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Sun 16th May 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Pubs and restaurants will need more taxpayer support if 21 June opening is delayed: Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality chief executive, said: “The emergence of the so-called Indian variant in the UK is of concern to us all, not least those of us in hospitality who are just starting to re-emerge from a year of despair. Fortunately, so far, there does not seem to be any evidence that it is causing a surge in hospitalisations or deaths: the vaccines seem to be doing their job and there is no evidence to suggest the government should waver from its stated intent of removing all restrictions on 21 June. The hospitality sector is at one with the Prime Minister in prioritising public health objectives, as demonstrated by the colossal investment we have made to make our venues covid-secure. But the government must be conscious that anything other than a full removal of restrictions on 21 June leaves our sector trading at a loss. With social distancing, enforced table service, face coverings, capacity caps on weddings and the like, we have dramatically reduced capacity and suppressed demand. A survey of our members showed that social distancing and associated rules increase a business’ costs by 23%, while constraining revenues by 22% – a net fall in profitability of 45% is simply unsustainable. If there is to be any delay, which we truly hope there will not be, government must recognise the cost to our beleaguered sector – which has seen a two-thirds decline in sales over the past year. The decision to reintroduce business rates payments from 1 July already feels premature and must surely be revised if restrictions remain in place. Likewise, it is now imperative that government extends commercial rent protections to prevent evictions and the potentially irreversible scarring of Britain’s high streets. There may also be the need for a change to the future of furlough. It is unreasonable to expect hospitality businesses to start to contribute further while they are unable to trade fully, and the consequence would inevitably be significant job losses. Hospitality will be a critical part of the nation’s recovery from the misery of covid. We will generate economic growth in every part of the country, we will create jobs, provide apprenticeships and other training opportunities. We will bring people together again – a basic human need that all of us have craved over the last year. We have proved that our venues are safe and are the homes of safe socialising. Let’s continue with the government’s cautious roadmap and remove all restrictions on the 21 June – allowing hospitality to be the engine of our economic and social recovery.” (Sunday Telegraph)

Covid rules leave pubs and restaurants in England fearing the great indoor reopening: Before the pandemic, the tiny Sicilian restaurant Franzina Trattoria was loved by south London locals for its long communal tables. Customers would squeeze in and share food with people they had never met. Two diners, who were complete strangers, ended up getting married. But as owner Stefania Taormina and her husband Pietro Franz prepare to welcome the first diners since December back into their four-metre-wide eatery in Brixton on Monday, Taormina fears they may not return. “We don’t see many bookings inside [and] it’s a bit scary. We think people are thinking differently now and sharing tables is maybe a problem,” she said. To comply with covid-19 restrictions for hospitality businesses in England when the government allows them to open indoors from Monday, Taormina has cut the number of guests seated in the restaurant from 55 to 14 and spent £1,000 on plastic dividers to break up the tables. The saving grace has been the six two-person tables on the restaurant’s outside terrace, which have been booked all hours of the day since restrictions on outdoor eating and drinking were lifted in late April. “We are breaking even just about with the terrace open,” she said. “I think people still prefer to go to places outside.” The pandemic has left the hospitality industry facing a crisis of historic proportions. Since the pandemic struck, UKHospitality, the trade body, estimates the sector across Britain has lost £80.8bn in sales between April 2020 and this March, compared with the previous 12-month period, equivalent to £9m every hour. More than 8,500 of the UK’s 115,100 licensed premises have gone out of business. And only a third of those operating have the outdoor space that has allowed them to reopen since the government allowed alfresco dining from 12 April. Even as the rest make ready to open inside in the biggest easing of restrictions in England since lockdown was imposed in January, many pub and restaurant owners fear the remaining covid rules – waiter service only at tables that must be at least 1m apart, with a limit of six people from no more than two households – will make most establishments unprofitable. “The vast majority of our pubs will be trading on 17 May [but] I expect us still to be trading at levels where we will be making a loss,” said Andy Spencer, managing director of Punch Pubs, which owns 1,100 premises. He said that pubs would run at half their usual capacity and that the restrictions were “challenging, time consuming and expensive”. Key to profitability for most pubs and restaurants is the removal of all social-distancing rules, and many owners were buoyed by recent comments from Boris Johnson. At the start of this week, the UK prime minister raised the possibility that all restrictions could be lifted over the summer. But by Friday, Johnson warned that the next state of England’s lockdown easing plans due on 21 June – when all existing rules are set to fall away – may have to be delayed because of a surge in infections caused by the emergence a covid-19 variant first detected in India. Opening with extensive restrictions in place has presented other challenges, not least the need to train staff who have been furloughed for months. Zoe Bowley, managing director of PizzaExpress, said the chain’s 6,000 employees had undergone a week of “full immersion” training, both in hygiene measures and service. “Some of our team members, apart from a small gap in November, haven’t worked for a year,” she said. The sector also faces a labour shortage with a loss of experienced and qualified staff, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to Brexit, with EU workers returning to their home countries. This will add to the pressure on employees facing customers for the first time in months. “They are rusty after furlough for a year and are heading back to jobs where they will have to cover other roles because there aren’t enough staff to