entertainment: watching people trying to climb aboard is a hoot. We all love a benign pratfall. An afternoon spent at the Bridge Arms, basking in its mix of serenity and bustle, hammers home why so many people are now fleeing the cities. So much attention has gone into every detail: the fine summery tomatoes in a simple salad; the silky mash thick with butter and pistachio-hued from – I’m guessing – more wild garlic. My Stour Valley guinea fowl breast comes with a kind of pressed cake of its legs, the skin bronzed and crisp; a youthful leek, smoky and tender, bisecting the plate – and there are slabs of king oyster mushrooms, crisscross-grilled like mini steaks and every bit as meaty, all in a heady sauce that suggests the fiendish deployment of the bird’s innards. Oh, and weeny new season’s broad beans, palest eau de nil. I seem to be coming across all fashion reviewer here, but it’s so very visual. And this kind of elevated, delicious technique is not at all what you expect in a beer garden. Nor is the perfection of brown butter and Kentish honey custard tart with rhubarb and sauternes sorbet. I mean: just fancy. When I reviewed the Fordwich Arms – I go back within days of the Bridge Arms for completism, and it’s still a little slice of heaven as co-written by EF Benson and MFK Fisher – I suggested they might like to unfasten their corsets a little and relax. But they clearly gunned for their Michelin star from the outset, had duly and deservedly got it, so I’ll hush my mouth. Here, though, at their supposedly less formal baby sibling, the staff’s sharp suits look fully incongruous – and I can’t imagine what they’ll be like at the height of summer. (Far cooler in every sense are the junior members’ work aprons.) So here are just a couple of the gentlest suggestions: if you’re going to serve steak and chips (and why not? A good steak and chips, as this is – fine, thick-cut bavette, homemade chips, flawless buttery béarnaise – is a justified classic), perhaps make the steak a shade larger than a Post-it? Perhaps not the same size as its quenelle of café de Paris butter on top, especially if serving to my American pal? And lose the suits. Otherwise, sheer buzzy bliss. (Sunday Times)

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