Is now a good time to open a new restaurant?
The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for the hospitality industry and the delay to the June 21 unlocking has led to more uncertainty. The FT's Daniel Garrahan and food critic Tim Hayward meet Harts Group, the business behind Soho institution Quo Vadis and tapas chain Barrafina, as it opens a new Soho branch of its El Pastor taquerias
Produced by Daniel Garrahan and Tim Hayward. Filmed by Carlos Homer and Kyri Evangelou
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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.
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.
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 pedestrian 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 help 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.
Cold presses on.
Keep calm and keep dining outside in the freezing cold.
Keep calm and I just said, whatever happens.
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.
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?
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.
It's going to be good to be out.
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 it's a price worth paying.
When I put my restaurateur's hat back on, I think that's a great idea personally.