cope,” warned Mark Lewis, chief executive of the charity Hospitality Action. Another common fear is antagonising guests by insisting they comply with the covid regulations, such as checking in with the test-and-trace app and wearing a mask when moving around. Even if reopening goes as planned, the absence of foreign tourists and commuters for at least part of the summer – with international travel still heavily restricted and office staff encouraged to continue to work from home until at least late June – is expected to leave many city-centre establishments short of customers. “We’re very dependent on footfall from tourists shopping on Oxford Street and hotel guests, so until they return in large numbers, normality won’t be restored,” said Anna Sebastian, bar manager of the Artesian at The Langham hotel in London. If there is a positive to have come out of the crisis, the pandemic has forced the industry to accelerate the adoption of technology that has improved productivity: payment and ordering apps allow operators to turn tables faster and employ fewer staff. Customers using apps also tend to spend more per head having had more time to peruse the menu and the ability to order as and when they want, according to several pub and restaurant owners. But Bowley warned there was a “fine balance” to strike to make sure that an industry built on personal service did not become “faceless” just as it needed customers to return. Technology aside, Spencer said he feared that until sports and live music could restart and customers could stand up in crowded bars, the pub experience would be a “sanitised” one. “We have taken out a lot of the soul and a lot of the things that make the pub really special,” he said. It is the same pre-covid conviviality that Taormina fears will be lost at Franzina Trattoria. “It was a joy for me because you would see people who you had never seen in your life start to drink together and talk about food together and then sometimes they would go out together afterwards. I am scared that it will not happen again.” (FT Weekend)

Brits ‘to go on £800m spending spree’ as 45,000 pubs finally open indoors: Brits fuelled by the joy of drinking a pint inside a cosy pub are predicted to go on an £800 million spending spree. Tomorrow around 45,000 boozers will open up to indoor customers for the first time since December. And staff will pull an estimated three million pints by last orders. Some 2,000 pubs – 5% of the UK total – will be shut until final restrictions lift on 21 June, as they are too small to serve safely. But with most open and restaurants back in business too, customers are expected to go large. Pablo Shah of the Centre for Economics and Business Research said: “The reopening is a key milestone for recovery, with spending forecast to rise more than £800 million per week.” (The Mirror)

Former Greene King chief Rooney Anand eyes pubs deal: The former boss of Greene King is said to be running the rule over a group of 700 pubs worth £200 million, as the leisure veteran makes his return to the sector. Rooney Anand, who led Greene King for 14 years until he stepped down in 2019, is understood to be among parties looking at Hawthorn Leisure, which is being offloaded by NewRiver, the FTSE 250 property group. NewRiver, led by Allan Lockhart, said last month that it was planning to spin off Hawthorn Leisure as a separate business via a listing on AIM, with Jefferies and Liberum advising. However, the group is also understood to be considering options including a sale through its adviser, Kinmont. Anand, 56, has raised more than £200 million for his new venture, the RedCat Pub Company, to take advantage of the downturn. He won backing from private equity firm Oaktree and has so far agreed to buy 40 pubs from Slug & Lettuce owner Stonegate. Anand told the Daily Telegraph in February that he had “always been a strong believer in the great British pub”. “I’m not trying to recreate Greene King,” he said. “I see myself as investing in a sector that has been oversold.” Hawthorn, which has 673 tenanted community pubs, was valued at £262 million last September. However, analysts reckon it is now worth £200 million. NewRiver plans to use the proceeds to pay down debt. Hawthorn’s estate, which includes a small number of adjoining convenience shops, is 96% freehold. (Sunday Times)

We can get a table inside again – but what’s the long-term future of restaurants?: Tom Kerridge has spent the pandemic irrepressibly “creating positive vibes”. He threw himself and volunteers from his teams into charitable projects such as Meals From Marlow, which delivered its 100,000th meal in February, and has even taken business decisions for similar motivational reasons. Opening a temporary rooftop garden at Kerridge’s Bar & Grill in London last month created “noise, energy, positivity. It’s definitely not to make money”. “I’ve tried to take all fear away from the staff,” says Kerridge, discussing the past 14 months. “Filtered all the way through, it’s been, ‘Don’t worry, you’re all safe.’ I’ll be honest, it’s been absolutely exhausting. I’m more tired than if the restaurants are open.” This week, they will be, and the 47-year-old – fresh from launching Full Time, a collaboration with Marcus Rashford to encourage families to cook cheap, healthy and filling meals – must summon a renewed energy to ensure that his five restaurants and pubs flourish. Kerridge readily admits he is better positioned than most to work through the “huge debt that small independent businesses, ourselves included, have taken on”. He is a TV regular with a two-Michelin-star flagship, Marlow’s Hand & Flowers. But is he immune from potential closures? Not as he sees it. If social distancing measures continue past June – a very real fear for owners – all bets are off. Kerridge says that the Coach pub, also in Marlow “is 40 people packed in tight. It has to turn seats three times a day. Reduce capacity by 35% and it doesn’t operate as a profitable business. At the Hand & Flowers, we moved the bar into a temporary flower-filled tent and put more tables in, so we could do the same amount of people – and they’ve been very supportive, but it’s not that complete experience it was built to be. That isn’t sustainable. It could operate at a profit but would slowly die off because, in the end, no one would want to come.” If that scenario is unlikely (“great, special occasions restaurants will weather the storm”), the issues facing Kerridge’s Bar & Grill in London or Manchester’s Bull & Bear are ones every owner is wrestling with. “They will take the most work,” says Kerridge, as he considers an immediate future of minimal international tourism and fewer office workers in city centres. He is mulling steak nights or BYO wine promotions, if necessary, but: “There’s