In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, a government-issued mandate shuttered the vast majority of restaurants, bars, and cafes, with a few switching to a limited takeaway and delivery service. As part of a four-part series hoping to explore the experiences and perspectives of restaurant workers in the immediate aftermath, we’ve spoken to and shared a few of the stories from those on the frontline.
Mitshel Ibrahim, head chef at Ombra in Hackney, has been one of the most notable success stories in pivoting from a restaurant to a deli, takeaway, and delivery service. Here, he shares his experience during this crisis, the response from the neighbourhood, and what his new normal looks like.
Being Italian, I kept a close eye on what was happening in Italy. And, you know, many papers were talking about how England was just — it wasn’t just a matter of “if” it was going to happen, it was a matter of “when.”
We’re an Italian restaurant, which is heavily focussed on pasta which we make on site. So when it all happened, it felt very natural to switch into a kind of pasta production lab, selling, of course, pasta, as well as a couple of simple sauces for people to assemble, some cold cuts and cheeses. We’re basically trying to recreate the Ombra experience at home. Some days we do a lasagne, which is a Sunday-only thing, to recreate a childhood memory tradition for Italians.
A friend of mine prepared an ordering form, which is the menu, and through a POS system, we managed to create a system where people could just order from Whatsapp. So it didn’t really take that much logistical effort to bring it all together.
People are just super supportive, incredibly so. We’ve been getting a lot of people that live across the road coming in. Even if they don’t eat pasta, they just come in and support us and buy our ceramics or a bottle of wine, just to show support. And I’m quite interested to see what’s afterwards in terms of whether these new faces keep coming. I think they will — maybe they never really thought about coming here, and now the ice is broken. The first day we did only one mile radius to delivery, but then we had too many requests from people living just outside the mile.
We’re doing delivery ourselves, so we could keep as many of our staff on the payroll. At the moment, there’s only three of us in the core team, and we’re pretty much working every day. A couple of members weren’t really happy about having to work, which is understandable; because of the furlough, they’d be able to get 80% [salary] by being sat on their bum, which is quite a sweet deal to be honest.
It’s a new routine, it’s exciting — I get to work where normally the tables are, so you have more sunlight coming through as opposed to being in the kitchen. It almost feels like a new place because everything is different. The things you have to do day-to-day are different. So today, we added to the menu a grocery box and we’re already sold out. It’s been hard to keep it fresh, which I think is what people need now that they’re stuck at home. We’re trying our best basically.
Maybe I’ll just open a kind-of [pastificio] Burro e Salvia type of place, just producing pasta by day, deli shop, and maybe be a P. Franco one-man-show type of thing at night. Maybe not every night of the week, because I’m actually really enjoying being at home every night and having dinner with my girlfriend. I’m having dinner at 8pm every day and reading in bed by 10pm. And it’s not just like a couple of days a week, it’s happening every day. I’m quite surprised by how much I’m enjoying this whole new side of Ombra.
Mitshel Ibrahim is the head chef at Ombra in Hackney.