On December 4th, restaurants and pubs that served food were permitted to open for business again. The industry had been through two lockdowns by then. Kinsale in Co Cork, population 5,281, has more than 60 places to eat (including daytime cafes). Those that open at night range from wine bars to gastropubs to food trucks. The town has hosted a well-attended annual Gourmet Festival for over 40 years and is frequently described as the “gourmet capital of Ireland”.
The Irish Times went to talk to some of Kinsale’s restaurateurs, to see how the pandemic had affected their business, as it has similarly affected every other such business in the country.
Over a couple of days, one thing became clear: whether you are a Michelin star restaurant, a small wine bar, or a gastropub in business for almost half a century, everyone is struggling in some way.
Everyone has a different view on the value of taking credit card details with bookings, so as to try and avoid no-shows, but everyone is in agreement that nobody knows what next year holds for Ireland’s restaurant industry.
Siobhán Waldron, The Black Pig
Waldron and her husband, Gavin Ryan, opened The Black Pig in 2013, a wine bar that serves small plates, with a strong focus on organic and biodynamic wines. In the summer, they are open seven days a week, and in the winter, three.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have seen this coming,” Waldron says, speaking of the pandemic. “The only reason I thought we would fail as a business would be if we didn’t pay attention to what our customers wanted. I thought if we did that, and worked hard, we would be all right, and now I know this is no longer the case.”
Between indoor and outdoor seating, they can usually seat 40 people. That has been reduced by a third. They have eight staff. They didn’t do takeout during either lockdown, although they considered reopening as a gourmet wine and food shop, but ultimately decided not to. On Thursday this week, they opened again.
“We are fully booked for the next two weekends,” Waldron says. Despite the bookings, she is still worried. “In the summer we had a very big problem with no-shows, even though we called every reservation on the day.”
Previously, they had not asked customers for credit card details. They started with asking groups over five for details, and now they ask everyone, whether they are local regular customers, friends, or new customers. “It has made a huge difference.”
Pre-pandemic, advance bookings hadn’t mattered so much. Now they do. “Our walk-in trade has fallen off the cliff. If people don’t turn up, we can’t now depend on walk-ins to fill those seats.”
During the summer, Waldron called some of the people the following day who had not turned up; which must have been an uncomfortable conversation for both parties. “I told them what not showing up meant to us. People are sheepish, when faced with the reality of being rung. It’s deeply inconsiderate to not show up. We are a small business, and we need to be full.”
As to what she thinks the future holds, “I have no idea.”
Martin Shanahan, Fishy Fishy
“I’d describe us as a casual upmarket dining place, specialising in local seafood,” Martin Shanahan says. Fishy Fishy opened 15 years ago. They are open all year round, seven days a week, with a short break over Christmas and January. In the summer, with outdoor seating, they can seat 180. With Covid-19 restrictions in place, it’s down to 80.
A couple of weeks into the first lockdown, they started doing takeaway.
“Fish and chips was our biggest seller, for €11. You’d pay €19.50 for the same thing if you sat in. We did it for 10 weeks, but it wasn’t even paying the wages. We were losing money doing it.”
Shanahan has 22 year-round staff members, and 55 in the summer. The fear of losing staff motivated him to keep going. Doing takeaway in the first lockdown kept staff employed, but the maths didn’t add up. He didn’t do it in the second lockdown.
Shanahan owns the building, which has what he describes as “a significant mortgage. If I was renting it, I’d have pulled the plug on the business.”
Would people want to come back if we took a cancellation fee? I think it would leave a sour taste
He reopened on December 4th. “Friday was decent. Saturday was good. Sunday was poor.” Between lunch and dinner on Saturday, they did 200 covers. The ongoing weekday trade since then has been low. By Tuesday of this week, they had 68 bookings for Friday, 84 for Saturday, and six for Sunday.
Fishy Fishy is a large space, and requires a core number of staff. “There are six in the kitchen, three washing up, and 12 front of house. It isn’t really viable for us to stay open seven days, but if we don’t open, I feel I’m going to lose my staff.”
No-shows have not been a problem here, for some reason, although one table of six last weekend did not arrive. Fishy Fishy doesn’t take credit card details on booking. “I think it’s a negative. Would people want to come back if we took a cancellation fee? I think it would leave a sour taste. Our policy is take your name and number. We phone reservations of six or up on the day, but with fours and twos we don’t phone. I don’t know how you win the credit card no-show argument.”
As to the future, Shanahan says: “I think we are going to have about a 30 per cent casualty rate across the industry in Ireland by March – coffee shops, bars, restaurants, accommodation, and all the knock-on effect for suppliers. Morale is a big thing, and it is low now.
“If there is a third lockdown in January, the next reopening after that would be very hard. Some of my staff are looking at getting out of the business right now. It’s never been the most sociable of businesses anyway, and people are rethinking their futures.”
Helen Noonan and Paul McDonald, Bastion
Bastion opened six years ago, and received a Michelin star in the autumn of last year. “Our bookings blew up after that,” McDonald says. “It was nuts. We could have filled the restaurant four times over every night.” Bastion offers tasting menus only: €90 a head for a non-vegetarian menu, and €70 for vegetarian.
They open Wednesday to Sunday, and take four weeks off from the end of January. They take bookings up to three months in advance, and bookings for 2020 were very strong, with every weekend filled. By the time Bastion was re-opening at the end of February this year, with excellent advance bookings, there was already uncertainty about what was ahead with the virus that was moving through the world.
“I had just ordered a kilo of truffles, and they arrived the day lockdown happened,” McDonald says ruefully.