a particular level we operate at that has an associated cost that we’ll stand firm on.” Diners should not expect deals this summer. From deferred rents to furlough costs such as national insurance contributions, restaurants have spent more than a year accumulating debt and, says Kerridge: “Because of those debts, I don’t think you can drop prices to get bums on seats.” Many chains work on “minuscule” profit margins, he warns, and: “I’m fearful for even big high street names that try lots of offers. I’m hoping the industry says, ‘this is the true cost of eating out’, and guests are more understanding about it.” In terms of which venues are most imperilled, Kerridge, presenter of BBC Two’s Saving Britain’s Pubs, puts pubs top of that list. “It’s a difficult sector hugely under pressure before the pandemic. Wet-led pubs, particularly. Many pubs don’t operate at a profit. They’re money pits. There will be closures and quite a few, which is incredibly sad.” When the “scaffolding” of government support is removed, many restaurants will be similarly stretched. “Hospitality is full of creative people who love the job. It’s an immersive way of life. That’s beautiful. But it’s not cash rich. Can businesses that don’t really make a profit, pay off debt? It won’t be: furlough ends, everywhere shuts, although some will. It’ll be over the next two years that lots of businesses, smaller independents, even bigger names, disappear.” That “precarious” churn – good sites vacant, deals on rent negotiable – will create, “entrepreneurial opportunity for new businesses. It’s not all gloom.” But beyond opening a very straightforward, 25-seat fish and chip cafe in Harrods food hall next month, Kerridge will not be branching out. “Investing in a new restaurant is not something I’m looking at,” he says, laughing grimly, “most definitely not.” But he is relishing the fight. Part phlegmatic, part philosophical, he is not brooding on the past year: “It’s been a rubbish part of owning the business, but it is part of it. I love it all. If we’re back on our feet in 2023, brilliant, but if in 2023 something is going to take a catastrophic loss and we have to shut it, I embrace that. I won’t enjoy it. But it’s part of living life and having a go.” For a year, the restaurant industry has existed in a state of nervous exhaustion, clinging on and accumulating debt. In November, identifying restaurants as vulnerable, Deloitte predicted 2021 insolvency rates would top those seen in 2009’s financial crash. But what if that apocalypse doesn’t happen? Or we’re past the worst? Might further hurt be significantly delayed? What if, whisper it, there is reason for optimism? “I spend my life analysing what any shakeout will look like,” says Nisha Katona, founder and chief executive of modern Indian restaurant chain Mowgli, “and those that weren’t going to survive we lost early in the race. Those who’ve survived this far, knackered and out of breath, will find strength because consumers will rally around anyone serving food. I’d love there to be [a new] ‘eat out to help out’ but, from what I’ve seen, I think we’ll trade our socks off.” Pent-up demand and fewer foreign summer holidays this year will, suggests Katona, boost even seemingly unsustainable restaurants such as neglected chains and over-staffed fine dining spots. Gloomy owners will suddenly see ways of trading out of their debt. “There’s a glorified veil over hospitality,” says Katona, who is opening a 13th Mowgli at Cheshire Oaks retail village in June. “For a year, people are just going to eat out.” The real crunch point will come in early 2022. Winter is always tough for restaurants, and VAT will return to 20% and business rates kick in again in full that April. According to the ONS, 355,000 people have already left hospitality’s payroll during covid, but, next winter, says Katona, “is when we see the next tranche of casualties”. A 49-year-old former barrister, Katona is not naive. To downgrade the current situation from disastrous to difficult, certain conditions and concessions will be essential. The key issue is landlords’ approach to rent arrears accrued during the pandemic. Landlords willing to write off rent are rare – negotiated deferrals or reductions of rent have been more common but some landlords have continued to demand full payment. A lease forfeiture moratorium, which stops landlords pursuing indebted tenants, expires in late June, when hospitality will owe a reported £3bn. The government is currently relying on landlords to compromise over repayment plans. How many will? Mowgli has paid rent it has been asked to pay and its deferred debts are manageable: “That’s what we model to, realistically. We’re going to be all right.” Many operators will not be so confident. Despite the prices some landlords are still demanding (“I’m looking for a head office in Liverpool and you would think there hasn’t been a pandemic. It’s unbelievable.”), Katona is nonetheless confident this standoff will resolve itself as, faced with the prospect of mass vacancies, landlords begin to accept they must share the financial hit: “I’d like to think they see how drastic it is. We need a realigned landlord-tenant relationship.” Would turnover-linked rents be fairer? “It’s an equitable lifeline for many,” says Katona. Instead of a fixed amount, this much-touted solution would see rent charged as a percentage of a business’s turnover – so it fluctuates with that business’s fortunes. But “outside the M25”, where Mowgli has focused its growth and property is cheaper, Katona worries a turnover-rent rate set by the Treasury guided by London businesses could actually increase rental costs. For now, as Mowgli pushes on to open new sites, Katona is concentrating on negotiating leases with long rent-free periods and long lead-ins, “allowing us to build only when the world is open and liquid”. That openness is crucial to any restaurant recovery. Katona would view an extension of social distancing beyond June, and certainly after the “artificial A&E” of furlough ends in September, as “cataclysmic”. Losing 30% of tables wipes any profit for most operators. Nationally, but particularly in the capital, Katona is concerned about the many restaurants near travel hubs or business districts which are only viable if staff are encouraged back to offices and to socialise after work. “It’s not enough to draw people in for leisure. The calculation when I put a Mowgli in a city centre, is, ‘Can workers walk to me?’ Not, ‘Where are the theatres, so they can come to me every six months?’” Overall, however, Katona is unshakeably optimistic, buoyed perhaps because Mowgli had been planning for something like covid-19 for a while. A “very cautious” chief executive, Katona was so spooked by Wahaca’s norovirus crisis in 2016, which temporarily closed nine of the chain’s restaurants, that she accumulated a fund to buffer Mowgli against an emergency shutdown. In March 2020, she closed her restaurants eight days before she had to and pledged to continue paying her 500 or so staff. “If I wouldn’t want to send my kids to work in a restaurant, I’m not going to put others in that position. The board was absolutely behind me,” says Katona, who, in 2017, sold a “very small” share of the business to investment fund Foresight Group. She remains prudent. At time of writing, Mowgli was not planning to push indoor bookings for 17 May onwards until the government officially reconfirms the date. At that point, says Katona, bullishly, she could jump on social media and “take 1,000 bookings in the next hour. I’ve faith people will book.” (Observer Food Monthly)

