With a mid-April relaxation of restrictions approaching quickly, many in London’s hospitality industry are treating the opportunity to reopen for outdoor dining with cautious optimism. As part of an ongoing series exploring the experiences and perspectives of restaurant workers in the wake of COVID and beyond, we are sharing their stories from the front lines.
Alex Hely Hutchinson, founder of Stoney Street in Borough Market and 26 Grains in Covent Garden, built her restaurants on a foundation of honest, everyday cooking with a focus on heritage grains and seasonality. While forced to close as with so many others during the year’s lockdowns, Hely-Hutchinson and her team quickly shifted to takeaway and delivery, an online shop offering elegant tableware and culinary esoterica, and packages put together for occasions with painstaking care and attention to detail.
We caught up with Hely-Hutchinson to talk about Stoney Street after the April relaxations had been announced, as she reflected on the lessons of the past year, the importance of political representation for the hospitality industry, and Stoney Street’s ability to roll with the punches and support themselves and others. Her words follow:
It’s important to highlight the difficulties of the last year, to know the issues and all the things we have done to change and to adapt. Even if we look to the positives and appreciate the help that we have had, it has felt like the hospitality industry has been set aside.
We closed in March last year, with the lockdown, thinking we would open again in April. We chose to do takeaway last spring and were able to continue making food close to our ethos and identity. But of course, that was a huge change from being a restaurant.
To be honest, I can’t believe how well restaurants have been able to do, to be so malleable. I am in awe of the industry. I think something that might not be realised is that restaurants operate as part of a huge economy – from window cleaners to producers, it is such a big chain.
When we opened again in summer, we had to re-adjust. Borough has been open the whole time – as it should be, there are so many great traders there – but it was a difficult space to operate as a takeaway. The space wasn’t set to support that.
We are really lucky at Stoney Street that we have outdoor space — but of course, that does come at a cost as we have to invest in making that space useable. On the whole, our landlords have worked with us, and Borough are helping with putting up an awning. A lot of other places – our friends – don’t have that, and some won’t be able to survive without some kind of assistance.
“I can’t believe how well restaurants have been able to do, to be so malleable. I am in awe of the industry.”
During the periods when restaurants were open, this was particularly challenging at Stoney St [ed note: the space in and around Borough was exceptionally busy]. We sold alcohol — that was a no-brainer for us — but it was a bit crazy.
I don’t blame anyone — people understandably wanted to be out enjoying the time, but the rules or guidance weren’t very clear, and we were left to make up our own rules. For example, at one point we decided to only serve a group of four or more, only once, to help manage the situation. But also, there was a real understanding amongst people – customers were happy to wait for service. It was new to them, as it was to us.
It would be good to have more people, in political spaces, who know how restaurants work on the front line — logistics weren’t thought through during the summer and had an effect on our daily organisation.
There were many knock-on effects, such as having a substantial meal with alcohol; this meant that people met at the pub, ate too much, and then didn’t come for dinner at the restaurant. Having a voice in the conversation, letting decision makers understand what is going on, and having representation from our industry — that would be the biggest thing to help.
We have focused on survival, which has not just been about the financial, but also about the emotional side of things. When I first started the business, I was very naïve and thought as long as you paid the rent and took enough revenue you would be fine; but if you don’t have a team, you really don’t have anything.
During this time, communication has been key and trying to look after people. For those that could and wanted to, we have worked with charities, such as Cook-19, which provided food to frontline workers, and Chefs in Schools to produce food for schools. This has also allowed the two different teams – Stoney St and Neal’s Yard – to get to know each other.
“Having a voice in the conversation and having representation from our industry — that would be the biggest thing to help.”
In the autumn, we decided to host residencies as we were aware of chefs who had lost jobs, had to close their restaurants or fell through the gap and couldn’t be furloughed and weren’t freelance. We felt that we had a kitchen, therefore could offer some livelihood — either a salary or a profit share – to new and established chefs. We planned to start with Tom Cenci, but six weeks into that we had to close. He was great and adapted with a takeaway option, but we weren’t able to continue. We are looking to launch it again this year, and Tom will be back with us when we open up again this month.
The whole experience has made me realise how vulnerable restaurants are. During this time, we have involved the team in everything, discussing what we should do with them. It is from those discussions we come up with some of the online shop ideas. And I would like to continue the community, charity work going forward. We’re planning to open in April, if and when we are allowed.
In January, I really didn’t know where we would be, but since then, I have felt a sense of, ‘we can get through this together’. Hopefully the weather will be nice – that would be such a difference. People could travel to us on bikes! Sit outside! I think the biggest thing for guests to know, is if they do feel safe to come out, to make the booking or cancel with enough notice. We just need to know the numbers of guests so that we can plan our future.
Alex Hely-Hutchinson is the founder of Stoney Street in Borough Market and 26 Grains in Covent Garden. Support the restaurant via their online shop here. Stoney Street will reopen on 12th April for outdoor dining.
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