New dining ban a death knell for restaurants, says leading chef

Uncertainty about reintroduction of ban causing anxiety among restaurateurs

JP McMahon in his Michelin-starred Galway restaurant Ainar: “I’m just too tired of all this uncertainty.”  Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

JP McMahon in his Michelin-starred Galway restaurant Ainar: “I’m just too tired of all this uncertainty.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

 

“I’m devastated. I couldn’t sleep last night. We still owe Revenue from before the first lockdown and with rent due on all three premises, I don’t know where to go from here.” Galway chef JP McMahon’s comment reflects to mood of a significant proportion of the Irish restaurant industry, now looking at the probability of Covid-19 restrictions being reintroduced at the end of the month.

If restaurants and pubs that serve food are forced to close for indoor dining again after Christmas, McMahon believes it could be a death knell for the industry. “This decision will cause further untold damage,” he says.

Máire Flynn, who runs The Tannery restaurant in Dungarvan with her chef husband and Irish Times columnist Paul Flynn, says the impact of another closure will be particularly difficult for restaurants around the country. “Restaurants outside Dublin have a different pattern of business to the city. We have no lunch trade, really. There’s no corporate business and this year no office parties. Mid-week nights can be bleak.”

She is also concerned about the timing of the possible re-introduction of restrictions. “Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Year, from December 27th onwards, is one of the busiest of the year for us, with everyone home and lots of people meeting up.”

Shane Mitchell, owner of Asador on Haddington Road in Dublin 4, Prado in Clontarf, and Lennan’s Yard, a 100-seat restaurant, pub and wine bar due to open on Dawson Street early next year, is critical of the ongoing uncertainty.

“It’s a constant state of anxiety, wondering what’s around the corner, what the restrictions are going to be,” says Mitchell. His trade has been good since restaurants were allowed to reopen for indoor dining at the start of the month. “People are spending, they’re drinking good wine, and we’ve done some really good turnover.”

However this week, things changed, and Mitchell’s belief is that people are limiting their visits to restaurants, even without Government intervention. Earlier this week, he lost 180 covers due to cancellations. “Last Saturday, I looked at the bookings and it looked like we would match the same period last year, and then the phone rang all day Monday and Tuesday with people cancelling. We brought all of our staff back and I had a team walking around the restaurant looking at each other yesterday because we haemorrhaged so many bookings.”

Mitchell believes calls for caution by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) are responsible for the change he has seen in the public’s attitude towards dining in restaurants. “I thought we’d be allowed to have three or three and a half weeks’ run at it, but actually we haven’t because there’s just been an out and out assault from the public health officials. ”

JP McMahon believes that the restaurant industry has been unfairly targeted. “Where is the evidence to support this focus on restaurants?” he asks. Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer, has said there had been “too much” socialising over the last two weeks, but according to Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, there have been “zero cases linked to restaurants in the last two weeks”.

While speculation about reintroducing the ban on indoor dining continues, restaurateurs and hoteliers are faced with the issue of managing stock control and food and drink orders, and could be looking at substantial losses due to spoilage. “I’d imagine there will be a lot of food waste throughout the industry because we all had to put our orders in early for Christmas and they are being delivered now, and probably we won’t have business for a lot of that food,” says Sean O’Driscoll, chief executive of the Irish hotel group iNua Collection.

Six of the hotels in the group are currently closed, but the remaining three are open. “It’s very difficult to plan. We made the decision to only open those hotels that had small weddings booked and the couples wanted to go ahead. Unfortunately in the hospitality business we’ve been living week to week all year and that’s going to continue. Muckross [Park hotel] has 95 per cent occupancy between December 17 and January 2 and we don’t know will we have some guests, or no guests, and that’s the difficulty.”

Suppliers are similarly affected. Nicholas Lynch of seafood wholesaler and retailer Nick’s Fish said in a Twitter post: “Yesterday we had to commit to salmon that will be delivered on the 28th. What are we going to do with €30k of salmon if hospitality closes again, and that’s only the salmon I’ve ordered.”

While waiting for clarification from Government, many restaurateurs are already making plans for yet another pivot. Shane Mitchell will continue to sell the restaurant meal boxes that have been a lifeline for his business, and many others this year. “We are doing a Christmas roast box and we’ve had to shut down orders because we were running out of refrigeration capacity. We thought we might sell 150 and we’ve sold 600 of them at €100 each, so that €60,000 turnover, on top of the dine in, has really bolstered us.”

However JP McMahon, who writes a weekly food column for The Irish Times, will not be following suit. He recently announced plans to reopen his Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar in Galway, in March, but will not be doing takeaway at his other restaurants, Cava and Tartare. “We won’t be reopening as a takeaway in the next lockdown. I’m just too tired of all this uncertainty,” he says.

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