Enjoy your pint – but don’t forget to open the window: Opening windows will dramatically cut the risk of covid-19 being transmitted inside pubs, restaurants and cafes, scientists believe. Venues in England will be allowed to serve customers indoors on Monday for the first time in months, despite concerns about the impact of the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Roughly one in every 980 people in the pub-going population – about 59% of people aged 25 to 44 are regular pubgoers, according to the culture department, compared with 31% of over-75s – are thought to be infected. That means that about one in 43 pubs will have a customer carrying the virus at any one time, assuming that only half of those infected self-isolate. This risk is low but rises with each visit. If you go to a pub every week, for example, then by the end of August you will have had a one in three chance of coming into contact with someone who is covid-positive. Boris Johnson stressed last week that the time had come to “learn to live responsibly with covid” and make personal decisions rather than relying on “detailed government edicts”. So, how can we lower the risk? Scientists say ventilation is key. New government guidance says: “Open windows and doors, or take other action to let in plenty of fresh air. The more fresh air that is brought inside, the quicker any airborne virus will be removed from the room.” The simulations below – created by us with help from Julian Tang at Leicester University and Jose-Luis Jimenez at Colorado University – demonstrate how air flow dramatically decreases the risk. Ventilation is considered so important that virologists believe air flow in buildings should be regulated in the same way as water cleanliness and food hygiene. Jimenez and Tang were among 40 scientists behind a paper published in the journal Science calling for a “paradigm shift” on the scale of the government cleaning up water supplies in the middle of the 19th century. Tang, a clinical virologist, said: “We all want to be confident that the air in our homes and the buildings and restaurants we visit is clean, just as we are assured that the water coming out of our taps is safe for us to drink. If public places have a ‘ventilation certificate’, much like being health and safety certified, we will see restaurants more easily regaining diners’ trust, and employees more confidently returning to offices.” Jiminez, a professor of chemistry, said: “Let’s not waste time until the next pandemic. We need a societal effort. When we design a building, we shouldn’t just put in the minimum amount of ventilation that’s possible. Instead we should keep respiratory diseases, such as the flu, and future pandemics in mind.” (Sunday Times)

Pubs risk running short of beer as reopening accelerates: Fears over beer shortages are overshadowing the latest reopening of hospitality venues this week as brewers struggle to keep up with demand, a leading pub boss has warned. Some 45,000 pubs will reopen indoors for the first time in five months tomorrow under the next stage of the government’s post-covid roadmap, but social distancing and table service rules remain in place. Patrick Dardis, the chief executive of Young’s, said he has directly lobbied major brewers including Heineken and InBev to step up production after unexpected demand following the initial reopening of hospitality last month. “I wrote to all the chief executives of all the brewers saying that ‘we’ve been through enough now, we are at the end of tunnel and the last thing we need is a problem with supply, so get your act together and brew like you’ve never brewed before, because it’s just not acceptable,” he said. “As soon as the pubs start again we expect supply to be there.” Dardis said there had been a ­“significant improvement” in supply in recent days – partly helped by poor weather – but warned that “we’re not out of the woods yet”. Industry body UKHospitality expects almost one million workers to return from furlough this week as data from booking website the Fork showed tomorrow is the biggest day for bookings since the “Super Saturday” reopening last July. But Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said some businesses were still struggling for staff. She said: “Workers are in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as students not at univer­sity as well as foreign workers stuck abroad.” Jobs figures on Tuesday are expected to show companies went on a hiring spree in the build-up to non-essential retailers and outdoor hospitality reopening in England last month. Economists expect the unemployment rate fell to 4.8pc for the three months to the end of March, with the furlough scheme continuing to suppress joblessness. But economists will be closely watching more recent experimental payroll data from HMRC for signs of a pickup in early April. (Sunday Telegraph)

Small breweries work flat out for the UK’s grand pub reopening: The beery aroma in the air at the Gipsy Hill brewery in south London grows ever richer as sack after sack of the finest malt empties out into a stainless steel container, ready to be brewed into their flagship Hepcat IPA. About an hour’s drive away, near Esher in Surrey, the small team at the Big Smoke Brew Co are working equally hard on their own leading label, Electric Eye. And more than 200 miles north in Hartlepool, the folk at Donzoko Brewing are flat out making their Northern Helles. “It’s a race against time to fulfil the demand and take advantage of this big bounce back,” said Donzoko’s founder-owner Reece Hugill. These three are among the small breweries getting ready for the grand reopening of pubs scheduled for 17 May, when hospitality venues can finally restart for indoor service. According to the British Beer & Pub Association an estimated 45,000 pubs will fully reopen on Monday, and they will serve some three million pints to punters who will no longer need coats or blankets. That will be a third down on a normal