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Biting back: Top restauranteurs discuss the return of eating out

Luxury & Lifestyle 20-05-2021

Restaurants in England are throwing open their doors once again, ready to operate in a different world than before lockdown. There has been little guidance and support on how to deal with the uncertainty created by the international pandemic, but they continue to persevere, using their talents and expertise to thrive in the industry.

As restaurants try their best to stir up business, we ask three leaders in the industry about their feelings on the return of eating out – inside.

Atul Kochhar

The Michelin-starred chef and TV personality launched Kanishka in 2019, and debuted second Marlow venue, Vaasu in July 2020.

“The pandemic remains an ongoing threat to our industry but as a team we are resilient and innovative,” says Atul. “We have been listening to our customers to deliver what will help them during the lockdown.

The businesses have continued to explore all the resources that they have. This has meant focussing their efforts on the takeaway concept so that diners have still been able to treat themselves at home.

“Takeaway has really taken off from our restaurants because we had to re-create our offering to survive lockdown. This aspect of the business will continue to be a focus as our customers now expect us to deliver gourmet excitement to them at home as well as in our restaurants.”

Atul says that he has used the time to reimagine his own goals – both personally and professionally.  “Never has it been more important to show innovation in the restaurant industry,” he says. “As a team we are constantly exploring ways to be inventive – with food and in business.

He says that his team is thrilled to be able to take bookings for restaurants open up for indoor dining again.  “We can’t wait to invite diners back to rediscover our dining experiences, and we hope that people will be looking forward to celebrations of all sizes.  We can host private parties and special occasion dinners that keep everyone safe – and that’s what we want our customers to know.  If they bring family and friends, we’ll bring the culinary excellence. It’s clear that so many people have been missing occasions to share in dining together.  Hopefully, we can open our doors soon and start to re-build our industry.”

Ungelie Patel

Richmond’s Asian tapas style restaurant, UNA was just a year old when the lockdown forced it to close. Owner of three businesses, Ungelie tells us she felt ‘devastated’ to have to shut the restaurant. “We were literally doing our one-year review,” she said. “We knew we were on the right track, and our second year was really important for us. Having to shut was tough to accept as we’d put in so much hard work and energy to make it a success in its first year, and we were not able to go into the second year.”

Though Ungelie initially attempted to keep UNA open for takeaways, she soon decided to close completely. “Being a new restaurant we hadn’t developed a large enough takeaway audience yet. So it didn’t make sense to bring staff in and put them at risk.  I just wanted everyone to stay safe.”

Preparing to re-open, Ungelie has reduced the covers for each sitting, spreading people out as much as possible. “We want our customers to feel comfortable and be safe. We’ve spread out the tables and stools at the bar as much as possible. And of course, we will continue with the safety measures introduced last year—with PPE, sanitisers, etc.”

Ungelie admits she has mixed feelings about re-opening. “I’m really looking forward to opening back up and giving it my all, but at the same time, I’m quite nervous and anxious about how it will be. People are reserving and local customers are reaching out to offer support which makes me feel good and gives me hope.”

Neal Khanna

Neal is an owner of London’s Farzi Café, The Clay Oven, and Denham Grove Hotel.

Farzi Café opened in Jan 2019. We were only operating which was a shame,” says Neal. “We spent a lot of time and money to develop the concept and get it to a really good level and even got into the Michelin guide in our first year. Usually Central London restaurants need 1-1.5 years to stabilize and we were just about to see that when Covid hit.”

Farzi Café was originally open seven days a week, lunch-dinner operation, but in 12 months they’ve only been open four and a half months. “Being based in Haymarket, with offices shut, it was difficult. The government kept increasing the restrictions and it was like a stranglehold. I’d have preferred at that stage if they’d have locked us down because we were losing more money following all the guidelines.

“In all our places, we’ve hardly made any redundancies. We decided to keep all of our staff. They’ve been loyal, and we want to support them. But didn’t want to go through a recruitment drive to find skilled staff.”

Neal decided to launch an al-fresco restaurant at Denham Grove, called Ponzu when lockdown measures eased in April.

“A new restaurant at the hotel was always in the pipeline, but within weeks, we decided on a pop up, and decided on the name, concept and a Pan-Asian menu, without any real marketing.”

Ponzu has been hugely busy, and inundated with bookings for tables in the covered terraced area and stylish outdoor pods.

“People are coming from the local area and spending more than they normally would. It’s a pop up, but it looks like the concept is going to work. The plan is to keep this going and eventually open up a proper restaurant at the hotel and evolve the concept.”

Portrait photographs of Ungelie Patel and Neal Khanna by Rory. B Gullan

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