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Bouncing Back Q&A: Quique Dacosta, owner, Arros QD, London

Published:  10 December, 2021

With three Michelin stars under his belt, Spanish chef Quique Dacosta opened his first London venue, the paella celebrating Arros QD, in 2019. He talks to Harpers about surviving the perfect storm of Covid, Brexit and the ongoing difficulties for hospitality.

The beginning of January marked the end of the Brexit transition period – how well has your London restaurant adapted to the new trading rules?

Sadly Brexit has not yet finished and we are continuing to implement transitions as we speak. The initial problems of Brexit remain mostly unsolved and we are as yet still to feel the effects of future problems coming our way. We're working closely with suppliers who are shielding us from some of the issues and helping to redesign our menus in response to the limitations Brexit has imposed upon us. In relation to labour, by cutting the workforce supply, productivity in the UK, certainly across the hospitality sector, has immediately fallen, and salaries have forcefully been raised, this is a direct result of too small a workforce in the marketplace.

Foreign workers are not deemed skilled labour, despite their high level of abilities and training, which has limited the number of people available to do the job, raising wages and causing an urgent shortage of new workers among the UK's unemployed. There aren't many workers accessible in this industry, in my opinion. As a result, we are compelled to use transient labour, who are costly and untrainable, and so less productive. We work hard to keep our finest employees by providing a career path and job security, and we work even harder to achieve the best work-life balance possible.

We don’t know how Brexit is going to affect the disposable income of our customers in the next year, but we’ll be planning to adapt should that happen. Between Brexit and Covid we haven’t stopped adapting month on month!

What is the most important business lesson you've learnt during the pandemic?

The most important learning is the reinforcement of an idea that the team in a hospitality company are people who have chosen this industry because they are creative, motivated, adaptive, and have a belief in delivering a product that brings happiness to people’s souls. The way that our team can react in a positive way to all the situations that have been thrown at us is outstanding. That is also the most important lesson we have re-learned. How the hospitality companies can rise to the challenge. Loyalty, commitment, adaptability...

How can the hospitality trade improve its ethos and change the way it does business for the better?

Hospitality companies are providing a career, training, and a structure of support from leadership for people to grow, flourish, and see this as a future career for themselves. The industry also needs more managers to work hard in finding a balance between life and work – this is a very labour intensive business, and that is something any company today worth its salt is working hard to solve, creating a better work/life balance. We also need to realise that restaurants have always been too cheap, and that has resulted in lower salaries, so the industry as a whole needs to start reflecting on how it should be pricing the salaries employees should be paid. This adjustment needs to be made going forward.

We need to change also how people feel in restaurants and think and treat the professionals serving. The value of a waiter does not only come from how companies pay and treat them. It also comes from how the customers treat them when coming to dine. The day we all start considering the professionals that work in restaurants as professionals, we will all enjoy our meals better.

Has a succession of lockdowns fundamentally altered consumer behaviour?

We need to start looking at the silver linings of the pandemic going forward. How we see our customer has fundamentally changed, and therefore how we see ourselves and the products and services we give has also fundamentally changed. We are a company that provides 'gastronomic experiences'. We can do that within our own theatre, where we’re controlling every single aspect of the experience or we can do it at your home with different levels of intervention on our part – from getting you to cook your own paella to sending a cook from our restaurant to your home (and everything in between). Arros QD nevertheless is not an everyday restaurant, neither is it an exceptional occasion only restaurant, but it is a destination restaurant and as more and more people have slowly come out of the lockdown environment, we have quickly regained our customers.

We also exhibit a highly evolved dining space with extraordinary air circulation and very high hygiene standards, our customers have learned to recognise this and appreciate it all the more, which is an advantage for a company like ours.

How has the restaurant performed in 2020/21, during this difficult period?

We've been able to open every time the government has allowed us to do so. My London restaurant was only seven months old when the pandemic broke out, and still in its initial launch cycle. We've had to repeat this (re)launch process every time we returned, and in the meantime, with the aid of our stakeholders, we've been able to reduce costs while closed and also generate new revenue through AQD at home. It's been a challenging time, but one in which we've learnt a lot.

In light of the reintroduction of stricter Covid measures, what are you expectations for Christmas 2021?

We haven't really lowered our expectations for Christmas because what we're seeing is that consumers want the anti-Covid measures that good restaurants will have put in place to be reinstated. Customers want to feel safe, and our measures and restaurant allow them to do so.

Are you planning to open new venues in 2022?

We hope to establish ourselves as a thriving London restaurant. After a year and a half of learning, we've made a significant adjustment in our gastronomic orientation, and we're pleased that our customers like it. We'll keep learning and settling in as a result of this. We'll start planning a worldwide expansion of both Ibérica and Arros QD from there.

Do you think there will be significant resistance in the on-trade next year, regarding employee demands for better wages and conditions?

Yes, in those organisations that haven't addressed such concerns yet, although I'm not sure how they would keep employees if that had not been addressed by now. However, both the business owners and customers must recognise that prices will need to rise slightly from the lowest to the most expensive restaurants in order to pay acceptable living wages to the highly skilled professionals who prepare and serve our meals.