'Riots weren't part of my business plan'
This week the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, continued her tour of the worst-affected shops and restaurants in east Belfast, calling into a cafe, a window retailer and Bistro Este, a critically acclaimed restaurant that is also on Newtownards Road. It’s run by the Belfast chef David Adams and his English wife, Sarah.
Because it is next door to the office of the Alliance MP Naomi Long, protests have been held outside every day since early December – even on Christmas Day. Adams has been somewhat encouraged by initiatives such as Operation Sit-In, during which food bloggers descended on the restaurant one lunchtime to support it.
“It’s bad, but you can’t give up hope. You couldn’t work 80 hours a week over a stove if you didn’t think somehow it was going to get better. But we are worried about the future.”
As he speaks, across east Belfast loyalist community activists are handing out 5,000 leaflets seeking an end to “wanton destruction” about the flag issue, a move that many hoped might signal the beginning of the end of the violence.
In the meantime, the hospitality sector will keep fighting back. Colin Neill, the chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, says up to 300 mostly part-time jobs in his sector have already gone as a direct result of the protests. He says that while pressure must be kept on politicians to find a solution and on the banks to keep cash flowing in businesses that are at breaking point, hotels, restaurants and bars must help themselves .
Tony O’Neill, the owner and chef at Coppi restaurant on St Anne’s Square, which opened a few days before the flag protests started, agrees. Although midweek trade has been badly damaged, weekends are still busy, and there is, he says, a “blitz spirit” in Belfast at the moment. He says he wouldn’t close the doors even if the police asked him to.
“It’s up to us to keep Belfast going,” he says. “We lived through the bad days. Nobody wants to go back there. We need people to stay strong and stay open. When people call the restaurant to cancel bookings we are asking them to support us instead. The last thing we need in Belfast now is a ‘woe is me’ approach. We’ve always been resilient.”