Running a Restaurant In a Pandemic Is Hard Enough. How Do You Manage Ten?
With restrictions lifted, how are restaurants able to cope with the pace of change? We spoke to three different founders as part of a three-part Q&A series about their businesses to understand how the pace of opening has affected them, and what they think the future holds for the hospitality industry. See previous instalments here.
It is easy to think that with the slow opening of the economy since May that there will be some semblance of ‘normal’; but while there is room for hope, restaurants aren’t out of the woods. As well as an evolving pandemic, an industry-wide staffing crisis, adjusted guest expectations and Brexit affecting everything from staffing to supply chains, a new set of challenges has replaced the old ones. Most are exhausted.
With restrictions lifted, how are restaurants able to cope with the pace? How do they manage to continue to innovate, react, and stay flexible, as the world still adjusts to the pandemic and other challenges? Is a ‘pivot’ a thing of the past, or are there more to come?
Known for superb burgers and cocktails, Patty & Bun is a restaurant brand that became a favourite during lockdowns with a DIY burger kit that offered their signature ‘Ari Gold’ and ‘Smokey Robinson’ originals, both as vegan and meat options. They also adjusted their business model across their multiple sites, and have now opened their restaurants again. We spoke to founder Joe Grossman about how the pressures of the last few months have been managed, and if it was possible to plan for the future.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did the opening up, on 17 May, affect your restaurants?
We are quite lucky in the fact that delivery is already a big part of the Patty makeup, so we had a lot of the sites open before May 17th. So, the transition into opening them in full effect was a lot easier than starting from ground zero, so to speak. Saying that, with all the challenges around staffing and general Covid protocols, with team members getting stuck back in their homelands or not wanting to rush back straight away, we graduated the full openings a little to ease the operational pressures.
The reality is that it’s still a very challenging time for all restaurants and having to combat daily isolation cases, makes things even harder!
You’ve been doing deliveries, meal kits and had merch on sale — how have you as a business been able to manage the different arms of the brand?
Teamwork. It’s that simple.
We have such an amazing team from top to bottom, and it’s in a crisis situation that you really find yourselves pulling together more than ever. We wanted early on to obviously engage with customers and ‘pivot’, so to speak, for the right reasons, with the DIY kits – which we deliver nationwide – was a silver lining from the past 18 months, but it took a huge team effort to put this in play so quickly and then essentially learn quick, on the job!
We also launched Sidechick [an offshoot offering roast chicken with sides] as a delivery concept early on, as it was something that we’d been working on for a while. We wanted to take advantage of our ability to launch something new and exciting with obviously a great delivery aspect. We have now launched the restaurant directly next door to Patty James Street, the mothership.
Fundamentally, you have to all be pulling in the same direction and this past [and current] 18 months has put unrelenting pressure on all aspects of the business. So if you’re not all working together, especially whilst trying new things and being proactive, it’ll feel even more like climbing Mount Everest in a blizzard!
Has the pace changed since May, with restaurants opening?
Naturally the DIY kits dropped off as people moved back to eating out. That craving to go to a restaurant and just experience a good time, true hospitality, that’s what we all love and have been yearning for.
We’re still a way off from what normality looks like again, so for now it’s just trying to take each day as it comes and look after the teams and guests the best we can — making sure they’re feeling safe and having a great time
How has the adjustment been?
Like everything now, nothing has been easy.
Pretty much everyone is back and off furlough but, as previously mentioned, the current isolation protocol is obviously causing a huge amount of musical chairs between teams and keeping sites open. Every day brings a new challenge, but you just have to stay positive and hopefully soon there will be a little more normality and rhythm to things.
“There’s not one part of the hospitality sector that’s not struggling with staffing”
Has pace changed across the different sites and what has having different locations meant to your business?
There’s still a huge spread in terms of business depending on the site location. There was definitely a great feel-good factor and pent-up release at the beginning. However, central London and the City, without the office workers, tourism, theatres and just the general anchor of coming central is still a fair way off compared to pre-Covid levels.
One has to have a real reason to come to central if you’re not working there, so there’s definitely still a strong gravitas to staying local and staying in your neighbourhood. We have eight sites in London with a real mix, and a site in Brighton which has been solid with all the staycation vibes.
How do you plan for the future?
All you can do is hope at this stage, nothing is certain, so you simply need to be malleable, plan the best you can but be able to adapt at a moment’s notice almost!
The general feeling is that come mid-September, after summer, restrictions hopefully will be a thing truly of the past and fingers crossed no more lockdowns etcetera, so that we can find more of a constant pace, which will allow us to plan for the future more accordingly.
The mental and emotional toil of this year, in the restaurant industry has been consistent as the need to always be problem solving – can this intensity continue?
Good question! Yes, it’s been a very trying year for all involved. At no moment can you simply switch off, there’s simply too much going on constantly. Luckily, we like to stay busy and keep pushing… however, it definitely does have its toll.
We’re just trying to now get some form of balance and make sure people are trying to get some much needed and deserved breaks, so they can recharge and try and switch off a little, but it’s not easy. A good meal out and few glasses of vino, definitely helps take the edge off!
The hospitality industry has proven to be so resilient, creative, and positive throughout this whole ordeal and I’m sure it will continue in this vein. This positive and creative energy keeps you wanting to push and know that hopefully there’s more positive days on the horizon.
There’s currently a much talked about staffing crisis, how has that affected you?
It’s clear for all to see that there’s not one part of the hospitality sector that’s not struggling with staffing. Everyone is vying for staff from a smaller pool of people as people haven’t returned to London or the UK, or they’ve moved into different career paths. The restaurant industry is hard, everyone knows that, but equally it’s the most amazing industry full of creativity, energy, and great people. We just have to continue to offer the best working environment we possibly can, best culture and pay, which we’re always trying to push the bar on.
Anna Sulan Masing is a London-based writer and academic, and a co-founder of Sourced Journeys and Cheese Magazine. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.
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