South West restaurateurs remain optimistic despite lockdown frustration

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

South West England restaurants Coronavirus lockdown frustration and optimism Nathan Outlaw Harriet Mansell

Related tags South west england Coronavirus lockdown Restaurant Nathan outlaw

Restaurateurs in the South West of England, where infection rates remain low, are optimistic for the future despite the frustration of having to shut down due to the country-wide lockdown.

As with the rest of England, hospitality venues across the South West have had to close their doors for at least four weeks under the new lockdown​, which came into force today (5 November).

However, in stark contrast to other parts of the country, the Covid-19 transmission rate across the South West region has remained relatively low in recent months.

Chef Nathan Outlaw, who relaunched his flagship Cornish restaurant in Port Isaac as a much simpler affair earlier this year as a result of the first lockdown, says having to close his doors again is a great shame given how hard he and his team have worked to ensure the restaurant retained a steady stream of trade during the usually quieter winter months.

“It is what it is,” he tells BigHospitality​.

“The Government has spoken and we have to do what we’re asked, but from our point of view it is frustrating.

“We’ve had a cracking summer season in the South West, and having to close again means we’re going to lose that momentum and positivity we’ve built up.

“The hardest challenge in Cornwall is keeping during the off-season, and yet this year we were fully booked throughout November; something we’ve never seen before.

“It was exciting, and showed just how Cornwall has benefitted from staycation boom.”

The Government has justified its decision to place the whole country under lockdown claiming that areas like the South West, where incidence of the virus is low, would still run out of hospital capacity in a matter of weeks unless it acted now to impose restrictions.

Under the lockdown, all restaurants, pubs and bars in England must close, although takeaways and deliveries are permitted.

New ventures ‘roll with punches’

For chef Harriet Mansell, whose Lyme Regis restaurant Robin Wylde only opened its doors last week, having to close again so quickly came as shock.

“We’d heard the whispers, but we didn’t expect it to actually happen,” she says.

“It’s certainly not ideal, but ultimately you’ve just got to roll with the punches, and that’s what we’ve done.”

"You've got to roll with the punches" - Harriet Mansell, who opened Robin Wylde in Lyme Regis just last week

The fledgling nature of Mansell’s business means her entitlement to state support is limited, and as a result she quickly made the decision to pivot to a takeaway and delivery operation, serving a hearty menu of stews, soups and cassoulets.

“We saw restaurants diversify their model in the first lockdown, so we made a decision right away that we would launch a takeaway and delivery arm, just to help us retain an income stream during the shutdown.”

Outlaw operated his own delivery and takeaway service during the first lockdown, but has chosen to forgo it this time as, with lower occupancy levels locally, he doesn’t believe it will be as viable.

His focus, instead, is on looking after his staff, and making sure the restaurant is ready to reopen on in early December when the lockdown is currently due to lift; although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to rule out an extension​ if he deems it necessary.

“It’s the mental welfare of the staff I really worry about too,” says Outlaw.

“There’s a likely chance lockdown could go on for longer than a month, and to miss out on the Christmas trade is pretty much unthinkable.”

"Missing on the Christmas trade is pretty much unthinkable" - Nathan Outlaw

Tough Christmas trading ahead

Reflecting on his time spent working in London, Outlaw says the restaurants he used to operate in the capital used to do a substantial amount of their yearly business over the festive season.

“I feel so bad for operators in the capital,” he says.

“Situations like this are terrible for the industry, but we’re resilient, and I think people will find other ways of doing stuff.”

For Mansell, despite the disappointment of having to close her doors so soon after opening, she’s optimistic about the months ahead.

“We’re relieved that we had the opportunity to open because if we hadn’t it would have been horrific,” she says

“But now we’ve had the high and the buzz of opening week, and we’re fully charged to make the most of the situation, as well as plan for what changes we will make to the menu and service ready for when we reopen in December.”

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