They looked at what their fellow Michelin star colleagues at Chestnut and Liath were doing in lockdown, offering a collection service of prepared food boxes, but decided not to do the same. “There was so much energy put into that,” McDonald explains. “We thought about a bakery, but we didn’t do anything in the end.”
Pre-Covid-19, Bastion could seat 35 people. It’s dropped to an average of 22, depending on the party configurations. They have seven tables now. “If we’re lucky, we can turn three of them in a night,” Noonan says. “It’s a high spend per head here, so turning tables makes a big difference.”
They do take credit card details but, due to the specific destination experience they offer, no-shows are rare. When they occur, cards are charged the full cost of the menu per head. Their bookings were strong after the first lockdown, and they have reopened each time with the same staff.
Liam Edwards, Jim Edwards of Kinsale
“My father started the business 49 years ago,” Liam Edwards says. “It was a regular pub back then, and then he got into food. We are a long-established business, but when something like this pandemic happens, all restaurants are on the same level. It doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’ve been around. We were all closed for the same time, and we all opened again at the same time. We all have to re-establish ourselves again.”
Six weeks into the first lockdown, they started offering takeaway, with a team of five doing the cooking. “We were surprised and delighted at how popular it was. We will continue doing takeaway now alongside the bar and restaurant. If someone had told me 12 months ago that we were going to be doing takeaway business, I’d have said, not in a million years. But there are still people who don’t want to come out to restaurants yet.”
The Jim Edwards reopened on December 4th. “Business was good. It was all small numbers, two and fours. No groups.”
How customers arrive at the restaurant has changed. “Pre-Covid, it was 60-70 walk-ins a night. Now I’d say we’re nearly at 90 per cent bookings. It has totally flipped the other way.”
Edwards has not had a problem with no-shows, and does not ask for credit cards details, as he doesn’t see the value of it. “Taking credit card numbers and having a cancellation fee is all well and good, but if you charge them €20 for not showing up, and have an empty table, you are still making a loss.”
It’s been hard to motivate yourself to go again, especially knowing we could be locked down again in January
He is fully aware of the damage no-shows cause to some smaller businesses. “People not showing up is beyond belief. I couldn’t believe it could happen again after the end of the second lockdown. There are no office parties or corporate events this year, so it’s groups of friends not turning up. There’s the profit gone for the night.”
Edwards talks about the uncertainty in the restaurant industry right now. “I felt much better when we reopened in July after the first lockdown. There was a bit of feelgood factor back then. I am not feeling that now after this lockdown.
“The people in our industry have taken a hit. It’s been hard to motivate yourself to go again after a second lockdown, especially knowing we could be locked down again in January. There will be casualties, there is no doubt about it; not all businesses will survive. I have never seen people at a lower ebb. Mentally, you are questioning your choices: is this the right industry for me? Is this a secure industry?”
Tom Kay, The Supper Club
Cocktail bar and restaurant
Tom Kay opened The Supper Club in 2016 with his wife, Gráinne. It usually seats 60, but that has now gone down to 40. “But it depends,” Tom Kay says. “If we get a night with a lot of bookings for two, occupancy can be as low as 28, because of social distancing.”
They usually open year-round (with a break after New Year), Tuesday to Saturday, and have a staff of six. A fortnight into the first lockdown, they offered takeout. At 2pm, they put up their menu, and it was usually sold out by 3.30pm. “People came by to collect over a four-hour period, from 5pm to 9pm. It was incredibly tough work. We did better than if we had done nothing, but we didn’t do takeout during the second lockdown.”
Although there were fewer covers this summer, spend was significantly up, by 50 per cent. Kay found people were ordering a lot more alcohol, and more expensive wine. “Pubs were closed too, and people made sure they were enjoying their restaurant slot as much as they could.”
Reopening after the first lockdown was challenging. “All the procedures we had to put in place. Emotionally and financially, it is exhausting to be opening and closing. We didn’t get into the restaurant business to save lives; we just wanted to serve dinner to people, and now there is a level of stress to what we do, because we have to try and keep people safe.”
The Supper Club reopened on December 4th, and its first weekend was fully booked; their spend is already up 25 per cent on what it was last December. All weekends for the rest of the month are gone. They don’t ask for credit card details. “About 95 per cent of the people I would know, and if they didn’t show up, they’d have to face me on the street afterwards!”
Kay admits morale is low. “This is a stressful industry anyway. But every month not knowing if we were going to be open or not made it even more stressful. Everyone has had a long and tough year.”
Ciarán Fitzgerald, The Blue Haven
Hotel restaurant, bistro and food truck
“Usually, we only close for Christmas Day. During the first lockdown, we decided to use the time to do all the maintenance and painting. We didn’t do any takeout. It was such an uncertain time. We know a lot more about the virus now, but back then, there was so much fear, and we knew so little. Reopening after the first lockdown was absolutely nerve-wracking.”
The Blue Haven did well during the summer, but business has been slower after the second lockdown. “People still can’t travel, and we don’t have the Dublin business we had in the summer. I expected our first weekend open to be busier.”
The hospitality industry has been through a lot this year and needs every opportunity it can get to survive
December 4th, it was 80 per cent full. On Saturday it was fully booked. Sunday was very quiet. Among the bookings last weekend were a number of no-shows. “We rang everyone beforehand, and they all confirmed their bookings. Yet some of them never showed up – an unusually high number.”
They don’t take credit card booking details at the Blue Haven, but Fitzgerald says they might change this policy in the future, although his own preference is not to.
“The hospitality industry has been through a lot this year and needs every opportunity it can get to survive. We need the respect of a phone call or an email from the public to cancel a booking. People still don’t realise the impact a no-show has on a restaurant.”