For restaurants, October was one of the most challenging months in a year that has affected every part of the industry. On top of social distancing measures and safety protocols, a 10 p.m. curfew for hospitality businesses was swiftly followed by a mandate preventing households from mixing indoors — including in restaurants. With lockdown 2.0 here for the foreseeable future — and a return to the unease of last spring — we caught up with Italian restaurant Ombra in Hackney, who were preparing to reopen their takeaway pastificio and deli, online shop, and wine delivery business.
As part of a series exploring the experiences and perspectives of restaurant workers in the wake of COVID and beyond, we’ve spoken to and shared a few of the stories from those on the frontline. Six months on, Ombra is comfortable with expecting the unexpected.
We caught up with Ombra chef-owner Mitshel Ibrahim, who shares his experience of the past month, what he’s learned from this year, and his temperature check on the city’s restaurant industry (read the first interviews here and here). His words follow:
The 10pm curfew was hitting everyone, so we couldn’t complain that much.
To counteract the early closure, we started serving dinner earlier at 5 p.m., while offering £10 off to continue Eat Out to Help Out without necessarily really calling it that — just rebranding it. But there’s only so many people that want to eat at 5 — or can even eat at 5 — because some people are still working until 6. There were a few people coming in, but it definitely wasn’t making up for the loss from having to send everyone out at 10 p.m.
We’re not really a place that tries to turn people out and do big volumes, so having to put pressure on people in terms of having to leave either for the first time or for the 10 p.m. cutoff was a new thing for us. We try to be relaxed and welcoming, and if someone is late, shit happens and then we try to work around it — as opposed to being like, ‘You need to be out in 45 minutes’. But we had to start doing it because, well, that’s just the way it is.
Unfortunately, at the time, the government hadn’t introduced new financial help — it seemed to be a kind of handicap of sorts. If you ask businesses to close at 10 p.m., you may or may not have the scientific background to back up your claims, but then you should introduce it together with financial help.
We closed two days after the announcement that households couldn’t mix in restaurants, so this didn’t affect us too much. Having a heated terrace is a big bonus for us. It’s an extra cost but everyone was new to it — it’s just about how you cope and react. There was also a new array of responsibilities that, say, a waiter was now expected to enforce. And obviously the customer wasn’t used to that, so it was a shock and a big change for both the customer and the waiter, and I don’t think either of them enjoyed it.
Small businesses are being squeezed while also having to pick up the slack for their communities, while also navigating the pandemic under minimal supporting evidence. At the beginning, I was patient towards anything the government was saying because we were all new to this — it’s not like there was something previous to learn from. But now it’s been six months and it doesn’t look like they’re learning from their mistakes.
There’s a big unhappiness in the hospitality industry. It’s the third biggest employer in the UK and brings in quite a lot of money in terms of taxes, revenue, and employment. But now, we’re just being left to deal and find our own way in these choppy waters; and on top of that, having to enforce all of the mask wearing, sanitisation, curfew, QR code checks and so on.
We closed for a couple of weeks in October. We had a phone call on a Tuesday that a customer who came to dinner the previous Friday or Saturday had tested positive, and they were doing the calls of the places that they had been recently. And then the next day, we had a plumbing nightmare from the offices upstairs. We closed and had everyone tested in the meantime. Before we got our results back — I think it was the Friday or Saturday — most of us got a notification on the NHS app about having to self-isolate because we had been in contact with someone who tested positive.
Because we don’t have two separate teams who would have been able to carry on, plus a combination of us being exhausted, a combination of us having done fairly well during the summer, I think it felt right to have a two-week break. Also, because the furlough scheme was still on until the end of October, it almost felt like it was meant to be.
We did the right thing — it was altruistic, but it was also comfortable to us. As soon as we posted, we received so many messages from waiters or chefs who work in restaurants who were in similar situations, but the restaurant had completely ignored the advice from the app. But again, I’m not sure how well this app is working because Ombra as a site hasn’t gotten any kind of alert or notification about the customer being sick, except for a customer physically phoning us.
The Government decided to spend so much money on developing the app, and instead of jumping on someone else’s European project — it also feels linked to the Brexit situation, in terms of trying to be independent — it turns out that it doesn’t work as it was meant to, and it cost people a lot of money. So, justifiably, we’re not quite happy.
And as a cherry on top — the free school meals for kids. Honestly, when you think about Italy in the ’90s, under the Berlusconi government, you think that the place you’re growing up is the absolute joke of Europe and maybe the world. But the things I’ve seen in the UK in the last six months, with people having to vote on whether kids should get free meals if they need it, it’s just otherworldly. I’m shocked that this is even a subject of discussion. I think people have lost the plot on what’s really important.
Ombra’s team will be fine. We’ve done it once, we’ll do it again. Got all the packaging left over from the first time, so we’re ready to go any time. We’re in the process of buying a Piaggio for deliveries so we can reach further postcodes. I just saw this morning that Lyle’s are starting to take bookings from the 4th or 5th of December, which made me think a lot. Let’s hope this lockdown doesn’t last as long as the first one. But at the same time, yesterday’s announcement from Rishi [Sunak, chancellor of the Exchequer] about extending furlough until March makes me think otherwise. Either way, we’ll be ready to function as a pastificio, online shop, or as your fourth-favourite Italian restaurant.
Mitshel Ibrahim is the head chef at Ombra in Hackney.
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