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Round Table: Rebooting the on-trade

Published:  17 September, 2020

Prominent restaurateurs joined Andrew Catchpole around a virtual table to discuss rebuilding trade in the new norm.


Sara Saunby, owner, Salut, Manchester

Martin Williams, MD, M Restaurants and Gaucho

Nacho Campo, wine buyer, Hawksmoor

Paul Jenkins, purchasing manager, Caprice Holdings

How has trade been since reopening?

SS: It’s been better than expected – we are about equal to last year, maybe slightly down. We’re slap bang in the middle of a business district in Manchester. Before lockdown we were very much after-work drinkers, office people, but it’s changing. I don’t know if people are searching for places to go while they are locked down, or because of more time on their hands on furlough. But we’re also busier throughout the day than before lockdown.

We didn’t have any online sales when lockdown happened. We have now built the website so it can accommodate online sales and, given that it went from a standing start to doing quite well, we have decided to continue to focus on that.

NC: We were packed the first weeks we opened [one outlet], like a December, with endless people coming through the door and very happy to see us. That first wave of people really wanted to enjoy themselves, to treat themselves, but then towards the third week it normalised, with less of the flamboyant feel. And we started to see more people coming in without reservations, so we started allowing for walk-ins late July.

MW: It’s been an interesting mix and with huge swings between residential, regional, City and West End. We were among the first brands to reopen and I hope gave confidence to the rest of the sector to ‘re-start’. Our guests have been great [and] there is a higher average spend than usual as guests are keen to stay in one venue for pre and post-dinner drinking. We have seen an uplift of 20% in cocktail sales, an increase in brunch demand and Eat Out to Help Out brought a younger, but less wine-loving, demographic.

PJ: August has been exceptional. We were pleased to see that the EOHO scheme not only added volume early in the week but also helped average spend as, having taken advantage of the discount on food, many guests took the opportunity to trade up on their wine purchase. September continues to look strong.

Looking ahead at the short to medium-term future, what do you foresee in terms of adapting to a ’new norm’?

SS: I think whatever we are seeing now isn’t going to be long-term change. I just think people are very flexible, but their behaviour won’t change forever, they will adapt again to whatever the new ‘new normal’ is.

NC: In the beginning, people were just happy to have a space in a restaurant and take whatever was available. How will that change? I reckon it will definitely go back to how it was before, people will become more confident and start demanding what they had before. But it’s difficult to know how it will pan out.

MW: I foresee a very challenging Q4 once the world is no longer supported by furlough and we face some significant unemployment issues across the UK.

PJ: For us the strategy remains unchanged – to continue to differentiate ourselves from the competition through the quality of the offer and working very hard to ensure our guests feel comfortable dining with us. Ultimately, we are a hospitality business and that is what we must provide. And the trade generally seems to have done a great job of getting itself mobilised again.

What steps can you take to negate some of the impacts of a major recession?

SS: Always be adaptable and flexible – it’s the only way you survive anyway. We’re going to take a long, hard look at the other side of this, not just how to bring the customers back, but the expenses, the rent, how to negotiate with the landlord. It’s unsustainable for the hospitality industry to have the harsh rents it’s had put to it and to weather the economic crisis and to keep employees in jobs, so it’s going to be looking at every facet of the business. Landlords won’t want to lose good tenants – the reality is that if we leave now they won’t find anyone else. So we need to drag rents down, along with other costs, to help us survive the economic crisis that is happening all around us right now.

How is all of this impacting on the food and drink offer and the relationship with suppliers?

SS: We haven’t changed anything so far. We work with about 25-30 suppliers. Elsewhere, everything is volume driven, so we don’t get the best prices at Salut, because we have a very diverse range. It’s something we could look at, but as a last resort, because Salut is about wine.

NC: We decided to go for a revised food menu where some items, regardless of how popular, were very demanding to produce, so to help the kitchen, we left them out. And with drink, holding stock has been a bit of a topic, with a lot of discussion about what we are going to do with our wine list and our back bars. Reducing the wine offering will be one of my many focuses. I will have to be very creative and there are a lot of conversations to have with our suppliers – they have also been struggling a lot – but we probably won’t be able to work with the number that we have in the past. The wine list will focus on a smaller offer, but it might become more dynamic, changing a little bit faster.

We’ll be able to keep the wines we do by the glass and wines with some volume, but from the fine wine-buying perspective, all that window shopping that we used to do – any other year I’d be looking for high-end wine ahead of November and December – that is not going to happen this year.

PJ: Broadly speaking, I think the trade has done extremely well in supporting us as restaurateurs and vice versa, we have worked hard to do our bit to ensure our suppliers continue to have a viable business.