Last weekend, chef Anita Thoma was supposed to be eating dinner at the Tannery restaurant in Dungarvan, Co Waterford as part of her hen night celebrations before her wedding at Ballyvolane House in Fermoy, Co Cork in July.
Instead, with the dinner cancelled and the wedding postponed, she and Tannery co-owner Máire Flynn were sharing photographs on social media of restaurants in Zurich as the Swiss outlets reopened for the first time since coronavirus restrictions were lifted there. Both women have sisters living in the city who were out for dinner in different restaurants. The images were of opaque perspex privacy screens shielding diners from their neighbours, and what looked like see-through plastic shower curtains enclosing tables.
Is this what lies ahead for the Irish restaurant industry when it re-opens for business on June 29th?
Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), believes that social distancing, if applied to restaurants in a way that would require them to have two metres of space between tables, will result in permanent closures.
“This is non-viable for 90 per cent of restaurants to implement, hence we believe they will stay shut,” he says. The RAI has more than 3,000 members, representing restaurants, cafes and gastropubs across the country.
We are sitting tight. I am going to wait and see. I don't think the customers are ready. There is not enough confidence for the industry to be ready to be open
Damien Grey, chef proprietor of the 22-seat Michelin-starred Liath restaurant in Blackrock, Co Dublin, says he will not be reopening on June 29th. "We are sitting tight. I am going to wait and see. I don't think the customers are ready. There is not enough confidence for the industry to be ready to be open."
Guidelines for the reopening of restaurants and cafes on June 29th are currently being drawn up by Fáilte Ireland, and have to be approved by the HSE before being released, Cummins says.
His organisation is campaigning for social distancing to be reduced for restaurants, in line with what has been implemented in other European countries, including Austria and Norway where it is one metre, and Germany and Hungary where it is 1.5m. “Many members are saying if it is two metres, we are not opening; if it is 1.5m, maybe, and at one metre there is a glimmer of hope we can make it work.”
Screens between tables are being suggested as an alternative to the two-metre distance requirement, or in support of reducing the distance to one metre, but it remains to be seen if the HSE will accept this move. In addition, there is significant cost attached to fitting them. “Quotes we have seen are around €10,000 for a 60-seater restaurant,” Cummins says.
As restaurateurs await official guidelines on what will be required of them in order to open on June 29th, many are making survival plans based on the recent success of meal kits, takeaways and deliveries, and in some cases propose to combine those with a reduced eat-in seating capacity.
Liath in Blackrock may not be welcoming dinner guests for the time being, but its chef owner Damien Grey has found a way to get his kitchen back open. Liath To Go, a contactless takeaway, operates three days a week, with 70 meals available each day. At €33 a head for three courses, the model brings in €6,930 a week. As a Michelin one-star operating at full capacity with 22 seats filled four nights a week, each guest paying €110 for an 11-course menu, the food take is €9,680.
“It’s flying, the demand is unbelievable. Liath to Go is definitely going to be staying around. It has got potential to be a stable business model,” Grey says. “I’m not going to get rich doing this, but it’s paying the bills and keeping the staff in work.”
We are making money, we are keeping people employed and we are spending more money with our suppliers
It has been a similar experience for Niall Davidson at Allta wine bar in Dublin 2, which began offering the Allta Box, a dinner for two for €55, delivered anywhere in Ireland, five weeks ago. The weekly changing menu goes on sale online on Saturdays at noon, for delivery the following Thursday or Friday. "We are now doing between 175 and 200 of them a week, and we had 700 people try to buy one last Saturday," Davidson says.
Davidson plans to reopen Allta as a wine bar in July, but the deliveries will continue. “We are going to take the boxes elsewhere; we are looking for a production space for that. We are making money, we are keeping people employed and we are spending more money with our suppliers,” he says.
Doug Leddin, one of the founders of the Dublin-based online grocery delivery website StuffUNeed.ie, says that this week the company's meal kit delivery total surpassed 4,000. StuffUNeed currently delivers food and cocktail kits from nine Dublin restaurants: Box Burger, Casper and Giumbinis, Eaton 6W, Featherblade, Johnnie Fox's, Platform Pizza, Smokin Bones, Uno Pizza and Wing It, with Pitt Bros, The Chophouse, Ramen and Arctic Stone being added.
Leddin believes that premium takeaways and meal kit deliveries will continue to carve a growing share of the market, even when restaurants do reopen.
However, some restaurateurs are placing their hopes firmly in the camp that believes that people are tired of cooking and eating at home, miss the social aspect of dining out, and will be eager to go out to eat come June 29th.
More than four out of 10 pubs in Dublin, 330 in total, plan to re-open on June 29th as restaurants serving alcohol, according to the results of a survey this week by the Licensed Vintners Association.
