One of the most impacted sectors of the economy during the lockdown has been hospitality, and Brighton’s restaurant scene is no exception. Nick Mosley talks to Aoife Sweeney of La Choza Mexican restaurant to discover how the past weeks have impacted on her business and what the future may hold for the restaurant industry.
When it opened eight years ago, La Choza was very much part of the food revolution that was taking hold of the city. An independent eatery with a strong visual identity, an accessible price point and an engaging dining environment. But, perhaps most importantly, friends and business partners Aoife Sweeney and Annie Gelpy created a menu that knew exactly what is was and where it came from: authentic Mexican street food made from quality produce by people who genuinely enjoyed and understood the cuisine.
As with any small restaurant business, the duo have had their past challenges but they embraced expansion and now own two sites in the city; their original premises in Gloucester Road and also a two-floored venue on Western Road. However – like colleagues across the hospitably industry – they could never have envisaged the havoc that Covid-19 would wreak on their business, even as before the UK lockdown news of the virus in Asia began to fill the headlines in Europe.
“When news of the virus hit, restaurants were totally empty. During the weeks up to lockdown we saw a devastating drop in numbers”, said Aoife. “The Brighton Restaurant Association of local independents were in constant contact. It was an extremely stressful time. We were all questioning if it was morally right to be open, or if it would be commercially viable to continue trading for takeaway only”.
Moral uncertainty ended overnight for the hospitality sector across the UK when the government announced a comprehensive lockdown in March. Across the sector there was not only an economic shock, but also a deep sense of personal shock as both restaurateurs and their employees faced the unknown.
“We closed for a week”, said Aoife. “We reopened with staff who were happy to be there with us and who had got over the initial panic of the shutdown”.
With bars and restaurants closed until some unknown future date, there has been some help from central government in terms of furloughing staff and support on business rates however, restaurant owners – whose businesses already run on incredibly tight margins – have had to make some hard decisions.
“Most of our team have been furloughed until we reopen”, said Aoife. “But the long-term impact of this is an unknown at the moment. We have had little help in way of rent relief. Financially we are concerned”.
In order to keep an income stream, like many food businesses, they have expanded their takeaway and delivery offering which was an already established and healthy part of the business. That still meant making hard decisions in terms of which premises to keep open and the practicality of the kitchen spaces.
“To reduce operating costs, we had to close our Gloucester Road restaurant, our little mothership”, said Aoife.
“We are now running from Western Road as the kitchen is much larger and we can run with two teams of three chefs to minimise contact and more easily maintain physical distancing at work. We are currently only doing evening deliveries and contactless pick-ups and this has been quite busy, which is great as some income is better than none and hopefully will help to keep our heads above water”.
Restaurants are just part of the chain that brings our food from farm to fork, including growers, manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and distributors. A chink in that chain – whether the end retailer is a restaurant or a supermarket – means the whole pack of cards can come tumbling down.
“During the first week of the lockdown suppliers were freaking out”, said Aoife. “In London at the main wholesale markets fights were breaking out, prices soared and produce was being stockpiled, which certainly didn't help”.
With businesses concerned about cashflow, hard cash – rather than cards – became king.
“Overnight – without warning – we were expected to have cash on delivery”, said Aoife. “Everybody was panicking. Things have settled down now, but prices remain high so we have been adapting our menu weekly”.
Even though their business has taken a major hit from the lockdown, La Choza have joined with a number of other restaurants across the city to support the Brighton and Hove NHS food bank charity which supplies meals to essential workers in hospitals.
“We now have a weekly delivery to the high dependency ward at the Royal Sussex County hospital on a Thursday evening”, said Aoife. “This brings a smile to our faces knowing that good nutritious food is being delivered to those on the frontline of this crisis”.
With no end in sight to the lockdown, restaurant owners face many of the same challenges of business owners large and small across the economy. However, there will be unique challenges for hospitality when the lockdown is relaxed, notwithstanding that it will likely be one of the last sectors to be released and will still struggle with fulfilling social distancing rules.
In ramping up a restaurant’s operations again, will owners be able to re-engaged trained staff or will those workers have moved to other jobs? With social distancing rules will venues be able to sustain themselves financially with perhaps half of their regular number of seats and tables? Can social distancing work for staff in a confined kitchen area? Will supply chains still be intact to source ingredients? Will consumers still want to dine out or will they change their behaviour patterns through lack of disposable income and a fear of social interaction in closed environments? Indeed, will many consumers have taught themselves how to cook at home?
“Unfortunately, I'm sure a lot of businesses will not survive”, said Aoife. “We aim to reopen, but who knows when and if we can seat the number of diners we need to survive ourselves”.
This month’s Centre for Cities research report into the economic reliance of towns and cities across the UK makes uncomfortable reading for both Brighton and surrounding Sussex. The top three economic sectors that will be affected are identified as aviation, hospitality and tourism, with Crawley and the Gatwick area projected to be the most significantly negatively impacted part of the UK.
Despite the storm clouds hanging over hospitality in the city, Aoife remains optimistic for the future.
“I'd like to think that Brighton will bounce back to its fabulous self and that we’ll continue to have a buzzing restaurant scene with local independents thriving. My fingers are crossed that we survive this”.
One thing is certain. The food and drink scene of Brighton and Hove will never be the same again.