At this time of the year, I usually write about the best meals I have had over the previous 12 months. In 2020, I can summon up just five candidates: Sunda in Melbourne; Davies and Brook in London; SingleThread in Healdsburg, California; Maison Troisgros in Ouches, France; and Zoldering in Amsterdam.
That’s all the looking back I intend to do in this column. I want instead to look forward to next summer, when I hope enough people will have received a coronavirus vaccine for the world of hospitality to return to something approaching “normal”.
It will still be very different from the one we all knew as recently as February. Some favourite restaurants may simply not reopen. Long closure periods will have forced restaurateurs to reconsider their exposure; exigent landlords will provoke tenants to walk away; and the drains on cash flow will force many to sell up — if they can.
In the UK, the situation has been compounded by the timing of the second lockdown and subsequent restrictions. The run-up to Christmas and New Year is usually the busiest time for restaurateurs, and they expect their profits from this six-week period to keep their businesses buoyant until the clocks go forward in March.
Yet there has also been a certain optimism about the future more generally, particularly among my colleagues in the US. There are some who believe this new world of hospitality won’t just be different but far more exciting. Buildings occupied by the usual suspects, invariably bankrolled by venture capitalists, will surely become a thing of the past.
Landlords will have to take risks — or leave their properties vacant — and should, therefore, be more responsive to the independent sector. Lower rents will favour the smaller, more ambitious restaurateurs who have been priced out of many of the most attractive sites for the past 20 years.
However, I fear this new dawn may be some time in breaking. The fallout from the pandemic will still be felt next summer. That so many restaurants remain closed in New York, Paris, San Francisco and London does not augur well for the immediate future.
As Viewpoint Partners, accountants to many in the British hospitality industry, wrote in their recent report: “These are still choppy waters to navigate in smaller boats and we’ve been at sea a long time.”
And yet there remains room for hope. In my view, a restaurant’s success depends on its mastery of the three Cs. Conviviality, that magical combination of food, alcohol and service. Connectivity, a restaurant’s ability to act as a neutral space for people to meet. (As a restaurateur, I used to say that I would sacrifice the profit on all we were selling in return for a small commission on the deals concluded over lunch or dinner.) And finally the local Community, which has become important in the absence of customers travelling further afield. Master the three Cs and your restaurant should prosper.
So what would I like to see? Above all, more restaurants that are owned by individuals or small restaurant groups and bear the imprimatur of a talented chef and a welcoming restaurateur.
At the same time, I hope to see more properties offered on a turnover-only basis for the rent, whereby both tenant and landlord would share the risk. The restaurateur would not be liable for a fixed rent and there would be no more guarantees for the landlord. This is the most equitable way forward. I suspect the first major landlords to offer such attractive terms to restaurateurs will be among the earliest to turn around their ailing property portfolios.
Where could the capital come from to finance this new wave of small, independent and not-terribly-profitable restaurants in the UK and beyond?
Covid-19 has badly hurt the world’s wine and spirits producers as well as the hospitality industry. Many have pivoted to selling directly to personal clients but without making up for losses in sales to pubs, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Yet often these producers are part of large regional or national organisations that have huge budgets and plenty of incentive to see that hospitality flourishes worldwide. In short, restaurants need cash and these organisations have it.
Quite how it should flow from one to the other I am not yet clear. But if it did, it would make a very happy 2021 for restaurateurs — and their customers.
More articles from Nicholas at ft.com/lander
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