Wondering what to expect when you eat out again? Four restaurant owners reveal their plans for June 29

Wondering what to expect when you eat out again? Four restaurant owners reveal their plans for June 29
Jess Murphy of the award-winning Kai restaurant in Galway

June 29 is the purported D-Day, the date on which the Irish hospitality sector is allowed to re-open for business but to even call it ‘re-opening’ is something of a misnomer for this is not a case of turning up again after the holidays, and throwing open the shutters. 

The Covid-19-related lockdown has changed the landscape entirely. For those restaurants that will even be in a position to open on that day, it will be pretty much akin to opening an entirely new enterprise, trading under a whole new set of ground rules that will require you for a start ever before opening to spend money on physical infrastructure, staff training and hygiene equipment simply to meet the HSE guidelines, guidelines that are constantly evolving and changing, often rendering weeks of planning redundant with each new development. 

Staff numbers will have to be cut, tables removed and menus radically revised. And then you throw open the doors to… what exactly? 

No one knows how the public will react or what it will be like to trade in this brand new world so we’ve asked a few prominent players in the Irish hospitality world how they plan to approach it.

ROSS LEWIS

  • Chef/Proprietor, Chapter One, Dublin

I’ve spent a lot of time at home, cooking, a lot of BBQs, but exercising five or six days a week as well, cycling, swimming in the sea every day. 

A lot of time on the phone catching up with people. A lot of reading. A lot of time with my three teenage girls, playing hurling.

A lot of time as well talking to staff, giving them reassurance.

We have no definite re-opening date yet. It’s big, I’ll sit and wait as there’s still a lot of uncertainty around the guidelines. We have to also take into account what staff want to do and how quickly they want to come back to work depending on their situations.

Wondering what to expect when you eat out again? Four restaurant owners reveal their plans for June 29
Ross Lewis of Chapter One in Dublin

The problem with a restaurant like mine is that the most we will return to is about 50% of our former turnover and once we open the doors of Chapter One, costs are there whether we are full or half-full. Our electricity bill is €3,000 a month alone and in lockdown when we were closed it was still €680 a month, with wine fridges etc.

I think there is still going to be an unmitigated amount of nervousness for people about going out, they are still slow to go back on public transport or taxis so they will use neighbourhood restaurants more than the city centre, which is likely to be hollowed out, especially in August when everyone is going to want to leave Dublin. 

There will be no tourists, no hotels, no theatre, there won’t be business for everyone.

There’s a strong possibility there will be less restaurants so theoretically there should no longer be the mad scramble for staff and there will be more time to focus on food, hospitality, service.

Inevitably we are going to have to operate with less labour so we are going to have to cut down on prep and menu choice but with strong flavours and well-sourced luxury seasonal ingredients so dining out will get more expensive, especially at the top end.

The re-entry point is very important for survival. Everyone’s heart is telling them, ‘open, open, open,’ because it is contrary to our instinct to be closed but there are still so many unanswered questions but when we do I would hope as a quality operation we can still give people a very personal experience.

JESS MURPHY

  • Chef/Proprietor -with husband Dave Murphy-, Kai Restaurant & Cafe, Galway

We shut down straight away, even before the official date, the staff couldn’t feel safe and no one knew what was going on, how infectious it was, looking at the deaths in Italy. 

I was in New Zealand and got the second last flight out, and then a mercy Aer Lingus flight from San Francisco to Dublin. When we left, everything was normal and we returned to Apocalypse Now.

I gave up smoking and lost a stone. I’m walking 10k every day and am fitter, healthier, and happier, especially about reopening again. We’ve spent tons to prepare the place for the guidelines because aesthetically I wanted it to be beautiful.

We’ll re-open on June 29. There won’t be as many diners, but it will still be a very pretty restaurant supporting local Galway farmers. 

The menu will change slightly but we won’t raise prices. We’re missing half our seats so when the public see a husband and wife team, I hope they know we are taking up that slack, working far more hours for less money. You want to pay staff a living wage and support local farmers, buying proper produce.

I hope people remember the real Irish hospitality Ireland is renowned for — I have always been so proud of how Dave gives that hospitality from the moment you walk in the door. It is a skill, not something you do part-time to get you through college.

