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Q&A: Xavier Rousset MS, co-founder Blandford Comptoir, Cabotte, Trade Hospitality App

Published:  11 February, 2021

A year on from the start of the start of the Covid pandemic, which brought the restaurant industry to its knees, Hugh Jones talks to master sommelier and restauranteur Xavier Rousset about where to from here.

How are your businesses coping at the moment?

We’re sitting tight, just like everyone else. I’m thinking that it may be May rather than March when we can expect to re-open, but nobody has visibility of what’s going on. The vaccine being rolled out is hopefully good news for spring onwards. We’re sitting tight, talking to the team, talking to the bank, talking to the landlords.

I read recently that 6,000 premises licenses were lost last year, and I expect this figure to go up this year. Even though we won’t be locked down as long, for a lot of people this lockdown is the final straw. Everyone was holding off for a good Christmas so we can get money in the bank for the rainy days, we didn’t even get that. You need to have strong backers, cash in the bank, or the bank supporting you. Otherwise, the landlord is demanding the rent but you’re not in a position to pay, which is crazy. Even as a big operator, a successful one, I don’t think you can sustain that for too long.

Has the hospitality industry been a scapegoat for the government?

That’s the most frustrating part for all of us in the industry, that we’re being scapegoats. We don’t think it’s fair. We invested in a lot of stuff – a metre apart so we reduce covers, the 10pm curfew, you compromise and compromise and compromise to survive, and you’re still the first ones being told off. It’s like being at school being a good student, doing your best, and still being told by the teacher that it’s not good enough. And the teacher doesn’t have a clue so that’s the worst thing.

When things do start to recover, is there anything you think may happen to aid the recovery?

All of my places will re-open. For me, the hardest by far is to see the other guys who can’t re-open. There’s no appetite because people have lost their jobs or don’t want to spend. They’re worried. Then even more places will disappear. As soon as we’re off life support and pay full whack, we go into the red very quickly. There are hundreds of thousands of people like you [who want to support but can’t afford to because they lost their jobs].

But, I also think that maybe – and I’m being positive here – as soon as we hear that things are going to start again, people are going to recruit. Some companies just went watertight, they got rid of a lot of people. They’re sitting with two staff when maybe they used to have 10. They’ll need more than two [people] when they re-open, so maybe there’s an influx of jobs to be had.

A lot of people got rid of a lot of staff, but look at me, I’m recruiting for positions right now. At Blandford Comptoir we need a new head chef. So I’m hoping that will be the case.

Do you think there will be any changes to hospitality when we do recover?

I think people will be cautious, especially in the corporate world. I doubt anyone will do a reception for 100 people straight away. I’m convinced some people won’t turn up, so maybe larger groups will take longer to come back to life. I think people have got used to more space around the table, especially in London – square metres are expensive so we tend to put a lot of tables and I think, if you have 20cm to 30cm between tables, people may start to become a bit agitated. I don’t intend to change the layout for now.

Technologically, what will be the positive changes long-term?

QR codes could definitely be one – not only are you saving the planet with less paper, people have got used to it through lockdown, so that could be a positive. Again, some people like to have the old fashioned menu. Maybe a reduction of items on the menu is something we’ll see. That’s what we’ve done at Cabotte. For instance, we went for seven and eight starters, and went from seven to eight main course items down to four and have had no complaints whatsoever. If the menu is well balanced and the price is also well balanced, I don’t see any issue. It’s also good from the chef’s point of view, you can control the costs better. If we know we’re going to lose turnover, which I think most of us will for the next few years, we need to get the target right regarding margin. If you lose turnover and margin on top of that, that’s it, there’s no point to re-opening.

Is there anything the government can do to help the industry rebuild?

We are on life support now, so we will need a lot longer to get back to normal. We can’t just turn the machine off because people won’t make it. [The rates cut] is a big one, because that’s a massive breather for us. And VAT. Keep it another year and we’ll see – although the government may not be able to afford any of it. It’s either that or you lose another few hundreds of thousands of jobs. And then no jobs mean people need to be paid by the government, and less national insurance and PAYE contributions and so forth.

Do you think there might be a switch in location, with a move to more residential parts of London?

I think central London will still be central London when businesses come back and when tourists come back. People are not going to go out in zones two or three to dine or stay, so for them central London will remain. We were forced into residential areas for food due to lockdown. The curfew was early so people went closer to their homes. I know some places in Berkeley Square that were absolutely pumping in August and July, with no tourists, just Londoners. As a new operator, the answer is yes – I’d look at residential. I’d look at St John’s Wood, Hammersmith or Islington, but I wouldn’t hit Marylebone or Soho Straight away. You’d be surprised, St John’s Wood is only 10% to 15% cheaper than Soho, so it’s marginal. Residential in these wealthy areas is pretty expensive, so why would a restaurant be cheaper?

What about the City?

They still want to be entertained, go out with friends, catch up with colleagues, there will be less volume for sure, but what we saw in Cabotte in October to December was the spend 10% to 15% higher than last year. So people went out less, we had less volume, but blimey, they were eating and drinking well, just having a good time. So they may not go to a restaurant every week, but perhaps instead every other week and they’ll go and spend more.

Cabotte is hopefully in a good position where the senior management come in, so in terms of expenses, hopefully they can still spend. The city hasn’t been hit as hard in terms of finance, they’re still trading OK. A lot of bankers I know are still doing OK. But The Don has closed and there will be more casualties. The City won’t be the same, for sure.

What effect if any might Brexit have on recovery?

Price increases in the restaurants on wine and some food we import. In terms of staffing it’s a bit unknown. I think we’ll be ok for a few months, if not a few years because a lot of people have lost their jobs, so recruiting could be easier in the next six to 12 months. When we go back to what we used to know in London – we’ll see. A lot of people, Italians, French, Spanish for example, won’t come to the country to work. You have to apply for a visa so it’s going to be a lot more complicated. Short term I think we’ll be fine, mid to long term I’m not sure in terms of employment. Prices will go up, I guarantee that.

How beneficial have other government support schemes been?

As a business owner, if furlough wasn’t there, a lot of businesses would have got rid of their staff. I could afford maybe 20% of the people I kept, so furlough is a support to the employer, but first to the employee. And we do have to pay a little PAYE to keep them. After that, the biggest things for us were the grants – pure cash to come in and help pay bills – electricity, insurance and rent, and then when we re-open eventually if we can have a breather on VAT and rates, that’s the key. The battle is not over. When we re-open it’s just another battle, and not the end of the war. The real battle is starting. We will be victorious, it’s just a question of time and cost.