Restaurants ‘pulling hair out’ after brutal festive season

“Reassuring words” from the Government over the past 48 hours:

“There will be no further measures before the new year,” Javid told reporters, adding: “When we get into the new year, of course we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures.”

He said that the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus now accounted for around 90% of cases across England and urged people to celebrate New Year cautiously.

UK care minister Gillian Keegan followed up with: “People should enjoy themselves but be cautious when celebrating new year.” 

So Celebrate; don’t celebrate? – Owl

Lewis Clarke www.devonlive.com

It’s not been the season of festive cheer for Mid Devon’s restaurants, with owners’ pulling their hair out over Christmas party cancellations.

Earlier this month, government advisors, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urged caution on people going out to celebrate due to fears over the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Rhys Roberts of Visit Devon said this is the worst crisis he has known in his 30-year career.

He said Christmas cancellation rates are said to be running at between 13-15 per cent nationally, but he said, “that is not what I am being told,”

“The current levels are running at between 40 per cent and 50 per cent, and that is simply not sustainable.”

Charles Lloyd runs the Mount Pleasant Inn in Nomansland, near Tiverton, said: “We are almost being treated as if we are the acceptable collateral damage in trying to save the NHS.

“There is no clear message coming out of the Government. It is obvious pubs are hurting.”

The Hartnoll Hotel in Tiverton has seen 80 per cent of its bookings cancelled, with customers demanding refunds.

Shane Naylor, general manager, explained: “By October, we had been fully booked for Christmas hotel bookings, we had been fully booked for our Friday and Saturday Christmas parties during December, so much so that we had also opened up Thursday dates too.

“Since the Government announcing that people can still go out but be cautious, 80 per cent of Christmas party bookings were cancelled, all demanding refunds.

“Since that announcement, we have had over 350 cancellations; that week alone was 200 cancellations. Our Christmas break package was full, and now we only have six rooms booked.”

He said they were ‘very annoyed’, adding: “In my opinion, the Government are very clever in what they have said. Telling people to be cautious and not go out but actually not imposing any restrictions means we cannot claim any financial assistance.

“£6,000 will not go very far. I have a monthly wage budget of £70k at the moment we are not even breaking even we are now losing money.

“Because the Prime Minister cannot make his mind up and give clear guidance, we are not even sure if we should order the food in for New Year, so we have a choice order the food, and if restrictions come into place, we end up losing the money or risk not ordering the food, and we have no food for New Year. The Government need to introduce a flexi furlough scheme for the hospitality sector, at least for three months to help us support our staff.”

In terms of staffing levels, he added: “We finally managed to retain our staff during the staff shortage because we were loyal to them and ensured they had the hours and increased wages.

“But not as we do not have the clientele, we are reducing hours like no tomorrow. Staff are finding other jobs, which means we will go into the New Year with staff shortages again. We have had a few staff call in sick due to isolation but not many.

“It’s troubling times. We do not even know if we will be able to open in January. Ninety per cent of our January bookings have cancelled.”

Another restaurant in Tiverton, Elsie May’s on Phoenix Lane, is often busy at Christmas.

Elsie May’s in Tiverton

Mandy Jenks, from the family-run business, said: “We went from being fully booked for our Christmas party nights to having some cancellations. This was due to the parties reducing their numbers with people having to self-isolate.

“One particular Friday evening in December, we went from fully booked to having availability three times. It ended up being half full, which isn’t ideal. A couple of our cancellations have been from the corporate companies instructing the staff to cancel.

I guess they need to ensure they have enough staff to carry on trading.

She added: “Our daytime business has been reasonably and consistently good due to the loyalty and support of our regular customers who have been amazing.”

She said that staffing levels for December had been good, but they struggled in November.

“We still have our covid screens, face masks and waitress service in place and will continue to do so for our customer’s peace of mind.”

The restaurant closed from 4 pm on December 24 until January 4 to allow staff rest and time off with their families; however, there are fears for the return.

“I am worried about our January and February trading going forward as it is normally a very quiet time, but I feel this year will be worse.

“Whilst I welcome the Government help, it is nowhere near enough. The return of Flexi Furlough would be very welcome for these two months.”

Meanwhile, in the Culm Valley area, it is a similar story.

At the Five Bells in Clyst Hydon, the month started well for bookings and parties before cancellations began.

James Garnham said: “The reaction was unsure; we had Christmas parties ringing us up to say they might cancel, but weren’t sure what to do, and in the end, a lot of them did cancel because it was better to be safer.

