Friday 17 July 2020 6:00 am

The Friday Interview: Fortnum's looks to the future

It’s an iconic London brand, but like the rest of the capital, Fortnum & Mason was hit by the Covid-19 lockdown. We catch up with the store’s Retail & Hospitality Director Simon Thompson – who tells us that while it’s all a little different, loyal customers still have smiles on their faces.

Fortnum & Mason was founded in the first decade of the 1700s – a period which has come into sharper focus in recent weeks. 

Indeed the Bank of England recently warned the UK is currently experiencing its worst crash since 1706 – but like the rest of London’s hospitality businesses, the grand old lady of Piccadilly is determined to get back on her feet as lockdown finally ends. 

“People are thrilled to be back in an environment where someone else is doing the washing up,” Simon Thompson – Fortnum’s Retail and Hospitality Director – tells City A.M. of the firm’s restaurants and tea salons. 

“It felt like we’d never been away, and customers settled straight back into it.”

Like all businesses, the doors were shut in March as Britain closed up. But as the Piccadilly flagship has opened up – with food floors first and then finally the restaurants, including 45 Jermyn Street round the corner – loyal customers have come back. 

“On day one when we opened Piccadilly, we had five people waiting outside queuing. They had huge smiles on their faces, and there was a genuine moment of ‘I’m back in.’ They step on the red carpet and they just breathe a big sigh of relief. 

Read more: The Friday Interview with Chris D’Sylva

“Stepping into a place like Fortnum’s, it must be – and certainty was for us coming back to work to open the doors – a tonic.”

The company is of course far more than just the Piccadilly hub. As well as the nearby restaurant, they’ve retail space in St. Pancras as well as at Heathrow Terminal 5 and in the City, at the Royal Exchange. They’re monitoring travel patterns carefully as people finally begin moving around again. 

But it hasn’t escaped Simon’s notice that the area directly around him, in central London, remains very quiet. There are real concerns that many businesses in the capital could go under unless people begin returning to offices and tourism picks back up. Even Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey has joined the chorus of voices asking people to go back to work sooner rather than later for the sake of our city centres. But Simon says there are small signs of progress.

“We’re thrilled that some of the local galleries are opening, and those museums and attractions, because London needs all of those cultural institutions open for business because that’s what people, whether they’re day-trippers or for a weekend, are doing.”

He’d like to see, in particular, a focus on getting Brits back and spending rather than waiting for deep-pocketed foreign tourists.

“That domestic traveller and that domestic spend is what we really need to watch – I think we’d all like to see a bit more put into driving that. 

“The capital needs people coming, all of its cultural destinations, and I think we all (in hospitality) would like to see a bit more of a call to arms to get that domestic tourism going. We’re not reliant on borders, it’s not predicated by challenges of other countries’ second or third waves, it’s something that’s within our own destiny and we can control that a little bit more.”

Certainly other countries have thought about ways to get tourists ‘staycationing’. Japan has gone as far as to subsidise in-country holidays. “We’d love to see a bit more incentivisation to get that going,” says Thomson. 

It’s not all doom and gloom – those eating in restaurants are enjoying themselves, and he’s thrilled at the atmosphere in Soho where Westminster City Council have allowed restaurants to flow out onto the streets. The terrace at 45 Jermyn Street is now twice the size. 

But it’s clear central London needs a fillip. It seems only a matter of time before the Government – helmed by a former Mayor, no less – takes steps to get people back onto the capital’s streets.