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  • The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic

  • for the hospitality industry.

  • But after months in hibernation restaurants are back, and so

  • are we.

  • How's it going, sir?

  • How are you?

  • Good to see you.

  • I'm Tim Hayward.

  • I'm a restaurateur, cook and food critic,

  • and I spent a month in hospital with a terrifying bout

  • of Covid.

  • But now I'm back in full effect, and I'm raring

  • to get back to restaurants.

  • I'm Dan Garrahan.

  • I'm a Financial Times journalist,

  • and I spent most of lockdown dreaming

  • about eating out again.

  • Today we've come to Soho to speak to Harts Group.

  • It's the family business behind the Soho institution Quo Vadis.

  • They also run Barrafina, a small chain of tapas bars,

  • and the taco joint El Pastor.

  • We want to find out how the group's restaurants have

  • coped with the pandemic, and what the future holds.

  • We're here in Soho, home in normal times

  • to some of London's best restaurants,

  • but of course, these aren't normal times.

  • Nope, nope, but it is good to be back, isn't it?

  • It's great to be back.

  • It's great to see you looking so well.

  • Thank you.

  • How are you feeling?

  • Is it good to be back?

  • Is it good to be back out there?

  • I'm really keen to get back into it all.

  • I'm also a bit nervous.

  • I don't know where it's going.

  • But at the same time there's an opportunity, isn't there?

  • There's an opportunity out there for businesses like this.

  • We've come to Quo Vadis here today in the centre of Soho.

  • They've just opened a new restaurant.

  • The sort of grand old lady of Soho.

  • It's an institution.

  • It's been here for as long as anybody can remember,

  • and it's bouncing back again.

  • I haven't been to Soho in over a year,

  • and I do wonder as people continue

  • to work flexibly, more from home, particularly on Fridays.

  • Friday seems to be the day that a lot of people

  • would have worked from home.

  • The pre-theatre crowd, that's gone.

  • Is it ever going to return to the way it was?

  • I mean, I hope it will, but there's still

  • so much uncertainty.

  • Don't let anybody over here hear me saying this,

  • but I hope it doesn't come back like it was.

  • Maybe a little less crowded, maybe a little bit more

  • concerted effort on customer satisfaction.

  • I think prices will have to go up.

  • But then, they were too low before.

  • There could be a lot of interesting stuff going on.

  • I remember being here for the last couple of days

  • before the first lockdown, and you guys

  • were all running in and out, and your faces were white.

  • Cash was tight.

  • Going to be tight anyway without Covid.

  • When you open you get this great cash benefit.

  • But when you close you've got lots of outstanding creditors

  • around.

  • Hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles.

  • Exactly.

  • What a year!

  • From shock and disbelief and dismay,

  • suddenly overnight we're doing home deliveries.

  • How did that go?

  • So it was like a DIY kit with some home assembly involved

  • and people can recreate the food of the restaurant?

  • It was as much work as actually getting the restaurant

  • kitchen going up.

  • The decision was made to not continue through that.

  • What you really want to do is encourage folks back

  • to the West End.

  • It had a real rough ride.

  • Yeah, the pedestrianisation of Soho last

  • year, which was a huge success and it really

  • helped some of these restaurants get through the period.

  • Oh, my God, it was amazing.

  • But not helped this year with the weather

  • that we just had in May, I presume.

  • The outside seating for many was an absolute godsend.

  • Yeah.

  • Even this year with the weather?

  • Even with weather, it was helping.

  • People were like wrapping up in blankets and things like that.

  • I mean cold passes on.

  • Keep calm and keep dining outside in the freezing cold.

  • Listen, whatever hat fits

  • Coming out of it now how do you think things have changed?

  • Central London, which has been having a harder

  • time than the suburbs have been, as people

  • know, incredibly busy as people stay at home,

  • not coming into work.

  • But funnily enough, when we have been able to open in central

  • London we're lucky they are some of the people's favourite

  • restaurants and people are willing to make the journey

  • to come and eat in their favourite restaurants.

  • The working week has changed a bit,

  • so Monday, which was already a bit of a rubbish day anyway,

  • is now almost a complete write-off

  • as everybody seems to work from home on a Monday now.

  • Talk me through some of the biggest challenges

  • you guys have faced?

  • Things like the supply chain, has that been resilient?

  • We have tremendously been able to come back

  • to an intact supplier list and an intact kitchen team,

  • and front of house.

  • The whole staff's returned.

  • And we did have to lose a few chefs and make them redundant,

  • which was a heartbreak.

  • But support for the restaurant business

  • through the whole thing has just been unbelievable.

  • I seem to remember feeling very much before this actually bit,

  • we were getting into a stage of being a little bit

  • unsustainable.

  • A bit bloated post 2008.

  • There was no appetite for anyone to increase their menu prices.

  • But meanwhile, costs had been gradually going up.

