Those business that serve food on their premises to seated customers, mostly restaurants and cafes, are now wrestling with the conundrum of re-opening a month from now, even as full HSE operational guidelines are still unclear at time of going to print, including, crucially, the issue of social distancing, which has the potential to seal the fate of most restaurants.
There have been grim, even hyperbolic predictions of impending carnage in the sector but most has been conjecture and speculation for this situation is utterly unprecedented, involving myriad variables extending far beyond the immediate world of hospitality.
As it stands, all restaurants are in similar limbo, closed and largely clueless about the future, bar those already recognising they are out of the game, temporarily or for good.
But as each individual business reopens, each emerges with its own unique set of challenges based on whatever random combination of the following applies: amount and nature of debt; relationship with landlord, terms of lease; physical infrastructure (access, toilets, distance between and amount of seating, kitchen size, invariably the smallest space achievable in the overall footprint); and location (urban, suburban or rural, especially important when dependant on destination diners from afar, despite the 20km restriction remaining on June 29).
With talk of a Greater Depression to eclipse the Great Depression, will the 2008 crash seem a mild haircut in comparison to impending decapitation? Expense accounts will be slashed, tourism numbers have already plummeted. Will extra staff be needed to monitor customer movement and oversee additional hygiene measures even as seat numbers are halved?
Economic apocalypse or no, many jobs and some restaurants will be lost forever.
And then, the greatest unknown of all: how will diners behave? Will they still live in fear, most especially the more vulnerable over-60s, always particularly valued customers? How do you feel ‘at home’ in a sterile laboratory, attended on by masked servers behind perspex screens? Will diners do, as in re-opened Berlin last week, stay away in their droves? Will re-opening damn some businesses to slow and painful strangulation? Perhaps there is a re-opening bounce during summer but what happens when economic reality (currently stayed by Covid payments) and a possible second wave arrive? Will there be a Christmas for the hospitality sector, traditionally, the busiest time of the year? Is there any point in opening this year at all? Can the sector afford to wait until a vaccine is discovered? Is this the end of Irish hospitality?
Let’s be crystal clear, we not only need the hospitality sector for the positive impact of its pleasures on our mental and social wellbeing but equally for its profoundly important role in our economic wellbeing, estimated total tourism expenditure being €9.4 billion (in 2018, most recent figures). Tourism doesn’t exist without hospitality.
In addition, hospitality provides roughly 180,000 jobs, rising to 250,000, with seasonal and part-time workers. Fáilte Ireland surveys have shown 83% of overseas visitors arrive with low or no expectations of the food offering, yet leave with expectations greatly exceeded, even ‘blown away’, and the FI 2018-23 strategy had become about shifting perceptions, changing from Ireland as a producer of great ingredients to one with an authentic cuisine.
For the State to turn its back on the sector would be catastrophic—it needs fiscal support, and in multiple areas: for employees, and then measures around rates, rents, VAT and income tax.
Equally important, supports are needed for those exiting the sector, collapsed businesses no longer sustainable by blind faith and sentimentality alone, ensuring they don’t leave a blighted landscape, for themselves or creditors.
I happen to believe Irish hospitality will survive if for no other reason than, when done right, it can be one of the purest commercial expressions of the human qualities of friendliness and generosity, but it will be greatly changed.
Change was necessary ever before Covid-19 as the industry engaged in a race to the bottom, shaving already fine margins, struggling for staff, paying exorbitant rents, to desperately compete for the ever-shortening attention span of diners solely concerned with the next big thing, the newest flavour, the most liked Instagram post.
New University of Antwerp research conducted across 11 EU countries, including Ireland, shows, in lockdown, domestic home cooking skyrocketed, driven as much by preferences for nutritional value and concern for local producers and communities as by taste. That lockdown lasted beyond the six weeks normally necessary to form any habit, means the change in attitudes will outlive the crisis for many consumers, which will turn change preferences and values when dining out.
Other research has shown Irish priorities are right now all about reuniting with family and loved ones; accordingly, restaurants will have to elevate the experience way beyond merely facilitating much of the mindless consumption of yore, to one of real human value.
We will spend less time in restaurants, whether we want to or not, as tables need to be turned more quickly to meet margins. Menus will be shortened, tasting menus largely ditched. Wifi access will be restricted to discourage laptop lingerers even as increased technology will facilitate virtual ordering, queueing and contactless payment. We will eat out less often but we will value the experience more and use restaurants in other ways as temporary takeaway and retail models become permanently embedded.
The current landlord system needs to be addressed, for ALL businesses? Why not re-weight the system so the landlord has more skin in the game, with rents including a performance-related rebate/bonus?
I personally don’t believe we will ever get ‘back’ to whatever ‘back’ was; rather these are the very painful birth pangs of an entirely new Irish hospitality world and key to survival and eventual prosperity will be a bold spirit of enterprise and innovation, ever abundant in Irish hospitality. But those who will fare best all will be those driven by a love of what they do, the spaces they provide, the food they serve up and the customers who eat that food, Irish hospitality in its truest form. Sláinte beath.