After four long, miserable wintry months of confinement I guess we should have expected it. But the pandemic has turned us all into pessimists. After a year of lockdowns, reopenings, Covid restrictions and more lockdowns, I doubt that there were many hospitality industry CEOs predicting the joyful scenes of packed restaurant and pub terraces of the last month. But we saw it and then some.
As soon as we opened, the reservations came flooding in. Our plan was to reopen 20 terraces with a total of 1,100 seats, of which some 800 were bookable. Within no time we’d taken 50,000 bookings with several thousand more coming in every day. So we rushed around extending terraces, creating new ones and also decided to operate our restaurants all day rather than just for lunch and dinner.
By the end of the first week of reopening we had boosted seating capacity by some 40 per cent to around 1,500. And in that week instead of serving 20,000 customers as expected we served about 40,000. It was quite remarkable. When we announced the creation of a new 50 cover terrace on the roof of our 14 Hills restaurant on Fenchurch Street our booking lines were jammed taking 600-700 bookings a day. Similarly, when we sent out an email about extending our roof terrace at Madison our reservations lines went ballistic, with several thousand trying to book on the day of announcement.
This was very different from last summer, when our customers were enthusiastic but still cautious about Covid and about what the experience would be like in restaurants with social distancing, temperature checks, PPE et al. This time round the feeling was much more positive. At last we were taking the first steps back to normal life in the context of Covid being under control and the vaccines programme going well. I was at Bluebird with friends on the opening night and it felt more like a Saturday night in December than a Monday in April!
What was also striking in our first month of trading has been the significant jump in average spend. There has been a lot of talk of all the savings made in lockdown as a result of people not being able to eat out, not travelling, not going on holiday and so on. But would customers actually take the opportunity of spending more money in restaurants when given the opportunity? Our customers certainly did! At Coq d’Argent champagne flowed all day, hardly a bottle of Prosecco in sight. And at Le Pont de la Tour it was like the Cote d’Azur – sunshine on the terraces, platters of lobster and turbot flying out of the kitchen, sommeliers uncorking bottles of Meursault and Montrachet. Our average spends in the first week were up 60 per cent on expectations.
It was also heartening and significant to see the sparkling performance of our central London venues. Last summer it was our restaurants in Manchester, Leeds and Bluebird in Chelsea that were our busiest. This time around our City restaurants led the way. The City may not be back in numbers in terms of attendance at offices but our City restaurants were all packed to the gunnels.
The hospitality industry particularly in central London has had a terrible 12 months. We were closed for nine of them and despite government assistance businesses like ours have had to inject substantial funds and take on bank debt to survive. We all still have substantial rent arrears to settle after the end of the moratorium on 30 June. We therefore face a challenging year ahead as we navigate our way through the recovery. But it has been a tremendously big boost to all of us who opened our restaurant terraces on April 12 to see our customers flocking back and spending generously.
We are not getting carried away. Only our terraces have reopened and we need restaurants indoors and outdoors to remain busy when we are fully open from 17 May. But I am optimistic. The miserable winter of 2020 may now be giving way to what could be the glorious summer of 21. After all our industry has been through, we certainly deserve that!