  • Yes, and we got to do something about that.

  • And sooner or later, there was going to be an,

  • and there probably still needs to be a bit

  • of a day of reckoning on that.

  • Hopefully, you're in a premium enough sector of the market,

  • your clientele won't mind paying a bit more

  • for what they're getting.

  • Yeah.

  • But if you're competing on price then that's

  • suddenly quite a scary situation to be in.

  • But we've got whatever it is, 10 restaurants and 350 staff,

  • so it's not a mamma and pappa company,

  • but the shareholders are our family,

  • and the original shareholders have been here for 20 years.

  • There's about five of us.

  • That must make you a pretty nimble crew.

  • Back in sort of October, November last year,

  • if you were brave enough, there were some very, very good deals

  • to be had out there in terms of property,

  • as long as we were still alive and kicking.

  • We open today actually our new El Pastor in Soho.

  • There's still so much uncertainty around.

  • Is it a brave move do you think opening a new restaurant now?

  • I think on the face of it, it's brave.

  • It could also be the most enormous opportunity.

  • Rental prices will be driven down, attitudes to eating out

  • will be shaken up.

  • There's a lot of pent-up demand.

  • People definitely want to continue eating at restaurants,

  • and maybe the conditions for opening a restaurant

  • now coming out of this might be better than they

  • were going into the pandemic.

  • Are you a betting man?

  • Sometimes.

  • Would you put money on something like a restaurant?

  • If I had it, if I had enough maybe.

  • Mad to do that.

  • It's a punt even in normal times, right?

  • Yeah.

  • At the very, very best of times, the restaurant industry

  • is so utterly crazy, you have no idea.

  • Is it a good time to be opening a new restaurant?

  • We really hope it is a very good time to be opening a new place.

  • There were two options.

  • One was that the restaurants full stop wouldn't

  • be able to survive the pandemic, and that was

  • one very plausible option.

  • Signing deals wasn't going to have an impact on

  • whether or not we survived.

  • We were walking around here and there wasn't a single person.

  • You know, today, there's hundreds of people walking down

  • Brewer Street.

  • It feels very different, isn't it?

  • Feels like this place has come back to life almost.

  • I mean, it has completely come back to life now,

  • and it is going to get busier.

  • There's a bit of carpe dieming going on.

  • Landlords were understandably much more nervous

  • about central London.

  • We don't know what the future looks like.

  • There's a kind of screw it, we might as well, that almost

  • liberates the creativity in you to do this.

  • It's a considered screw it.

  • What we were doing was haemorrhaging money, trying

  • desperately to stay afloat.

  • A site this size in shell would have cost us roughly two

  • and half million pounds to do.

  • And we looked at it as a £600,000 project.

  • There's something inherently creative about putting yourself

  • in that kind of scenario and having to entirely rethink

  • the way that you go about the design process,

  • the build process.

  • You know, far fewer consultants.

  • Fewer consultants, that can't be a bad thing surely.

  • We've put in a lot of elbow grease

  • to make this place what it is.

  • I've got the paint marks all over my jeans

  • from painting the front of the door.

  • It has been said that one of the positives out of this

  • will be better treatment of staff, better hours, better

  • pay.

  • We, over the past 18 months I'm sure have

  • been kind of chastened.

  • And one of the net effects of that

  • is that we listen a bit more carefully.

  • Oh, that's lovely to hear.

  • The last 15 months or so of this pandemic

  • has been brutal for the hospitality sector.

  • So many restaurants have been decimated.

  • It strikes me that the Hart Group

  • are doing better than most.

  • They're the size that they've got money

  • to protect themselves, and also take some risks.

  • We can imagine there have been one or two things that

  • might have gone wrong in there.

  • I mean, this hasn't been easy for anybody.

  • It's been grim.

  • But the restaurant we were in today,

  • El Pastor, the new opening, I don't think there's any way,

  • my radar tells me that place is going to be great fun.

  • Yeah. It's going to be good to be at.

  • A crisis can present an opportunity,

  • and I got the exact same feeling about that place.

  • It's a classic established old Soho venue,

  • and it feels like it has a positive future ahead of it.

  • And yet, somehow they needed the catalyst of this

  • to give them permission, or arguably forced them

  • into creative thought and risk taking.

  • This is London, this is Soho, it's a destination.

  • People will return here.

  • There are other parts of the capital where

  • opening a restaurant like this would be much more

  • challenging, right?

  • I think there's been some positive changes in terms

  • of the way staff are treated, the way businesses

  • are run for efficiency.

  • Rent prices seem to have been tweaked

  • in ways that might be a bit more healthy, a bit more

  • sustainable.

  • So we could come out of it in a better way than we went in.

  • It may be that consumers end up paying

  • a bit more for their dinner, but it could be

  • that's a price worth paying

  • When I put my restaurateur's hat back on,

  • I think that's a great idea personally.

The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic

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