"This is the strangest maternity leave ever," says Caroline Boyle, owner of Salamanca, a tapas restaurant in the heart of Dublin city centre, within shouting distance of Grafton Street.
Six months ago, she gave birth to her baby. Six weeks ago, she had to close her normally-bustling restaurant indefinitely, as the coronavirus swept into town and forced all commerce to bend the knee to public health concerns. It is spawning the State’s second once-in-a-lifetime economic disaster in barely a dozen years. Restaurants such as Salamanca are at the front line.
As the Government senses the nation tiring after more than a month of full lockdown, it is expected to set out a tentative plan today for the slow, controlled reopening of the economy over coming months.
Early reports suggest that cafes and restaurants may be allowed to reopen under strict social distancing rules in “mid-summer”, as long as the virus doesn’t begin raging once again.
The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) warned this week that 120,000 jobs in the industry are under threat unless ministers step in with long-term financial support. About 90 per cent of restaurants are shut, with only those able to do delivery services left open. The figures are stark. But for many restaurateurs, the crisis isn’t simply about the numbers. It is deeply personal. Reopening is a mission.
“You can’t just sit around and cry about it,” says Boyle, as she contemplated the strict social distancing restrictions that restaurants are likely to have to trade under once they reopen, devastating their capacity. “We will have to trade in a new way for a year or 18 months. Safety is paramount.”
"The life you used to breathe is gone. It's scary," says Eoin Flanagan, who runs Siam Thai, which operates two outlets in Dublin. The business was originally started by his father 27 years ago.
“I was in the restaurant today, just to run the water and flush the toilets. We’ve never been financially in the red before. It’s heartbreaking.”
Dublin restaurants, when they reopen, will at least be able to target its 1.4 million residents for some local trade. But on the tourist-focused western seaboard, packaged and sold as the Wild Atlantic Way, reopening will be tougher.
“I go down to the restaurant in Barna every day, just to open the windows,” says Michael O’Grady, a Galway-based restaurateur Michael O’Grady runs four eateries in the city, including the well-known O’Grady’s on the Pier seafood venue.
Reopening its doors will be the next step, although he doesn’t hold out any hope of welcoming tourists in 2020. “This year is gone.”
Shane Crilly, a former solicitor who co-owns the seven outlet-strong Base Wood Fired Pizza chain in Dublin, says he is "one of the lucky ones" as his mostly delivery-focused business has not been forced to close.
He has been fielding calls from other restaurateurs, seeking his advice on how to pivot to delivery. Restaurants, as they wait to see if they can reopen, are eking out cashflow wherever they can.
“There’s great camaraderie in the sector. I’ve helped out a few. But all this is still tough on my staff. On certain days, I try to go around the various outlets with donuts for the staff, and sometimes beers after we close, just to try to keep their morale up.”
Mike Ryan, who is involved in a group of five Munster restaurants and directly runs two in Cork, the Cornstore and Coqbull, will "test the waters" this weekend by reopening the latter for pre-ordered meals for collection.
“It will allow us to test how our kitchen staff can operate under social distancing. We know we’re not going to be making any money. We haven’t done anything for so long. It is all about getting some headspace,” he said.
The RAI has set out a nine-point plan for the sector’s recovery, covering areas such as 12 months of zero per cent VAT, forbearance from banks, utilities and landlords, a hiatus on rates, direct financial supports. It also wants leeway from local authorities on reopening with some outdoor seating in public areas.
"Look at what they are doing in Vilnius," says Adrian Cummins, the association's chief executive. In the Lithuanian capital, authorities have announced plans to turn some public spaces into open-air eating areas, giving over space to restaurants and cafes so they can serve within social distancing rules.
“That’s the sort of flexibility my members need. We need to think outside the box.”
RAI is seeking detailed guidance from the public health authorities on how restaurants can operate once they reopen. Cummins has already sent them copies of the World Health Organisation’s guidance for reopening restaurants, which includes measures such as no manual washing of crockery or glassware, and appropriate table spacing with a maximum of four guests for each 10 square metres.
"The next phase is for Fáilte Ireland and maybe the National Standards Authority of Ireland to swing into action with guidance documents. Clarity is required [on operating standards]," Cummins says.
He believes customers will adapt to the measures that are likely required to reopen, such as staff wearing masks and gloves, and may even be reassured by them.
“Confidence is key to getting them in. If that has to be achieved using perspex screens and masks, then so be it until we get a vaccine.”
He says about 10 per cent of restaurants are still operating delivery or takeaway. Of the nine out of every 10 that are closed, Cummins says “two to three are on the verge of throwing in the towel in the next few months unless they do deals with their landlords”. About 90 per cent of premises are leased.
“Can restaurants reopen under social distancing on a practical level? Yes. Can they reopen from a financial perspective? No. They will need ongoing State financial support even after they reopen because social distancing will reduce capacity so much,” Cummins says.
“The Government needs to get out the big bazooka. There is no appetite among any restaurant owners to reopen only to lose even more money than they already have done.”
Here are the thoughts of five restaurateurs from around the country on the possibility of the sector reopening and how it can adapt to a “new normal”.