I think it’s been positive, I went through bouts of freaking out, having a cry and then getting on with it. T

Then I’d cook something really nice and remember, I am a chef and this is my chosen path and we have to get on with it. 

We have to be leaders, good leaders. For me it’s mainly about the staff and customers feeling safe and welcome.

REBECCA HARTÉ

  • Proprietor, Farmgate Cafe & Restaurant, English Market, Cork

It has been a bit of an anxious time all of us in this industry but at the same time we have probably never had this amount of time on our hands. 

That’s been lovely, gardening, growing, spending time at home, going for walks, but tinged with anxiety about the business, the team, colleagues, wondering, ‘how do we get back?’ The cafe is so narrow that we’ve had to do a little renovation to create space so people can circulate. 

I’m in the market right now perched up on the balcony sitting in chaos but I know that once we get it finished and get everything up and running again, we’ll get it back very quickly.

We’ll start slowly, three days the first week, just opening the more casual balcony side and once we bed that down and get the hang of it, we’ll open our dining room. There will have to be a takeaway element. Margins in a daytime cafe are very, very tight, so we’ll have to become more E-commerce friendly and do click&collect.

Rebecca Harte of Farmgate Cafe in Cork's English Market
Rebecca Harte of Farmgate Cafe in Cork's English Market

It’s a funny but exciting time, an opportunity for change and it brings out the best in people — we’ve had great days in here with the team, working things out, troubleshooting. We are open 25 years now and it was time for us to audit and review and this has given us chance to take stock. 

The fact that we’ve been given time to slow down and reflect means you can look at what’s working and not working in your business. When you’re going at full tilt all the time, everything’s on the méar fhada [long finger].

Irish hospitality is very different to elsewhere, we make time for the customer, whether it is the smile and the greeting when they arrive or keeping an eye on their table, anticipating requests even before they’ve asked for it. I want to make sure that remains a huge part of what we do. 

We’ll adhere to the guidelines but we want people to feel comfortable.

We need to become a little more agile in how we interact with our customers but at the same time it is still about good simple food and while we have to change we don’t have to change our food, lovely Irish stew, a good soup, free-range chicken from downstairs.

I heard a great phrase the other day, we are all weathering the same storm but all in different boats and I hope we can overcome it and welcome back all our customers.

JOHN BRENNAN

  • Managing Director & Co-Owner (with brother Francis), Park Hotel, Kenmare, Co Kerry

I’ve been on lockdown since October, because I recommenced the last treatment [for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma] so I’ve spent a lot of time at home. 

I’m 55 and I cut the grass for the first time in my life! The time passed, don’t ask me what I did but it passed. It was nice to draw breath and look at the world from a different perspective for a while.

Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a lot to do, we’ve had to move 54 weddings from Dromquinna to next year, so there was a lot of chopping and changing.

We will open Dromquinna on July 3 and the Park on July 10. 

I think from a guidelines point of view, there is a huge responsibility on the public to be responsible when they go to restaurants and hotels. All of the guidelines are directed at the business, none at the customer and if there is to be any punishment for breaking the guidelines, it will be for the business, not the customer.

John Brennan, The Park Hotel, Kenmare, County Kerry. Picture by Don MacMonagle
John Brennan, The Park Hotel, Kenmare, County Kerry. Picture by Don MacMonagle

Already we’ve phone calls, one looking for a booking for nine and when told the maximum is six, they said, fine, we’ll book a six and a three, and you know on the night they’d ask for the two tables to be put together which makes it very awkward for us.

Another was looking to book for 23! A ‘family’ booking! Now, either someone was very ‘busy’ in that family or else they are NOT all coming from the same household. It’s not my position to tell them they are telling lies.

Can you imagine another guest in the restaurant taking a photo of something like that and sending it to the Environmental Health Officer — WE’D be in trouble, not the diners. I

t’s not in our nature in the hospitality business to be inhospitable but there is too much at stake for us not to police it properly.

This year there will be a huge amount of people holidaying at home in Ireland for the first time. In normal circumstances, 72% of people who sleep in a hotel bed outside of Dublin are Irish, generally, a short break as opposed to a holiday, a few nights away, Galway races, weddings etc. 

Catering for people for seven nights as opposed to one or two nights is very different so there is a huge opportunity for the hotel industry to showcase ourselves as an attractive alternative to overseas holidays.

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