“For us, it was like the Government had said this is another lockdown, but without it being mandatory. We feel that a lot of people have listened to the Government, but many haven’t.

“People are careful with meeting up in bigger groups now but still are happy to meet in smaller groups. We also think that people are choosing to book during times that they feel would be quieter in the pub, so our Tuesday and Wednesday daytime and evening bookings have been very busy, but the weekends have been quiet because people think there will be another 50 people in the building with them.”

He said that the Government grant would provide for ‘basic losses for a day or two.

He added: “Whilst any help is welcome, it’s not going to go far, for us or any hospitality business out there. We need more support, and another VAT cut or extension to the current VAT cut is needed.

“Whilst we are open, there are still restrictions that stop us trading as we would pre-pandemic, so we need the support to keep hospitality alive.

“For us, we have a big year planned with some national recognition coming our way. But we need our doors to be open and staffed accordingly to make 2022 our biggest year yet, and these are the two issues that worry us the most.

“Staffing is still a struggle, especially chefs. The never-ending cycle of lockdowns needs to end so that we can be clear to run out business the way we want to, whilst keeping the safety of our customers at the top of the list of priorities.”

He concluded: “The Government also needs to do something to promote the hospitality industry employment rates by creating incentives to stay in the industry.”

At Porters, a bar and grill in the heart of Cullompton, the owner, Billy Porter, predicts up to £12,500 in lost revenue.

“We were taking a lot of Christmas parties and Christmas bookings in October and early November,” he said. “We were very well booked up by the start of December.

“When government advisors started telling people to restrict their social interactions, we found small tables cancelling and the odd person on their tables. This all added up.

“When announcements were made, everybody in the restaurant was devastated to hear these things because it’s obvious the reaction the public. We had 150 individual cancellations; we lost about three or four Christmas parties, including one table of 30 who decided not to come.”

Billy Porter in Porters

He said the government support was ‘absolute rubbish.

“We’ll be getting around £2,700 in help, but I estimate we’ve lost around £12,500 in sales. The financial support doesn’t touch the sides.

“People are still worried about what they’re going to do in January and February, so it’s wholly inadequate what they’ve been pressured into giving us.

“Heading into 2022, I’m worried, being cautious and not as optimistic as I’d like to be. I’d like to think that we can find a way of finally knocking this Covid thing on the head. I don’t think the Government are ready to go anywhere near that yet. People listen to the Government and the media.

“I don’t think we’ll see so many cancellations for the foreseeable future, but bookings are going to be few and far between, and maybe people will walk in off the street if they want to go out for a meal, but I can’t see bookings being very good.”

In the rural village of Bampton, The owners of The Swan pub and Spelt café – Paul and Donna Berry – have also struggled.

Donna said: “Things have been very slow, very quiet, with lots of cancellations, especially at The Swan.

“At Spelt, we’ve been lucky to only lose the odd couple, but the rest of the party have come. One day last week, we had over 40 booked in the evening at The Swan and only did ten. We lost 24 for Christmas Eve, and the bookings are falling apart.

“We were going to do the Christmas draw for the Foxhounds on Sunday evening, which takes up the whole pub, but they cancelled, and we ended up just shutting the whole pub for the night.”

She added that Spelt had been lucky thanks to loyal customers but that Paul at The Swan had been ‘pulling his hair out.

“The money from the government will not cover it,” Donna said. “We’ve been told we can claim up to £6,000, and I’m certainly not going to get anywhere near that, and neither is The Swan.

“What we’ve lost in takings, as compared to the Christmas of 2019 we were rammed.

“Now we’re just sitting around waiting for another lockdown; there is so much uncertainty. I think they’re going to make it so hard that we won’t be able to open.

“We’ve got outdoor space, but who’s going to sit outside? We can get as many heaters and umbrellas out there, we’ll serve takeaways, and carry ongoing for as long as we can.”

Donna Berry and Spelt / The Swan

She said that restaurants and pubs were ‘a lot safer than the supermarkets’.

“Our staff have their masks on, everywhere is sanitised after anybody leaves, we’ve got space, we’re not bundling people on top of each other. We’re one of the safest places to go; I’d rather come here than go to a supermarket.

“I think it’s got to come to a point where we’ve got to try and get back to some sort of normality.

“Paul is ripping his hair out; he’s at the end of his tether.”