Covid in Sheffield: Cancellations hit restaurants as new restrictions announced to tackle Omicron variant

New Covid restrictions will cost jobs and close restaurants in Sheffield due to a lack of ‘safety net’ this time, a hospitality consultant has warned.

By David Walsh
Tuesday, 14th December 2021, 7:20 pm

‘Plan B’ measures to combat the spread of the Omicron variant were agreed by MPs on Tuesday, having first been announced last week.

They triggered a wave of cancellations that will see some venues go out of business, according to Justin Rowntree, founder of Silversmiths on Arundel Street and now a hospitality consultant.

WHY IS THE SECTOR IN SUCH A PERILOUS SITUATION?

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Many firms are already on ‘thin ice’ due to debts from bounce back loans - and desperate for a good December.

The sector is in a worse situation now than at any time in the pandemic due to a lack of government support, such as grants or furlough which paid the wages of laid-off staff.

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Meanwhile ‘fragile’ firms were already on ‘thin ice’ due to debts from bounce back loans - and they were desperate for a good December.

The new measures include requiring a vaccine passport, or proof of a negative test, to go to nightclubs and football matches. Face masks are compulsory on public transport and in most indoor public venues, except pubs or restaurants. And people should work from home if they can.

‘Plan B’ measures have triggered a wave of cancellations that will see some venues go out of business, according to Justin Rowntree, founder of Silversmiths on Arundel Street and now a hospitality consultant.

But while none directly affect restaurants and pubs, public concern about the virus is hitting hospitality at a vital time of year.

WHY IS DECEMBER SO IMPORTANT TO RESTAURANTS?

Restaurants need to do at least three times the trade of an average month to get through January, said Mr Rowntree, a non-executive director of Blend Kitchen on Ecclesall Road.

At Blend Kitchen, some 35 per cent of Christmas bookings had already cancelled, three yesterday morning alone, he said.

None of the new measures directly affect restaurants and pubs but concern about the virus is hitting hospitality at a vital time of year.

And with two weeks to go before Christmas, more were expected, he added.

More restrictions, which haven’t been ruled out, would only add to the ‘landslide of calamities’ hitting the sector, he added.

He said: “Blend Kitchen has lost 35 per cent of bookings so far, which is probably worth £5,000 on food, without drinks.

Justin Rowntree, right, and David Edwards at Blend Kitchen on Ecclesall Road. Picture: Chris Etchells

“The bitter irony is the big bookings of up to 50 are the first to cancel. The tables of four and six are generally not cancelling.

“We have a lot of public sector support because we are a social enterprise and they are the first to cancel too because they are sticking to the rules. A casual dining restaurant on West Street might see fewer cancellations.

“The financial situation and the uncertainty are really, really stressful.

“December is when you make the money to get through a traditionally quiet January.

“But people are reluctant to book and we are relying on walk-ins and don’t know if we need to cancel staff. It’s the inability to plan and the risk of being unable to pay wages and survive.”

Mr Rowntree said the sector had been looking forward to the December ‘they didn’t get last year’ when the country was in lockdown.

WHAT WAS THE ‘SAFETY NET’ THAT KEPT FIRMS GOING?

But due to a lack of a safety net this year some firms would be hit much harder, he said.

Last year they were ‘propped up’ with government support. Without them, firms now had to be break even - or they were finished, he said.

He added: “There’s been a real false sense of security in the last 18 months. This time there’s no safety net and if you fall you are hitting the ground.

“It doesn’t need to be the full lockdown, just less takings than break even and you haven’t got a business any more.

Mr Rowntree predicted there would ‘definitely’ be closures next month, while others would suffer a slow death.

“Independent businesses are not sitting on a bank of cash. It is generally hand to mouth, they don’t need to dip too low to not survive,” he said.

Silversmiths restaurant found fame on Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares programme in 2009. Mr Rowntree left in 2017 and now runs hospitality consultancy, In The Sweet Spot, advising venues across Sheffield including Sheffield Theatres and Museums Sheffield.

ARE MPS IN FAVOUR OF BRINGING BACK SUPPORT?

Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts said if the restrictions continued into the new year he was in favour of bringing back government support.

He added: “The new measures don’t directly affect restaurants but people are concerned about the virus. We are not quite sure how it is going to play out, it could be short term.

“If it goes into the new year there needs to be help for hospitality. We could also extend vaccine passports to restaurants. They could benefit because people feel safer.”

Chris Harrison is chief executive of Solita - which has a restaurant in Sheffield.

He said the firm has had had lots of Christmas party cancellations because of uncertainty, but also lots of smaller bookings.

He told HallamFM: "One of our locations had 75 cancellations in terms of numbers just over Friday evening and Saturday - that is worth £2,500 of revenue to us.

“Two corporate clients cancelled their Christmas parties for this week; £11,000 of revenue gone. There's no legal reason for them to cancel, but this mixed messaging has had an impact.

"As it currently stands there's no need to wear a mask in restaurants, and that's mixed messaging. It's confusing for staff and creates uncertainty. I really feel for the staff as they've been through a lot and the impact of mental health has been big on them.

"Some of the staff are often on the lower end of the earnings scale and are working fantastically well for us, but they know if people aren't coming through the doors then hours might be affected. Trade affects us from top to bottom.”

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