Editorial: Raising a glass to all those in hospitality

‘Went to Hickory’s on the first night after the lockdown and the first thing I can say is WOW. The things that they have put into place are amazing. Well done Hickory’s. You have got this so right, and all done safely. Thank you for giving us a feel of normality after the lockdown.’

‘We went to Turtle Bay on the 4th July and it must have been very stressful for the waitresses! I haven’t been to a place where there has been such a positive attitude in stressful and busy times. I don’t review a lot but I feel like it’s needed when service is above and beyond.’

Just a couple of the happy reviews from guests visiting Hickory’s Smokehouse and Turtle Bay on their reopening weekends. It’s been a painful few months for everyone, not least in hospitality. We are really proud of how our brands are getting through it. 106 days has been too long.

Yet, as is typical of entrepreneurial busiesses, they haven’t been able to sit still. Turtle Bay has been delivering food to NHS workers and Hickory’s partnered with North West-based charity Cash For Kids, raising more than £65,000 to help local families affected by the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Flat Iron’s Instagram posts are filled with fans congratulating them for raising £20,000 to feed 130,000 people in need across London, while yearning for them to reopen. I’m happy to say that Flat Iron London Bridge opened its doors again yesterday – click here to book a table.

Bottomless brunches

Turtle Bay and Hickory’s began by reopening some of their sites (Turtle Bay 25 and Hickory’s three) to give themselves the operational flexibility to adapt. They have been sensible about balancing safety and providing an experience not too far removed from the usual service. Guests are happy for waiters to not wear face masks and to navigate without excessive markings. The small changes can sometimes be the most impactful – guests have loved Hickory’s new disposable newspaper menus.

Both brands are having to refresh their rotas several times a day to ensure the right balance between making guests feel safe and profitability. At Turtle Bay, increases in floor and door staff have been countered by fewer bar staff as table bookings have replaced vertical drinking. More experiential bottomless brunches have been especially popular, driven by a more female and younger guests than pre-lockdown.

Hickory’s is particularly well set up to deal with the changes. Guests have loved being able to use their big car parks and large outside areas, most of which have been redeveloped with additional dining huts and outside areas. See the headline image showing Chester car park with an extra 70 seats.

A single guest view

Of all the consumer sectors that we invest in, hospitality has been the slowest to be disrupted by technology.

In recent years, smarter WiFi systems such as Wireless Social have become the norm and has given brands data on a small part of their guest base. However, to support the Government’s track and trace guidelines, Covid is now making data capture universal. Moreover, bookings are making up the vast majority of visits as guests plan their journeys and nights out more carefully. Over the opening weekend, bookings at Turtle Bay increased from a pre-Covid 40% of total guests to 90%.

Many brands are for the first-time employing apps that allow guests to order and pay by phones, including creating digital QR menus. Some have gone further and developed new booking platforms, allowing guests to book events, manage drinks party packages, split payments and collate pre-orders. As with all new processes, some guests and staff have found this cumbersome and glitchy.

Working with their tech partners, Airship and Yumpingo, Turtle Bay and Hickory’s have been collecting data and getting live guest feedback. This will help them have a much clearer single view of their guests.

Tweaking business models

Pre-corona, a mix of Brexit, rising food costs, National Living Wage and competition for the best talent, drove up costs. Although these will remain, with less competition, brands should have a better choice of who they hire.

The biggest difference, however, will be in property costs. Although a number will have to resort to a CVA to reduce their rents, our hope is that landlords will agree to sensible readjustments to reflect the new environment. There is no doubt that brands will be able to negotiate much better deals for new sites. This should make property costs more sustainable.

Those brands most affected by Covid are reshaping their entire business models. Pret A Manger has already announced it has launched its rethink. As an early indicator, it has launched a contactless workplace delivery service.

Even before Covid, restaurants were designing their sites to be delivery and takeaway friendly. This will now be a given. On the back of a successful curb side takeaway trial, Hickory’s is now planning on making the offer permanent at all its sites. In communities like theirs, not covered by Deliveroo and Uber Eats, there is underserved demand.

Redesigning cities

It’s already clear that the recovery will be uneven. Research by the Local Data Company shows London footfall levels were down 75% compared with the weekend before lockdown against an average across other English regions of 40%. Even within London, there will be disparities. London villages will recover quickest as the reticence to use public transport will linger. They will benefit from a larger catchment for delivery and takeaway, as well as being less reliant on the tourist pound.

However, cities will recover and do so by radically changing how people engage with them. Local councils are already thinking and acting creatively, enacting those changes that would have taken years without Covid. 

There has been a loosening of the rules around outdoor eating, making al fresco easier. Restaurants are spilling out onto the street. Soho Estates is leading a campaign to pedestrianise the area. Sadiq Khan has already announced that some of the most important arteries in London will be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists. Our cities will quickly become more European in feel.

And change is happening nationwide. In Manchester, parts of the Northern Quarter and Deansgate are being pedestrianised while the Liverpool Without Borders project is reimagining the city’s outdoor spaces.

Storms don’t last forever

We have been growing hospitality brands for 35 years. Of all the consumer sectors we invest in, it’s always been the most collegiate. We have seen this come to the fore even more over the last few months. It’s this attitude that will drive the renaissance.

A unified front has led to the Government finally acting. It has already announced no business rates for a year, a jobs retention bonus, a VAT of just 5% for the next six months and, most radically, a 50% discount (up to £10) for each person eating out Monday to Wednesday. A timely and necessary boost.

We see a bright future. From a consumer perspective, there is an even greater desire to share stories with others over a drink (we need to do some exciting things outside the home first) and eat great food. This will be an opportunity for challenger brands, less burdened by legacy debt and unwieldly estates, to emerge stronger.

They will steer away from the defunct cookie-cutter approaches that have been the growth models of the past. Crispin Tweddell, who founded Pitcher & Piano after establishing Piper, has always railed against the word ‘rollout’ and rightfully so. Growing a restaurant or bar brand is about understanding and tailoring the offer to the specific needs of each local community.

Less competition, lower rents on shorter leases, a lack of landlord obsession over covenants, alongside a deluge of people that have been made redundant but who love working in hospitality, will all make an intriguing concoction that will lead to the emergence of a new breed of ever more innovative brands.

All three of our partner brands, Turtle Bay, Hickory’s and Flat Iron, were founded in the years post the 2008-9 downturn. As was Pitcher & Piano disrupting the market in the years following the recession in the early 80s. To all those starting and growing brands now, as they say in the islands, ‘storms don’t last forever’.