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Jason Atherton, Social Group: Back to Business Q&A

Published:  20 August, 2020

As the trade measures up to extraordinary times and swings into the height of summer, leading businesses and operators take stock of trading conditions in the new normal.

Jason Atherton, chef and director of Social Group, which includes Pollen Street Social, continues our series with insights into shifting sales patterns, the road to recovery and a – gradual – return of consumer confidence.


How is the business performing and what are sales like compared with pre-lockdown?

We opened Pollen Street Social and Social Eating House on the 1 August and although it’s still early days, business has been extremely promising and so far very positive. We have had to reduce covers due to Covid measures, which ultimately impacts sales, however we have made sure we make up for these sales falls by reducing our costs and overheads. 

What are the biggest changes and challenges in adjusting to the ‘new norm’? 

We’ve always been a very health and hygiene conscious business, so that side of opening hasn’t been too different. Obviously, we have implemented stricter Covid measures and we are all now wearing our masks throughout service which is a little different to pre-lockdown, but already this is feeling normal and just something we know we have to do. I think the challenge is the unknown. I really hope we don’t have a second wave or lockdown, but we don’t know what’s around the corner which makes me very nervous. We’re just taking every day as it comes.  

Which government measures, if any, have had an impact on your business and have you been passing on or absorbing savings?

The furlough scheme has been very helpful, particularly in the early days. It gave our team security whilst we implement an opening plan and make decisions on the way forward. It helped me to sleep at night knowing that our team could afford to live whilst we were closed. The new Eat Out to Help Out scheme has also had a very positive impact so far – we are open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Pollen Street Social and Social Eating House and we have definitely seen an increase of customers since the scheme has been launched, particularly during lunch with our set lunch menu offering.  

Have you seen any significant shift in type and price of wines and spirits sold and, if so, what? 

Not really, the average spend has been a little lower during early week lunches, but other than that our guests are very much spending as they were before. Those using the scheme to enjoy our lunch menus are not necessarily ordering the most expensive wines, but our regular evening and weekend guests are spending very much like before. 

Covid-19 has ignited discussions around health, not least the government’s anti-obesity campaign which could see mandatory ‘hidden calorie’ content on alcohol labels and menus in the on-trade. In your view, what would be the impact of this? 

I completely agree with tackling obesity and as a nation we need to do more to tackle this. However I’m not convinced displaying calories on our menus will help and instead will give people an added anxiety/worry that they really don’t need right now. People come to us to enjoy a Michelin star meal and relax with loved ones – calorie labelling on menus would potentially distract from that and impose a level of guilt. I understand the importance of labelling in supermarkets and in product advertising, however the customer restaurant experience is very different.  

And what of other government-backed schemes like the Eat Out to Help Out initiative, on the health of the trade? 

As mentioned before, the Eat Out to Help Out initiative has been hugely beneficial, particularly for our lunch trade. I was concerned about weekday lunches, being located in the middle of Mayfair, however the scheme has really helped to boost this. 

The end to the Brexit transition period is just around the corner on 1 January. How have you been preparing during and post-lockdown?

It is what it is, our minds have been on Covid and getting the restaurants reopen, I just want to move onwards and upwards now. 

Have the past few months led to any positive change that the trade can and should adopt going forward? 

I think a lot of the hygiene measure businesses have put in place should really have been adopted before Covid happened and these practices should continue to be implemented even when Covid is no longer circulating. Also, the past few months have given the industry time to revaluate their operations and make changes – the restaurant industry is full on and constantly moving, as a restaurant operator you rarely get time to stop. Although I would have preferred to be open and this not to have happened, I have used the time to step back, plan and make some fundamental changes to help the future growth of the business.  

Covid-19, recession, Brexit, climate crisis – we’re living though extraordinary times – what will the biggest challenges for the drinks trade going ahead? 

Who knows what the future will bring, but for now we need this virus to be under control, customers to dine and drink with us and for us to move forward positively and optimistically – I don’t want to focus so much on the challenges now and instead I would like to move forward with optimism and do what I can to help both the food and beverage trades get back on their feet.