The Market Bar complex, a 9,000sq ft premises on Fade Street in Dublin 2 that also incorporates Black Market, The Chelsea Drugstore and Idlewild, is currently undergoing a revamp overseen by Hugh Wallace of Douglas Wallace architects, and will reopen on June 29th as a restaurant, with 200 seats across four dining areas. It will still be possible to buy alcohol, but only to accompany a meal, and the bar counters will be off-limits to customers.
Each booth will be surrounded on three sides by 7ft high moveable walls, fabricated from dark wood battens, lightweight panelling and polycarbonate glazing bars with up-lighting, so the spaces are warm and welcoming
Seating will be at "Parisian-style brasserie booths" at least two metres apart, according to David Morse, director of sales and marketing for The Market Bar. "Each booth will be surrounded on three sides by 7ft high moveable walls, fabricated from dark wood battens, lightweight panelling and 'plurfrost' polycarbonate glazing bars with up-lighting, so the spaces are warm and welcoming."
The menu will offer tapas, as well as lunch and brunch, and a full bar service will be available. “Bar staff, who usually man the bar counters, will provide floor service for cocktails, wines and draught beers,” Morse says.
Masks will be compulsory for both staff and diners, and Morse says that sterile envelopes will be provided for customers to store their mask in while they are eating.
“Guests who don’t have a mask will be provided with one at the entrance. Temperature checks will be carried out on all staff and customers on arrival, and each table will have a name taken for tracing purposes.”
With the dining-out landscape about to change so dramatically, some restaurateurs fear that the public will be reluctant to visit restaurants when they do reopen.
In response to a recent question posted on Twitter, asking if people would be visiting restaurants and cafes once they reopen on June 29th, a significant number of the more than 200 who commented said that they would not. Anita Thoma is among that number. “It’s too soon for me to go back into a restaurant, both as chef and as a diner – as a human being,” she says.
Reopening or not: Restaurateurs’ plans
Majken Bech Bailey
Manager of Aimsir, Michelin two-star restaurant in Co Kildare
We are currently planning to re-open on July 1st, Government permitting. We will have to lower our covers by about 40 per cent and rethink staffing levels accordingly. There will also be some changes in service, with less interaction and one server/one sommelier per table. We have been able to reschedule most of the bookings to later dates and are almost full for the rest of the year. We have a strong local clientele, and we didn't have too many international bookings, so it's looking very optimistic.
Owner-manager of Rasam Indian restaurant in Glasthule, Co Dublin
We called in a structural engineer and will go from a 110-seater to 40-seater when we reopen. Reservations will be made online, with three sittings: 5-7pm, 6.30-8.30pm and 8.30pm to close. We will continue to do contactless takeaway as well. We are now doing around 100 takeaways on Saturdays, 80-90 on Fridays and 30-40 on the other days. When we reopen we hope to do 80-90 sit-down guests a night and about 30-40 takeaways.
Director of sales and marketing, the Shelbourne hotel, Dublin 2
We plan on reopening the Lord Mayor's Lounge for afternoon tea and the Saddle Room restaurant on June 29th, followed by the opening of guestrooms on July 20th. We have many local regular customers.
Co-owner of Ashtons Gastropub, Clonskeagh, Co Dublin
We are in a great position in Ashtons given the sheer scale of the premises, and our new patio and terrace area is ideal for al fresco dining. We have had a restaurant licence since we took over Ashtons in 2012 and have renewed it every year during our tenancy. It gives us an opportunity to open on June 29th, along with restaurants and cafes.
Co-owner of Kerala Kitchen, Dublin 2
With the current restrictions, we don't think it will be feasible to open the restaurant in June. It would be an exercise in losing money. For now we'll continue to open for takeaway and delivery, which is up around 25 per cent. We will be starting work on a new premises on Main Street in Stoneybatter next week. It's sit-in and takeaway, modelled on the Kerala coffee houses, and should be open in four to six weeks.
Co-owner of Idaho cafe, Cork
We are reopening with just six tables instead of 11, reducing our seating by 60 per cent. We are going back to basics, where we were when we opened 19 years ago, focusing even more than we were on stuff that we have grown ourselves, or sourced from Cork producers.
Owner of Scoff and Er Buchetto in Ranelagh, Dublin 6
If I take out half the tables, I'm left with an unworkable/unprofitable cafe, so I've had to come up with a pretty drastic plan but one that I'm actually really excited about. I'll be taking the seating area out and extending the deli section into a full-blown Italian/Irish food shop, utilising the side door so it's a one-way system. Er Buchetto eat-in will move into the Scoff premises. This means no more Scoff, but it's a move that makes commercial sense. Now I just have to get the funds together to carry this out.