Coronavirus: Restaurants and cafes in Ireland would struggle at reduced capacity

Industry sources say it will be difficult to keep businesses profitable with social distancing

Restaurants and cafes will struggle to be profitable when they reopen under social distancing measures, industry sources have said.

According to draft plans by the National Public Health and Emergency Teams (Nphet), cafes and restaurants could reopen by the middle of the summer as one of the first waves of lifting coronavirus restrictions.

However, those working in the sector said while some smaller premises may be able to switch to a takeaway or online business model, many will struggle to adapt their business models to continue to make profit while adhereing to social distancing measures.

Maria Cassidy, a board member with the speciality coffee association, and who works for Bewleys, said reopening cafes will be difficult because they operate "on very tight margins".


“To implement social distancing is going to be very difficult. You make revenue per square metre, so if you have to reduce the footfall, it will massively affect our margins,” Ms Cassidy said.

“One of the biggest overheads would be their premises, particularly for those based in city centres. A lot of places won’t be able to sustain it, especially if offices don’t reopen at the same time. There’s no point in operators opening at half capacity, they have to be busy to be profitable.”

Oliver Cruise, the owner of Network Cafe on Aungier Street in Dublin, said any move towards re-establishing businesses is good but that difficulties will arise as owners attempt to adapt to new measures.

“The bigger concerns are around social distancing and how that will impact trade levels and how we can kind of manage the reduced capacity that we can facilitate while operating a business,” Mr Cruise said.

“It’s hard to see how it’s feasible, to be honest. It’s almost impossible to see what’s the new norm and how are businesses going to operate at reduced capacity when the business model would have been reliant on operating at full capacity to survive.”

Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Ireland, said the move to reopen would be welcome but that there needs to be a preparation phase in advance of that.

“We would need to prepare to reopen with regards to training and advice, and if reengineering of restaurants is required for social distancing then we need to know what that would look like,” Mr Cummins said.

“The Government also needs to support restaurants. If the wage subsidy scheme does not continue, then restaurants won’t reopen because it wouldn’t make financial sense to reopen but lose 40 to 50 per cent of your tables.”

Conor McKenna, of Hugh Jordan Catering Supplies, said restaurants and other businesses will have to decide how to best use their premises while respecting social distancing and other rules that may apply.

He cited the example of transparent barriers that have been used in other countries as a potential solution, as well as the potential use of thermometers to take the temperatures of staff and customers.

“Some of the potential solutions here are about creating barriers,” he said. “If you have two tables with a big divider screen between them, they can be close.

“Each restaurant has to figure out what is the model is going to work.”

Mr McKenna said questions could also arise around cutlery, with takeaway sets an option, as well as sanitisers and respirators.

Daniel McCoy, chief executive of Ibec, the business and employer representative body, has said the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic has been huge economically and efforts must commence for a return to a “new normal”.

Mr McCoy called for a "road map" for recovery from the government. He told RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland that when the Covid-19 crisis began, everyone believed it to be a temporary situation, but this is "clearly not the case and we will all be living with this virus for months.

“We’re going to need to have a road map to adjustment that reflects this reality and we have to be conscious of losing our livelihoods as well as our lives.”

Mr McCoy said that when there is a return to work it would have to involve sharing public space and companies would need to know how this would work.

Workplace safety, the rationing of public space all needed to be planned for, he added. “We need joined up thinking to deal with an economic crisis that is going to last a lot longer than we originally thought.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times