A Friday-night gourmet takeaway and a film has become the new dinner with friends. Has the pandemic permanently changed our relationship with restaurants, or will we be queueing for the IRL experience as soon as they reopen? Kathryn Lewis asked some industry insiders
As a result of the pandemic, some South West restaurants have been open for only five of the last 13 months. In a bid to keep their businesses afloat, many restaurateurs – who previously wouldn’t have considered doing takeaway – reimagined their menus and entered the world of food delivery.
While chefs and restaurant owners are counting down the days until restrictions lift, there’s a question that’s keeping some awake at night: are diners ready to give up the comfort and ease of ordering restaurant-quality food at home in favour of returning to eating out?
And will restaurant owners who’ve enjoyed lockdown success with takeaways and at-home meal kits want to switch up their offer permanently?
Plugging the gap
It’s a safe bet that chefs would rather be cooking for a dining room full of customers than a queue of impatient delivery drivers. As much as anything else they need the income. Even with government grants, the furlough scheme and the introduction of takeaway and meal kits, nothing pays the bills like a full restaurant.
One chef who’s experienced it all first hand is Jonas Lodge, chef patron of GL50 in Cheltenham.
‘I wasn’t expecting to open a fine dining restaurant and be doing takeaways,’ he says.
‘Some weeks it [takeaway] is profitable but, when we sell less than 20 covers, we make a very small margin due to the prep time – it’s the same for 20 as it is for 30. A few more orders makes a big difference.’
Chantel Jenkins, co-owner of Rock Salt Cafe & Brasserie in Plymouth, thinks takeaway alone is not doable long-term.
‘Our weekend takeaway service during lockdown has brought in about ten per cent of our usual revenue,’ she explains.
‘It’s been a success, provided work for staff and helped get us through this tough period, but it’s not amazingly profitable and wouldn’t be viable on its own.’
The rise of the restaurant meal kit
While Lockdown 1.0 was all about takeaway – with restaurant owners navigating logistical nightmares and tolerating high charges from delivery chains – Lockdown 3.0 saw the rise of the restaurant meal kit.
From Michelin-starred menus and Sunday roasts to market-fresh fish feasts, finish-at-home meal kits have enabled foodies across the UK to enjoy dishes from their favourite restaurants, as well as from those they’ve always wanted to visit.
It doesn’t just benefit the customer either. Going direct like this works better for indie restaurants than operating a takeaway service via the likes of Just Eat and Deliveroo.
‘Despite large takeaway order volumes, we’ve really struggled to make the finances work when paying a big commission to delivery companies,’ says Jennifer Best of Poco Tapas Bar in Bristol.
‘Restaurant margins can’t accommodate for delivery commission, so we transitioned to Poco at Home meal kits which was a much more viable option for us. It also has the added bonus of being more in line with our style of food and our values.’
The popularity of at home meal kits has been hugely beneficial to Rick and Jill Stein Restaurants in Cornwall. It recently announced it was recruiting 30 new members of staff to help fulfil the volume of orders.
‘We recently sold 5,500 Stein’s at Home boxes in one day, which is great considering we thought we’d only sell 50 a week in the first lockdown,’ says Jack Stein.
‘It means we’ve been able to provide work for around 40 members of staff who didn’t qualify for furlough.
‘We’re looking to build the brand while also using our platform to support fantastic Cornish producers. We’re hoping to include items such as ceramics and art on our webshop as a lot of small producers have lost a huge chunk of their income from the closure of the hospitality industry.’
Can at-home kits and IRL dining work in harmony?
Keen to find out if Food readers will be ditching gourmet takeaways and at-home services once restaurants reopen, we polled 100 readers. Sixty-eight per cent said they will be returning to hospitality venues when they reopen, while 32 per cent said they aren’t ready for that yet. This may just be a snapshot but it suggests a third of diners will still want the at-home restaurant experience for some time to come.
Among restaurateurs and chefs, there are mixed feelings about whether at-home and dine-in can work in harmony.
‘For the style of food we do it’s hard to run them alongside each other,’ says Jonas of GL50.
‘The food would probably need to be collected before we started our evening service so we could be sure we had 100 per cent capacity for the restaurant.’
On the other hand, Jennifer of Poco Tapas Bar thinks it could work – with certain caveats: ‘We could make it work but we would have to either serve a very basic offering during the day or do evening dine-in only. I don’t see the takeaway revolution taking off to be honest. The meal kits to cook at home may stay on the scene though.’
Like many business decisions at the moment, the call on whether to continue offering takeaway and at-home meal kits may be a case of trial and error and, ultimately, will be unique to each venue.
As for the punters? Enjoying restaurant-quality food without the faff of getting a babysitter and booking a taxi has its place but surely no one believes it matches up to the joy of being out on the town and revelling in the IRL restaurant experience? We’ll wait and see.
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