pre-pandemic Monday, due to social distancing and table service-only restrictions and fewer customers in town and city centres. But it is a big step towards normality. When beer gardens opened last month, many multinational “megabrew” companies struggled to meet pent-up demand for draught beer. “[Brewers and pubs] were really caught off guard by how busy they were going to be,” said Rich Craig, founder of Big Smoke. “We had calls from lots of pubs saying they couldn’t get any beer. It’s been bananas, absolutely crazy.” The almighty clamour for amber nectar came despite the fact that only 40% of pubs, those with outdoor space, were able to open. Brewers have been bracing for the rest to follow suit for some time already. While mass-produced lager can go from mash tun to pint glass in days, quality “craft” beer takes a month or more. According to Gipsy Hill co-founder Sam McMeekin, the effort has been “absolutely frenetic, with everyone working at 120% of capacity”. They’re doing so not just to please parched punters but to make sure they have a bright post-pandemic future. “It’s about survival, about making, packaging and distributing as much beer as we can to anyone who wants it. We’re trying to climb out of a hole we’ve been in for the last 14 months as fast as we can.” Successive lockdowns have dealt more damage to hospitality than almost any other industry. The thriving and internationally admired network of more than 2,000 small craft breweries that has developed in the UK over the past decade or so has felt the pinch acutely. Last week, Rishi Sunak was pictured at Pillars Brewery in Walthamstow, north-east London, boasting of the support the government has given to small businesses. Few in the brewing industry recognise that assessment. Breweries “have been left out of the government’s support for the hospitality industry”, said James Calder, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba). Measures such as “Eat out to help out” and hospitality grants were targeted at venues but did little for their suppliers. “In Scotland, a brewers support fund helped out struggling small brewers, but in the rest of the UK breweries have not been so lucky,” said Calder. On top of that, Sunak’s proposed reforms to the way small breweries are taxed spells extra costs for some of the smallest, those with the shallowest pockets. About 40 are thought to have succumbed to the once-in-a-generation pandemic body blow already. Casualties include Wooha Brewing Company in Morayshire and Wickwar in the Cotswolds. The survivors, say Siba, are in debt to the tune of £30,000 each on average. Gipsy Hill made it through but lost millions of pounds of revenue and threw away hundreds of kegs of beer, a necessity that McMeekin described as “heartbreaking”. Custom from hospitality and export, about 80% of Gipsy Hill’s £350,000-a-month income, simply evaporated. To keep their heads above water, many craft brewers flipped their business model on its head to become e-commerce specialists. For an outfit the size of Big Smoke, the shift wasn’t easy although it has been unexpectedly successful. From their warehouse by the River Mole, they used to dispatch just 800 deliveries a year but have hit 20,000 since the start of the pandemic. “It’s the most profitable that the brewery’s ever been,” said Craig.“You’re selling less volume at a higher profit margin.” For Gipsy Hill, a significantly larger operation at 30,000hL a year, the transformation is harder to pull off. The extra income from home delivery is a “drop in the ocean” compared with what has been lost, said McMeekin. But there are reasons to see the beer glass as half full. Some breweries’ online sales will be valuable income to supplement the return of hospitality and start recouping the pandemic shortfall. And a survey by Siba found that “tap yards” – the brewery equivalent of the beer garden – have been about 73% busier than pre-pandemic. “The public appetite is going through the roof,” said McMeekin of his tap yard. “Customers are making up for lost time.” (The Guardian)

Food hygiene slides after inspectors called away to tackle virus: Thousands of restaurants, pubs, takeaways and cafés are overdue for hygiene inspections after the pandemic caused a backlog. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said some of the highest-risk establishments may have missed up to three inspections. Since March last year, many local authority food inspectors have been moved to public health to deal with reducing the spread of the coronavirus. This has left some food inspection teams seriously understaffed. Councils have raised concerns that the integrity of the government’s food hygiene rating scheme, which scores restaurants from zero to five, could be at risk. At a meeting this month the FSA will propose a series of new measures to tackle the backlog. It will suggest that the 1,500 category A businesses, deemed the highest risk, must be inspected by March next year. It means those that missed inspections last year could go up to two years between inspections instead of the usual six months. Businesses are category A if they are inherently higher risk, for example dairy and meat manufacturers, or if they have a poor hygiene rating. A scientific review by the FSA last year estimated 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK, up from one million a decade earlier. Last June, the FSA said, only 470 food hygiene ratings were given to food establishments compared with the usual 14,000 a month. In March, this rose to 9,000. (Sunday Times)

Grant Thornton fights back on Patisserie Valerie: Grant Thornton has rejected responsibility for the collapse of Patisserie Valerie, arguing that the chain’s directors were reckless and that it did not have a duty to detect fraud. The sixth-biggest audit firm is being sued by liquidators to the coffee-shop group, which went bust in 2019 amid an accounting scandal. Patisserie Valerie, which had 206 stores and 3,000 staff, unravelled rapidly after a financial black hole was found in October 2018, wiping out hundreds of millions of pounds of investors’ money. FRP Advisory filed a £225 million claim against Grant Thornton, which audited Patisserie Valerie’s accounts for 12 years, in February. Papers lodged by FRP said that GT’s negligence meant directors were unaware the group had run out of cash. Grant Thornton’s defence says that FRP is, in effect, asking the accountancy firm to “underwrite the entirety of the losses” suffered by Patisserie Valerie investors as it “continued to trade on the basis of inaccurate, and allegedly fraudulently manipulated, financial information”. It says FRP has failed to make a proper case for that, and claims that directors, including former Sunday Times columnist Luke Johnson, were reckless or negligent. Grant Thornton also argues that an audit “is not designed to, and does not guarantee” that financial statements are fraud-free. Six people have been arrested so far. FRP declined to comment. Grant Thornton said: “We will continue to rigorously defend the claim. As set out in our defence, Patisserie Valerie is a case that involves sustained and collusive fraud, including widespread deception of the auditors and ignores the failings of the board and management who were primarily responsible for the group’s accounts and the running of the business.” (Sunday Times)