Eoin Flanagan: Siam Thai (Dundrum and Malahide, Dublin)
He has already measured out how tables might have to be spaced under social distancing. Siam Thai used to have 400 seats, split between the two restaurants. Flanagan says capacity will be cut by about 50 per cent.
“Will we have to limit it to, say tables of four people maximum? Will they be allowed drink? How long will they be allowed sit and drink after the meal is finished? The sector needs official guidance on all these matters,” he says.
Flanagan says many restaurateurs fear the wrath of people on social media if they reopen and are seen to have unsafe practices. Any “grey areas” will leave them open to being “judged or facing a backlash”.
“We probably won’t have the tables set before people sit at them. Salt and peppers would have to be wiped down constantly if they are left out. We’ll probably use disposable menus. It will take away from the service standard but as we are mid-range, it mightn’t affect me as much.”
Flanagan says the coming year is “all about how little we lose” as it aims to recover next year, coronavirus permitting. He also thinks the situation around insurers and cover for trading losses during closure needs to be addressed to help restaurants reopen.
“I’ve paid about €400,000 on insurance over the past 10 years. And for what?”
Mike O’Grady: O’Grady’s on the Pier (Barna, Galway), Kirwan’s Lane and Lime (both Galway city) and RM McCabes Gastropub (Salthill)
His four premises are all large and capable of implementing social distancing “without difficulty”, he says. “But what about the lovely little 30 or 40-seat artisan restaurants that opened in Galway in recent years? What will they do?”
As most restaurants have term loans, O’Grady believes the best financial support that restaurants can receive is forbearance from banks until the tourist season “hopefully” kicks off next year, as 2020 is already effectively a write off for tourist-focused regions.
“We make 90 per cent of our money in the summer, which gets us through winter. If the banks play ball on loans, that could see restaurants through until next March. Our corporate business is all gone. The tourism business is gone for this year. That just leaves the domestic leisure. But if people are still restricted on travel within the country, and can’t come to the west for weekends, what then?”
O’Grady says he personally believes customers will be eager to “get back in to restaurants” after restrictions are eased. “When I’m down every day in Barna opening the windows, anybody walking past always tells me they can’t wait.”
Caroline Boyle: Salamanca (Dublin city)
“We need guidelines from Government and we will need at least three weeks’ notice before we reopen,” she says.
“We can’t be told on a Monday that we can reopen on the Tuesday. With all the new operating procedures, we will have to fully retrain all our staff. It will be like opening a brand new business. It will be daunting.”
Salamanca has 95 seats and Boyle says on a busy Saturday, it used to seat its tables four times over the day. Until there is a coronavirus vaccine or effective treatment, those days are gone.
“Our capacity will be dramatically reduced. Safety is paramount, for our staff and our customers. We will have to redo the entire layout. With lower capacity, restaurant will not be viable on their own without some sort of support. There needs to be some Government intervention with landlords.”
Boyle has been an employer for more than 12 years. The sector needs continuing employment supports to keep as many staff as possible in their jobs, she says.
Mike Ryan: Cornstore and Coqbull (both Cork city, plus he is associated with three more in Limerick)
Ryan, whose restaurants employed 90 people in Cork with close to 200 in the whole group, believes the more casual Coqbull will reopen a lot sooner than the more upmarket Cornstore venue, as casual eateries will be better able to implement the new rules, whatever they may be.
There will be a huge cost in preparing to reopen, he says, with an outlay on training and deep cleaning and getting the premises prepared. Therefore, he warns, it is important that the lockdown restrictions are not regularly reintroduced only to be withdrawn again, and so on.
“That open-close-open-close thing can’t happen. It will be too expensive. That is why I may keep Cornstore closed for a further two months, even after we are allowed to reopen, just to see what happens and let the new normality settle down.”
Even if the new operating guidelines are not ideal for higher-end dining, he says restaurateurs must remember that they are still in the hospitality business. “It still needs to be a warm experience.”
Shane Crilly: Base Wood Fired Pizza (various locations in Dublin)
Crilly’s group of seven high-end pizza outlets, where his partners include the investors behind the Loyola pub group, have not had to close during lockdown, so reopening is not a major issue. Close to half of its business pre-Covid, however, was walk-in customers or pre-orders for collection.
It no longer permits customers to come in-store while lockdown is ongoing, to create space for staff social distancing and to reduce the risks of transmission.
Many restaurants and gastropubs have switched to food delivery in the current crisis. Crilly has been a font of advice for several of them, as the business model is fundamentally different from in-store dining. He warns that using the big aggregators, such as Deliveroo or Just Eat, gives those companies control over the restaurant’s relationship with its customers.
“We do a small amount of business through Just Eat. But we mostly use Flipdish instead, which gives us a white-label online offering. It is less expensive, too.”
Business has “steadied out a bit” as lockdown has gone on, Crilly says.
“We are nowhere near where we were pre-Covid. We lost all of our daytime corporate business because offices are closed. But weekends are strong enough.”
Tentative plans to reopen restaurants around Europe
France – June 2nd
Italy – May 4th (takeaway) and June 1st (dine-in)
Switzerland – May 11th
Spain – May 4th (takeaway), May 25th (dine-in 30 per cent capacity)
Czech Republic – June 8th
Austria – May 15th
Germany – no date yet