“The news still hasn’t sunk in – I think I’m in shock,” says chef Will Devlin. “We played the rules during the last lockdown; we made sure our guests were safe and did the training. Why wasn’t that taken into consideration?”
The chef-owner of The Small Holding in Kilndown, near Cranbrook in Kent, describes the dire situation for his restaurant, which will remain closed when the whole of Kent (along with Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester) enters Tier 3 tomorrow.
To allow for social distancing, the dining room's 30 covers have already been cut to just 16; even when it was open for business this autumn, the spend on each table was £20 less on average. The small team, which suffered redundancies in the first lockdown, was relying on a second wind of guests to buffer them through the “dead months” of January and February.
When it was confirmed that the county would be placed into Tier 3 – meaning restaurants and pubs must remain closed except for takeaway – the news came as a crushing blow. Devlin and his team of chefs have been growing winter produce on their one-acre farmland opposite the kitchen since the start of summer.
"We have thousands of sprouts, artichokes, and root vegetables ready to go," he says. "I was looking at a row of kohlrabi radishes this morning, thinking, ‘I need to find more pickling jars but the larder is full.’ Letting it go to waste would break my heart." But, he goes on, "this isn’t just about us. There is a knock-on effect for our suppliers, most of which are small independent businesses."
With his restaurant closed from April to mid-July, the tasting menu (usually £75 for dinner or £55 at lunch) wasn't easy to convert to an online service. “It was difficult for us, but we switched," he says. "We offered barbecue boxes, hampers and wine deliveries."
The restaurant also successfully applied for the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund of £10,000. “I’m so thankful for the grant. I was able to pay the outstanding bills. I know many pub and restaurant owners that kept the money as a safeguard, but I didn’t think it was right to leave our small suppliers in the lurch.”
Since then, Devlin and his team have been surviving on whatever they can “scrape together” – the sales from online hampers and takeaways. He has also teamed up with Kent farmer Tom Cunningham from The Pure Meat Company to create a Christmas box in an effort to use up some of the 200 turkeys that the restaurant reserved for the festive season.
“We don’t have an investor, so the money flowing into the restaurant is my own," he explains. "There is a £2,000 grant that is available once we’re shut for 28 days. My rent is £2,500." The restaurant's LPG power supply is also paid in £500 instalments; if Devlin is sorting through bookings or sending emails, he does so in the dark, with a coat on. “I don’t know when money is next coming in," he says. "How long will this go on for?"
It is a fate shared by James Spencer, owner of The Hopbine about eight miles north of The Small Holding, in Matfield, near Royal Tunbridge Wells. “At the moment, my top priority is campaigning for more support from the government," says Spencer. "It’s imperative that our part of Kent is treated differently to the other side of the county. Tier 1 is viable. I can only speculate about Tier 2, but Tier 3 is not.”
As the owner of a pub in a small hamlet, Spencer feels keenly for his regular customers; the “old boys”, otherwise isolated, who are locked in at home. “They used to meet up in groups to have a beer and a chat. One of them drove past, rolled down the window, and asked if we were still doing Christmas dinner. He’s bored and lonely. Pubs are about much more than alcohol, they’re part of our heritage.”
Like Devlin, Spencer had to adapt in the first and second lockdowns. Offering gift cards, ‘dough it yourself’ pizza kits and Sunday lunch delivery, the orders were just enough to keep his team afloat; however, during the second lockdown, when beauty salons, schools and retail shops reopen to the public, he noticed a slump in sales.
"We’re thankful for every order we get, but we’re concerned about the lack of trade. In December we make the money to carry us through the winter months." There were also unexpected costs to the business. In normal times, the pub would have one member of bar staff to handle orders. But with the new rules for table service in place, Spencer had to increase the hours of part-time bar staff by 89 per cent in the summer.
"Right now, we’re surviving on loans,” he says. “It’s so demoralising when I so desperately want to be out of debt." The majority of the team, which Spencer is adamant to keep on, is now on flexi-furlough. They are able to come in and help with the meal kits and lunch deliveries. "I’m eating into my savings now. I’ve had to borrow £20,000, most of which I hope I don’t use, just in case of a worst case scenario."
Spencer and Devlin both note that their local hospitality Whatsapp group is full of the same stories. "Everyone is in shock, some are devastated,” says Spencer. "A good friend of mine has written a letter to Rishi Sunak, asking for more support. Our local MP Greg Clark is also in touch. He’s on our side."
One Kent restaurant owner, James Thomas of the Little Ships Restaurant & Cafe in Ramsgate, is shocked at the level of negligence from the government but remains cautiously optimistic. "When you send a child to its bedroom, you have to feed it. You can’t just let it starve," he says. "If you're going to shut a restaurant down because of a pandemic, you have to support it. To be honest, I wasn't surprised that we went into Tier 3. I understand that these things get looked at every two weeks, so we're focusing on that."
During the first and second lockdown, the restaurant offered takeaway and picnic hampers, but the sales are not enough to keep the restaurant in the clear. Operators like Little Ships rely on Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter to pull them through the slower months. "All these dates have little spikes for us. They give us the wind in our sails. The festive season is essential, so the decision is devastating."
Thomas believes that restaurants and pubs being so heavily licensed should have played a part in the government's decision. "We're a law-abiding industry. It's safer in many ways to be in an environment like ours. I feel as though we're being unfairly squashed."
Little Ships would normally cater for around 80 covers including an outdoor area. This has now been reduced to just 30. "We spent over £2,000 on training and PPE. We wanted to make it work!" Thomas applauded the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and would like to see a similar scheme once lockdown ends.
"There's a saying on the coast: 'you can't control the wind, but you can set your sails'. How on earth can we set our sails when we don't know what's going on? We're stuck in the harbour with no support. God forbid if we're in Tier 3 until spring. I'll have to think about letting people go."
Thomas, Devlin, and Spencer would all like to see more support for restaurants and pubs in their county.
"We're not asking for handouts," says Devlin. "We're hard-working people, but smaller pubs are absolutely on their knees. We just want something to help us through."
Gift vouchers are available for Little Ships, here. The restaurant is also offering takeaway.
The Christmas Box by The Small Holding is available for pre-order, from £200, here; its online shop sells some of its award-winning produce.
Find out more about the Hopbine's delivery service here.
To support your local pub or restaurant, look out for online deliveries and takeaways.