Defying the Indian strain: Restaurants, B&Bs and cinemas are ready to reopen despite the new covid variant’s surge. Businesses in England are gearing up for the latest easing of restrictions tomorrow, with hospitality venues allowed to serve customers inside for the first time since January. Indoor entertainment and visitor attractions are also reopening, alongside hotels and B&Bs. It is going ahead despite the rapid spread of the Indian covid-19 variant. The prime minister warned last week that its arrival could disrupt lockdown easing and make it harder to lift all restrictions on 21 June. The Giggling Squid chain of Thai restaurants will open its doors tomorrow. Andy Laurillard, 49, who founded the company with wife Pranee, 50, said tables were 90% booked for the first week at their 37 restaurants. Strong demand for takeaways meant Giggling Squid was able to break even throughout last year’s lockdowns, Laurillard said, with sales dipping from £38 million in 2019 to £32 million. Laurillard expects takeaways to remain slightly above pre-pandemic levels once restaurants reopen. Jason and Lyn Martin are excited to welcome back guests to their Dorset House B&B in Lyme Regis. The pair, both 50, have been renovating the five-bedroom property during lockdown, as well as refining their covid protocols, which include enhanced cleaning and staggered breakfast sittings. “We try to get that balance between keeping guests safe and making sure they have a lovely stay,” said Lyn. She is expecting a busy summer, but is worried about making up lost income. Instead of raising prices, the couple are encouraging customers to take longer stays and trying to minimise gaps between bookings of rooms, which range from £105 to £195 a night. They are fully booked throughout the summer and are running a waiting list in case of cancellations. “If foreign travel does open up, there’s the risk that people might cancel, and we have to offer free cancellations now, which leaves us a little bit unprotected,” said Lyn. She added that the real test would come after the summer trading season. “At the moment, November’s pretty booked up so that’s a good sign,” said Lyn. The Forum, an 83-year-old independent cinema in Hexham, Northumberland, will resume screenings on Friday, with a programme including Ammonite, Minari and Nomadland. The manager David Nixon, 30, said ticket sales looked strong so far. He said: “We’re lucky to have a very loyal audience, and we’ve had what we call ‘new sellouts’ – sold-out screenings with social distancing measures in place.” It is holding free screenings of Citizen Kane using an old 35mm projector to thank members of its loyalty scheme for their support during lockdowns. Distancing restrictions mean its one screen can operate at only 30% of capacity and there are bigger gaps between screenings to avoid visitors overlapping, putting further strain on finances. The cinema, owned by a local community partnership, furloughed its 18 staff and received almost £99,000 from the British Film Institute’s Cultural Recovery Fund to keep it afloat. Nixon is hopeful: “We offer an experience that is hard to replicate at home.” (Sunday Times)

Is lab-grown meat the answer to the chicken shortage?: The chickens are coming home to roost. The price of boneless, skinless breast has doubled in a year to just over $2 in America amid an acute supply shortage. Independent restaurants have had to go without for weeks, while chains have begun removing chicken dishes from menus. The shortfall – driven by a chicken-sandwich war among big fast-food chains, slaughterhouse labour shortages and “underperforming” roosters – is an unnerving sign of the fragility of a food system under pressure to produce ever more poultry and meat. An answer to the squeeze lurks in the food compartments of scooters motoring through the streets of Singapore. Foodpanda last month became the first delivery firm to offer dishes made with “cultured” chicken – that is, flesh not from a bird, but brewed in a stainless-steel vat. Last year Singapore became the first country in the world to approve lab-grown meat. Eat Just, a San Francisco alternative-protein start-up, became the first to sell it to the public. Josh Tetrick, Eat Just’s chief executive, reckons the Singapore experiment is the start of a revolution. “We’re going to look back and tell our kids ... ‘In the year 2021, a third of our habitable land was used to plant soy and corn to feed the animals we eat. We literally turned our planet into an animal farm. Can you believe that?’” His vision: the multitrillion-dollar industrial agriculture and meat-packing industries will be wiped away. In their place will rise factory-made beef, pork, fish and poultry. The production process for all is broadly the same. A small sample of flesh is extracted from a live animal, from which stem cells are taken. These are put in a petri dish with a broth of nutrients that help the cells divide and grow. This is then moved to a bioreactor with a batch of minerals, sugars, hormones and growth factors – and eventually becomes meat. Tetrick predicts that 90% of the meat we eat will ultimately be produced this way. A further 7 to 8% will come from plant-based alternatives. Old-fashioned slaughtered meat will be a high-priced luxury. The question, Tetrick said, is whether that shift will happen in ten years, or 50. “Our job is to get it closer to ten.” These are the earliest of days, and cultured meat has huge obstacles to overcome, from high costs to convincing the public. Nevertheless, Jim Mellon, the billionaire investor and Brexiteer, has turned himself into the biggest backer of the movement. His publicly traded vehicle, Agronomics, has invested in a dozen start-ups including Mosa Meat, which is developing beef mince. Cultured meat, Mellon said, would be “bigger than electric vehicles”. Agronomics estimates the size of the opportunity to be $5 trillion (£3.5 trillion) and last week raised £62 million, which it will invest over the next nine months. The story of cultured meat goes back to 2013, when Mark Post, a Maastricht University researcher, created the world’s first “in vitro burger”. The cost: $325,000. This showed what was possible, but it was not until three years later that the