We talk to top chefs and restaurateurs about how they are dealing with the strange ‘new normal’. Rick Stein restaurants’ Jack and Charlie Stein talk about the relief of seeing cutsomers again and why the industry needs to go back to basics.
Who are you and what do you do?
Jack Stein: I’m chef director across the Rick Stein restaurants, and middle son of Rick.
Charlie Stein: I’m director of wine and drinks across the restaurants and youngest son of Rick.
How has coronavirus affected your business over the last four months?
Jack: It was huge – we have had practically zero income. Luckily furlough has helped immensely as our cash flow modelling was not looking at all good before. We also had to close a couple of sites and restructure to secure further financing from the bank. We are still waiting on our specialist insurance policy which is taking a long time.
When were you able to open back up and how did you celebrate?
Charlie: The restaurants were opened on the 4 July as per the government’s guidelines. I went into all the restaurants that evening and it was such a surreal experience seeing people enjoy themselves in a room together. Seeing boarded-up restaurants with the lights off was so depressing and then suddenly having people there enjoying themselves was quite overwhelming. Mum and I had a nice glass of wine and called our teams and thanked them for getting us open again.
Jack: Our first weekend was really strong, and bookings are looking good for summer so I was in the kitchens and had a beer after service.
How are you managing the ongoing effects of the virus?
Jack: We have a comprehensive operating manual which includes face masks for all chefs and waiters who can’t socially distance, larger spacing for tables, and one way systems. We have asked guests to eat at staggered times and our rooms have incredibly detailed cleaning procedures.
How have you kept sane when the restaurant was closed?
Jack: I’ve been cognitively busier than ever, working on bank loans, insurance and our online cook boxes. Being at home with my two young children in Cornwall with the fantastic weather has helped. We also launched a virtual food festival, which was fantastic fun.
What did you miss most when the London dining scene was shut down?
Charlie: The last meal I had just before the lockdown was at Noble Rot. Everyone was talking about Coronavirus and anxiety was high, with people glued to BBC News. But for those two hours me and a friend just talked and forgot about what was going on around us. A good London restaurant can do that, it can create a feeling of comfort through great service, food, wine, and atmosphere. I missed that comfort and the buzz of a slightly boozy Friday lunch in London.
Where was the first place you went when lockdown was eased?
Charlie: I live in London and came straight to Cornwall after the restrictions were lifted. I ate in our Seafood restaurant to get a feel for what it was like for our guests. I had Dover Sole and bottle of Chablis 1er Cru and just watched fellow guests enjoying their first post lockdown meals. I was proud they had chosen us for that first experience. I’m also a big pub-goer so I snuck into the London Inn afterwards and had my first pint in a pub – it was without a doubt the best pint I’ve ever had. My ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment.
Do you think things will go back to ‘normal’?
Charlie: The restaurant industry is going to have fewer restaurants in it, which come as a surprise to no one. For the restaurants that survive, I think there will be a ‘back to basics’ mentality, with people concentrating on doing things right. Food, quality, service. This whole affair has educated the public on the fragile economy of restaurants and I hope the conversations around no-shows and service charge will lead to positive changes.
Are there any silver linings to this awful few months?
Charlie: Like many other restaurants, we turned to meal kits – ‘Stein’s at home’ – and online wine sales, which have been a real success for us. We are looking to expand these. We also developed an app in lockdown for ordering in our fish and chip shops and pub, and that has been hugely successful, limiting contact time with our staff. But the biggest silver lining was how we worked as a family, we are much better together and have a clear idea of exactly how we want this business to be run.