Saturday 2 May 2020 8:00 am

Robot waiters, half the tables, and crossed fingers: How restaurants will reopen after UK lockdown ends

Robot waiters, staff in masks and two metres between each table. This is what dining out could look like when the UK coronavirus lockdown is eased. At least, for the restaurants that manage to survive. 

Official government guidance on reopening has been limited so far. However, that could change soon as the Prime Minister said he will publish a roadmap for exiting the UK lockdown this week. 

In the meantime, London’s restaurateurs are looking to Europe, to sectors that are already open like supermarkets, and to new technology to map out a future for the industry. 

For some venues, that future appears bleak. Social distancing measures will essentially halve the number of customers a restaurant can serve and, with that, their revenue. 

Restaurants also fear that when the industry is allowed to reopen, lifelines such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, which has so far avoided mass redundancies in the sector, will end. Meanwhile, the battle with landlords over rents is ongoing and could be make or break for many restaurants. 

UK lockdown restaurants
Restaurants across the UK have closed during the coronavirus lockdown (AFP via Getty Images)

Conveyor belt service and AI waiters

For Martin Williams, the chief executive of M Restaurants and Gaucho, technology will play a big part in getting his restaurants up and running again. 

Customers will be able to order online when they book and select their seats on a virtual platform. Williams’ restaurants will get rid of the traditional leatherbound menu in favour of disposable or online copies. 

The restaurant group, which has pencilled in September as a likely reopening date, is even exploring the option of robot waiters, where a robot controlled by a member of staff could assist with customer queries, and the use of conveyor belts to serve meals. 

Williams believes the industry is well-equipped to step up to the challenge.  “We have run very safe restaurants for decades,” he tells City A.M. 

Enticing diners back after UK lockdown ends

A bigger challenge could be creating a fun and sociable atmosphere while also maintaining strict social distancing measures once the UK lockdown ends. 

Restaurants will also have to encourage customers that are nervous about returning to public spaces, or who have adapted well to lockdown life, to venture out for dinner. 

“Ultimately [dining out] is all about meeting people and enjoying the finer things in life,” says Williams. 

“We are very keen to embrace the relief and almost honeymoon period that will come when people are allowed to gather.” 

Organised events are part of the plan for the Social Pantry, which has venues in Ealing and Battersea. 

Founder Alex Head told City A.M.: “There might be an initial rush and surge, but people are used to food deliveries now, and they have got used to cooking at home.”

“You need to find different revenue streams,” she says, pointing to ticketed events such as supper clubs as one way of maintaining social distancing while providing a positive experience for customers.

UK lockdown restaurants
Closed restaurants inside Brixton Village market during the lockdown (AFP via Getty Images)

However, Victor Lugger, the co-founder of Big Mamma Group , which owns Gloria in Shoreditch and Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia, is not convinced. 

Restaurants and social distancing are “opposite terms” he says of post-lockdown life. “You go there because you want to connect and have a good time.” 

“It is not going to work, I don’t believe there is a way to make these work together. When you go to a restaurant, it will be less good.” 

But he adds: “We will adjust and not take ourselves too seriously, that is what we have done before Covid, and that will be what we do in the future.”

Restaurants eye delivery during UK lockdown

Delivery has provided another revenue stream for many restaurants during the UK lockdown, and will continue to support trading when they reopen. 

The latest research by food and drink data consultancy CGA found that of the consumers saying they are backing local pubs and restaurants, 36 per cent were using takeaway food or delivery services. Another 30 per cent had purchased vouchers at local venues to use on re-opening. Meanwhile 20 per cent had donated to online fundraising initiatives.

UK In Fourth Week Of Coronavirus Lockdown As Death Toll Exceeds 10,000
A Deliveroo delivery cyclist stands outside a closed Covent Garden Market on 17 April (Getty Images)

Casa do Frango, a Portuguese restaurant with branches in Shoreditch and London Bridge, did not close when the government announced the lockdown on 23 March. Instead it pivoted to delivery, which has proved to be a popular decision with customers. 

“Delivery will need to remain a big part of our model,” says co-founder Jake Kasumov. “We were popular enough before not to need to do delivery, but we realise that isn’t going to be the case for the next six to nine months.”

The restaurant is also mulling applying for extended opening hours during the UK lockdown in order to serve more customers.

Redundancies likely without extended coronavirus support

Celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Tom Kerridge have signed a letter to the government warning it not to lift the UK lockdown too soon, fearing doing so could cause widespread closures.

But many bosses are raring to get back to business. Lugger says: “When it is safe or possible to reopen, if that is tomorrow, I will open tomorrow. If it is in six months, I will open in six months.”

However, all of these plans rely on the government extending its lockdown support for the UK restaurant industry to counterbalance the inevitable decline in revenue. 

The latest research by industry body UK Hospitality showed that the sector expects to reach just 24.28 per cent of last year’s trade in June. By September, this is expected to rise to just 57.81 per cent in the best case scenario. 

“We are looking at the physical measures inside the restaurant, how far the tables will have to be away from each other,” says Kasumov, owner of London’s Casa do Frango chain. The restaurant is currently considering a 1.5-metre gap between the backs of each chair. 

“[In that case] capacity decreases quite significantly; we are waiting to see how many covers we can have. Half the restaurant is the best case scenario.”

If revenue is halved, for many restaurants there is “very little chance of survival,” he warns.

“The furlough scheme has been incredible, [but] there is a feeling among our company and our peers that it is a little bit kicking the can down the road,” Kasumov says.

“If we open and there are social distancing measures, half of our staff are not going to be required. There will be inevitable redundancies.” 

UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls puts it bluntly. She says “a continuation of business support is the only way to avoid carnage in hospitality”.