first culture meat start-ups were founded by Post (Mosa Meat) and Uma Valeti, a cardiologist, who created Upside Foods – or Memphis Meats as it was known until last week. Valeti said: “Back then, it was all in the realm of science fiction.” Today there are over 70 companies across Asia, Europe and America working on everything from salmon to lobster, and pork belly to bacon, beef, duck and chicken. The boom has been driven by synthetic biology, which takes an engineering approach to cells, pinpointing the ones necessary to grow a desired meat and then instructing them to produce muscle, fat and connective tissue by “turning on”, or off, certain proteins. The industry has also nearly put behind it a key vulnerability: its reliance on foetal bovine serum. FBS, blood drawn from a living foetus that has been removed from a slaughtered cow, was the industry’s secret sauce because it was packed with the components required to supercharge cell growth. It was also hugely problematic for the self-styled “clean meat” industry. After years of tinkering, FBS has largely been replaced by other plant-based proteins. The industry is also leaning into the climate change argument. A fingernail- size tissue sample can be cultured into 7,000 pounds of beef within six weeks. A cow eats, burps and poops for 28 months before it goes to slaughter. The meat lobby is not standing idly by. Cattle ranchers have helped pass laws in seven states restricting the use of the words “meat” and “beef” to describe plant-based and cultured alternatives. Another challenge is scale. Beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars to build a single manufacturing plant, the mix of nutrients to grow the cells, or media, as they are known, are costly, accounting for 99% of material costs. Slashing prices or finding alternatives will be key to reaching “griddle parity”. What appears certain is that great fortunes will be made – and lost. Mellon said: “None of these companies existed until a few years ago. None of them has ever turned a profit ... [But] I don’t doubt that the industry will succeed – it’s a question of who will succeed in it.” (Sunday Times)

Bloom times over as Covent Garden florist shuts: One of London’s most acclaimed florist shops has fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic and will close its doors today. Petersham Nurseries, which opened three years ago in Covent Garden to great fanfare, will continue to run its two restaurants and deli on the site but in an email to customers, the owners, the Boglione family, said: “It is with a heavy heart that we announce the closure of our much-loved shop in Covent Garden on Sunday 16 May”. No reason was given, but the florist would not be the first retail business to throw in the towel during the covid-19 crisis. It is understood that the prime site on Floral Street will be taken over by Reformation, the US sustainable women’s fashion brand that has a shop in Notting Hill. The Boglione statement said that the deli would “offer a selected edit of our most-loved retail products and plants, whilst the online shop remains a haven of art, antiques, decorative items and tableware”. It said that the company’s nursery and shop in Richmond, southwest London, would be unaffected. Francesco and Gael Boglione bought the garden nursery there in 2004. (The Times)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Native at Browns, Mayfair: “Everything about this new restaurant from the Native duo (Imogen Davis FOH, Ivan Tisdall-Downes overseeing the kitchen) is precious in every sense of the word. Its hidden courtyard and narrow, ash-blond interior room – all part of the venerable designer shop Browns’ new Mayfair location – is a far cry from the first restaurant of theirs I reviewed. Rather than this serene sweetie, that now-closed Native hunkered under Southwark Bridge like a benevolent, ecologically advanced troll. They still define themselves as an ethical restaurant, one dedicated to ‘protecting and preserving Britain’s culinary heritage’, but their waste-averse ethos seems to have been dialled down a little for this most rarefied of audiences. Or, at least, it’s more softly spoken: I hear one member of staff using the words ‘waste products’ to a table of chic women behind me and their recoil is almost palpable. We’re on the Garden Menu (via QR code) and order pretty much everything – apart from oysters; a kohlrabi, ajo blanco and cherry blossom dish; and fermented tomatoes with ‘yesterday’s bread’ (kinda panzanella). ‘Lots of people do this’, beams our waiter and, given the not exactly trencherman-sized dishes, I’m not surprised. There’s a dish of burrata sitting in a savoury beige pool of miso bagna cauda – an inspired collision of cultures, Japanese and Italian, contrasting the lactic coolness of the cheese with the deep umami of the miso. There’s less than a third of a ball of burrata. But then we’re in a shop that dresses the kind of people who can only countenance large amounts of dairy when it’s in a spa bath. Then comes ‘smacked’ cucumber – it’s not, it’s cutely melon-balled – in a fermented crab and chilli liquor with a scatter of cobnuts. The ‘smacked’ might be referencing the popular Sichuan side dish, but its sauce reminds me more of the dementedly pungent crab I tried at a ceremonial restaurant in Seoul. The pal insisted then that the dish, gejang, was simply the crustacean dumped in a bucket for a fortnight to fester – and he wasn’t far wrong. Native’s is a lot nicer than it sounds: the cool crispness of the cucumber, the fiery funk of the crab, the cobnuts’ creamy crunch. I hate to come across like a total Bori … er, Bunter, but even dishes for sharing are on the small side. Our ‘hogseed spiced mutton’ – using a hedgerow foraged plant that offers echoes of citrus and coriander seed – arrives as folds of ripe, punchy meat, pink in the centre. Alongside, a tiffin tin opens to reveal layers of intrigue: thin crackers sandwiching labneh, with coriander chutney and delicate petals on top; English grain pilau nutty with barley; and bitter leaves dressed with a sting of horseradish. It ‘serves two to three’, we’re told. Two to three whats, I wonder – Borrowers? The day I visit Native at Browns there’s a huge demonstration in town. People coming out of the Tube wearing the masks that are required on public transport are having abuse hurled at them by anti-maskers wearing yellow stars and calling the bemused onlookers fascists. It is horribly troubling. Here in this almost secret little oasis, where the doormat in front of the glass doors through to the courtyard announces ‘More Joy’, it’s like another country, another time. We’re cocooned by coral walls, shielded by exuberant plant life and gorgeously modernist lamplike heaters from all that unpleasantness outside. As someone didn’t say: ‘Let them eat caramelised honey and seaweed truffles.’ So I’m not going to wax sanctimonious about the prices, which, if you’re in any way greedier than the shop’s clientele – ie almost everybody – don’t so much mount up as galumph towards the stratosphere. That minuscule fish bite is £8.50 an ecstatic pop. But it’s Mayfair: a pair of trainers – sorry, sneakers – I pass on the way to the dramatically yellow-tiled loos cost nearly 700 quid and it’s not my job to tell anyone how to spend their money. One of the cheerful, beautifully spoken boys tells us that every table is quadruple booked. But they kindly don’t hassle us out – something to do, possibly, with the fact that we keep ordering, even down to a non-dessert waffle for dessert, this one served with pickled apples and chicken liver parfait topped with a sparkling layer of apple jelly. Sure, we have the actual desserts too – when plates are this petite, you just go for it: Sea-Lero, a sour-sweet sea buckthorn ice lolly (like a pleasingly mouth-puckering mini Solero, geddit?); and Marrowmel, Native’s trademark transgressive move of adding bone marrow to sweet things – this time a kind of white chocolate brûlée sitting in its lengthwise-cut bone and tasting far less charnel house than it looks. I can imagine this version of Native being pretty divisive, unadventurous people put off by recherché ingredients and natural wines; parsimonious people by the prices. But the hours we spend here are spangled with fairy dust, so maybe that’s all fair enough. And maybe that’s just Mayfair.” (Sunday Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner – Only Food and Courses, London: ‘Deserves to be taken seriously’: Jay Rayner reviews Only Food and Courses at Pop Brixton: “It is impossible for chef Robbie Lorraine and manager Martyn Barrett, who mostly manages himself, to get too serious and up themselves when their home is a shipping container. In another life, it could quite easily have been part of an intestinal blockage on the Suez Canal. I peak inside. It’s nicely done out: clean, white tiling and an open kitchen at the back. But none of that disguises its true nature. When we visit it is, of course, outside eating only. There is space for a dozen of us just beyond the doors on a raised wooden platform up above the rest of Pop Brixton. We eat off tables of the purest plank and are shielded from the spring sunshine by thick, transparent plastic screens the colour of boiled sweets. The filtered light plays havoc with my Instagram pics. In normal times they will be operating as a supper club serving six courses to just 14 people, in two sittings inside, for £65 a head. The menu will change on a monthly basis. As a stopgap, they have devised a short daytime menu of just ten dishes, which will continue: four starters, four mains, two desserts. This means the bill can mount up, but then there is both serious attention to detail and hard work on show here. Just expect every dish description to be gently misleading and, at times, wilfully so. The business part of a bloody Mary, for example, arrives in the form of a boozy, fiery granita, the ice shards looking like something chipped from Superman’s fortress of solitude. It’s a neat trick given the low freezing point of vodka. It comes with long-roasted tomatoes, chickpea chips and a dill oil that has, through a bit of old-school Blumenthal-esque modernism, been processed into a powder. Not so much an annoying deconstruction as a reconfiguration. Ham, egg and chips has all those things. Except the ham element is a compressed tangle of piggy terrine, the eggs are just the cured yolks and there are more of those chickpea chips. Whorls of pea purée and rings of sweet pickled onion complete the plate. Ignore the title and what you have is a cheery, well-executed dish. And so, to the prawn cocktail that both is and isn’t. The Marie Rose sauce has been put through a nitrous gun so it sits in aerated pillows around the prawns. It’s dotted with tiny spherifications of balsamic vinegar, another old-school technique developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli back in the 90s, when playing with your food like this was all the rage. There are ribbons of pickled cucumber and some charred lettuce. It is indeed a prawn cocktail, just not your prawn cocktail. Let’s finish this round with slices of extremely good treacle-cured salmon, laid with puffed wheat, fronds of green herbs and a Jenga block of crème fraîche formed into a jelly. Our first main, a smoked short-rib hash, is the closest to a familiar dish and, being formed into a tower, has a sweet 90s nostalgia to it: there is a pedestal of crushed potatoes upon which sits the long-braised beef, all of it drenched in a slowly reduced jus, the last dribbles of which I chase around the plate with fat finger pads. Is that only me? After that, it’s pure whimsy all the way. There’s a perfectly made scotch egg, in which the pork has been replaced by white crab meat. The yolk is running and there is a sizeable spoonful of glistening caviar to make sure it’s dressed properly for the occasion. Duck eclairs are fairly described: slices of crisp-shelled choux pastry bun are split and filled with shredded, salty duck confit and glazed with a jus, then decorated with edible flowers. There are three of us at the table and three eclairs on the plate. I ask if it’s the normal portion. I’m told the standard portion size is two, but if there happen to be three people at the table, they send out a third. They do the same with the lobster doughnuts, which are indeed deep-fried doughnuts, filled with mayo-bound lobster, and dusted with beetroot powder. Do I need to tell you that both of these are delicious? Desserts bring the only misfire. In a Bakewell slice the cherries have been replaced with beetroot. This does not make it a better Bakewell or even an intriguingly different Bakewell. It just makes it weird and disappointing. Beetroot may be sweet, but it can still have a vegetal, musty edge, pointed up by the pieces of golden beetroot on the plate. Far better is an extremely well-made lemon meringue tart with toasted meringue peaks and fat spherified pearls which burst with a sweet, lemony syrup, the very essence of a sherbet dib dab. Did the repeated mismatch between dish name and contents, the cheeky twistiness of it all, make your palms itchy? Fair enough. I understand. But I direct you to how seriously I’ve taken this cooking because, for all that whimsy, it deserves to be taken seriously. Only Food and Courses is a careful exercise in misdirection. But it’s a sweet and benign one. Plus, it results in duck eclairs and lobster doughnuts. How could anyone seriously complain about that?” (The Guardian)

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