'If they manage the pandemic in an intelligent way, maybe I’ll be able to feed my family'

Pip Sloan
·5 min read
Protesters at the Hospitality demonstration on Monday morning, held at Parliament Square -  Barcroft Media
Protesters at the Hospitality demonstration on Monday morning, held at Parliament Square - Barcroft Media

A cacophony of rattling cocktail shakers, cheese graters, pots and pans echoed around Westminster this morning as a brigade of hospitality workers gathered to protest outside the Houses of Parliament. For an hour the wall of noise served as a stark contrast to the many restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes that lie eerily silent – in some cases permanently – as the latest Government restrictions leave businesses fighting for survival. 

Around 200 staff members from every corner of the hospitality sector joined the peaceful demonstration, organised by HospoDemo in a bid to encourage the Government to revise its policies on restrictions and financial support – among them high-profile chefs including Yotam Ottolenghi, Margot Henderson and Jason Atherton, and many others who had travelled from across the country to take part. Masks were compulsory as the protesters clattered whisks, wooden spoons and saucepan lids – the tools of their beleaguered trade. 

Alex Hely-Hutchinson, chef and owner of cult cafe 26 Grains in Neal’s Yard and Stoney Street in Borough Market, attended before rushing off to organise the rota of her restaurants, both of which she fears will be badly hit by the capital’s new tier-two restrictions, which prevent all but those within the same household from booking a table inside. “I think we’ll start to see a wave of cancellations soon,” she says. “We had a very busy week last week – I think people were booking in for a last hurrah – so I’m concerned about what will happen in the next few weeks.” 

For some businesses in tier-two areas, the effects have already been devastating; Jeremy King, co-founder of the venerated restaurant group Corbin & King, recently revealed that just two days after London’s tier-two status was announced his restaurants had received 2,000 cancellations. Writing for The Evening Standard, King accused the Government of cherry-picking scientific statistics in order to justify its actions. 

“So many of us have put so much time, effort and money into making customers feel safe,” Hely-Hutchinson tells me. “We paid for a track and trace system way before the NHS introduced its own version. The Government needs to trust us. I don’t know a single restaurant owner or staff member who isn’t taking this seriously, and if things don’t change, we’re going to see a hell of a lot of people out of work.”

A recent survey by Foodhub reveals that 85 per cent of restaurant workers want the Government to do more to help independent restaurants, and 64 per cent think the support laid out in the Chancellor’s Winter Spending Plan is not enough.

This view was shared by many people protesting today.  

“I’m here because there are so many other restaurants I see here today – people I recognise and friends in the industry – that I don’t want to see disappear. So much of what this country has to offer lies in its hospitality industry, but without a revised plan that places more trust in us to keep our customers safe, or more support for businesses facing closure, I don’t know what our future holds,” said Hely-Hutchinson. 

Fellow chef and business owner Danny Jack attended the protest to represent the catering and events industry, which he believes has been particularly overlooked. “I have my own catering business, which is now a takeaway business. It’s not what I wanted to do, but I’m making the most of it. I miss my old life,” he says. Jack believes the Government needs more targeted awareness, including long-term support packages, around the events industry, as well as better representation in Parliament. 

A recent petition has highlighted the fact that, despite the industry generating £130 billion in activity and being responsible for more than three million jobs, there is no minister for hospitality to represent the best interests of these businesses. It has so far gained 29,000 of the 100,000 signatures needed to become a Government debate.

Matt Phelps, chef and owner of Funthyme catering company, agrees that representation, as well as a long-term support plan, is what his sector needs. “We’ve been established for 10 years and we were gearing up for our busiest year ever in 202. That’s obviously not going to happen.” 

Waving a banner depicting Boris Johnson as a suckling pig with the caption, ‘We’re getting a roasting: weddings, catering, events’, Phelps wants to see more conversation about what support the industry will be getting in the long term. “What we need is a hibernation package, tailored to small, medium and large businesses. If they can micromanage the industry in a more intelligent way rather than a drop-down menu on the Government website, maybe I’ll be able to pay my rent and feed my family.” 

For Phelps and his fellow protesters, there are fears for the future of what is now one of the most innovative and exciting dining scenes in the world. “It’s an amazing, incredibly diverse and progressive sector,” says Phelps. “We’ve got the most varied and best restaurants in the world, and that translates to catering, too. If we lose that, we’ll go back 20 years, and all our hard work will have been for nothing.” 

As my conversation with Phelps comes to a close, so too does the demonstration. Swiftly and peacefully, chefs, cafe owners and front-of-house staff gather their belongings and dash off to open their venues, well aware of the potential financial loss from attending the protest – because these days, every minute of service matters.