THREE months after the enforced closure of restaurants, bars and pubs across the UK, today sees the hospitality industry emerge from its hibernation. NICK MOSLEY talks to businesses about what consumers can expect and the very real business challenges that lay ahead.

Although our home cooking skills may have improved no-end over the past weeks, outwardly it appears that we’re all itching to get back out to enjoy food and drink in a social environment whether that’s a celebratory restaurant dinner with friends, or a pint with a mate at the local pub.

Yet with Covid-19 still in circulation – as witnessed this week in Leicester – it is clear that continued efforts need to be made by us all to minimise risk of infection for our family, friends, colleagues and the wider community.

Social distancing is obviously the word on the lips of everyone in the hospitality industry right now, ensuring that both customers and staff continue to follow the safety advice of the UK government.

Some flexibility has been added with the one metre plus rule that has been warmly welcomed by restaurant and pub operators, but the official recommendation remains two metres wherever possible with the use of outdoor spaces recommended rather than indoor spaces, by government scientific and medical advisors.

Naturally, this presents very unique challenges for hospitality businesses, particularly within the city. Structurally and historically, the reason why Brighton has so few chain hospitality businesses compared to similar sized cities has as much to do with the small, inflexible and often commercially unviable heritage building spaces located within The Lanes and North Laine as it does to the famed entrepreneurial spirit of Brightonians.

Even with one metre plus distancing, many venues are finding that they can realistically only accommodate less than 50 per cent of their regular capacity. Even someone with the most basic grasp of economics can see that this isn’t a particularly viable manner to run a restaurant or pub business and manage the overheads of staffing, leases, business rates and utilities, before factoring in the less obvious costs of managing stock effectively and licensing restrictions on outdoor space. Add to this the very real issue of consumer confidence in hospitality and there is pretty much a perfect storm for hospitality operators.

“We understand that there will be guests who are nervous about dining out again”, said Richard Roper, general manager of The Ivy in The Lanes. “It’s our priority to ensure that we are providing the highest levels of health and safety practices in line with government guidelines to help our guests dine with us in confidence.

“Measures will include thermal cameras for temperature checks, the use of tracking software for all employees logging daily temperature readings over a seven-day rolling period, and professional deep cleaning and disinfecting on a daily basis.”

As currently witnessed in countries across Europe, the initial rush to return to eating and drinking outside of our homes may well be short-lived. Consumers are simply not returning to previous habits.

“It would be foolish for us to think everything will just go back to normal,” said Paul Morgan of Fourth & Church on Church Road in Hove. “We believe that there will be an initial excitement after today and then we expect numbers to reduce as the economy reflects reality and the government Job Retention Scheme tails off.

“We have delivered our risk assessment and prepared ourselves for customers from this weekend in response to huge enthusiasm from our regulars but have decided initially to manage bookings extremely carefully, opening more week by week.

Our restaurant offering will reflect this and we will continue offering click-and-collect and delivery options throughout the summer. We are excited but cautious and will remain so until a clearer picture emerges”.

James Thomson, co-owner of neighbouring Hove restaurant Wild Flor, agrees: “The guidance puts the responsibility on us to ensure we are taking the steps required to make our customers and staff feel safe within our own unique surroundings. To us, the challenge will be to ensure we are showing our customers that we take the processes seriously, without letting that affect the normal restaurant experience.”

Dominic Worrall, landlord of the popular The Bull public house in Ditchling, is thankful that they have extensive outdoor space in the form of their beer garden. In addition to a comprehensive risk-management plan that includes access to PPE for staff and plentiful hand sanitiser dispensers throughout public areas, his team will be ensuring that all customers are seated for their duration of their visit.

“The front bar has become a sitting only area for drinkers – not diners – with no standing allowed and the bar stools taken away,” said Dominic.

“Due to the expected drop in trade, the ratio of staff to customers will be greater, making it easier for our staff to manage and communicate with customers. I’m really confident given the type of customers we have, our long standing relationship with them and the clear signage and guidance in place, we’ll be able to work fairly harmoniously.”

Behind-the-scenes, across the industry there is both concern and a deep-seated fear that whilst July’s reopening provides respite from the severe negative impact of the lockdown, the summer months may only provide a sticking plaster for the financial open sore that will be revealed in the Autumn.

Whilst many businesses have benefited from rent holidays, landlords will be looking to re-claw that money back at the earliest opportunity meaning the financial can is just being kicked down the road. A hidden problem is also that with an oft-time transient hospitality and tourism workforce, a significant number of employees on furlough in the city may have already relocated and choose not to return to their roles, leaving yet another challenge for employers. And as a city built on tourism, the last thing that Brighton needs is empty hospitality – and wider tourism and retail – units across the city.

This autumn, both government and industry is expecting that we’ll be entering into the deepest global recession not only in living memory but for over 300 years. We can factor in significantly less money circulating within the economy for business investment and consumer spending, accompanied by a prediction that in-bound tourism into the UK will fall. Key transportation hubs such as Gatwick Airport, which is suffering the recent exit of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are being hit. The economy isn’t likely to recover until at least 2024, and it’s clear to see that hospitality is going to need to be nimble and adaptive. Of course, we still have the spectre of a no-deal Brexit throwing up new trade barriers with our closest and largest trading partner hanging in the background, which will have financial repercussions not only for the hospitality industry but also the entire UK food chain.

With central government looking to exit their furlough scheme – that has saved so many jobs and businesses – in September, there is a call-out for more support for the industry.

Veteran restaurateur and chef Jeremy Ashpool of Jeremy’s Restaurant at Borde Hill shares the big picture view of what the future may hold, not only for his business but for respected friends and colleagues across the region.

“There are so many complexities that we’re having to deal with,” said Jeremy.

“Taking staff off furlough, the potential of a second wave of Covid-19 prompting further lockdown… having to close a business for two weeks or longer due to a staff member contracting the virus.

“Most of this year’s summer season has already gone so there are potentially bleak times ahead. Hospitality venues need to very well placed to survive this.”

Whilst we all hope for the best, a worst case scenario is looking increasingly likely. However there are still positive stories, including the launch of the much-anticipated Shelter Hall Raw food hall on Brighton seafront today. The food partners involved are all local entrepreneurs with a commitment to using as much Sussex produce on their menus as possible.

“Some may say it’s a risky time to open but we disagree”, said Olivia Reid of Shelter Hall Raw. “With a six week turnaround it’s been tight but spirit and passion always override the time restrictions.

“The city has a remarkable hospitality offering – we have seen great creative thinking and reinvention over lockdown.”Olivia referred to the new collection and delivery services that many hospitality businesses have introduced, supported by greater engagement with lockdowned consumers via social media.

“Shelter Hall Raw is an extension of that. It’s a platform for independent food providers to access a new audience, build their reputation and test new concepts”.

“We weren’t willing to take the risk of missing Summer 2020 and keeping a building screaming to open closed for any longer.”

This week, the message from Sussex restaurants and bars is loud and clear: if the vibrancy of our food and drink offering is to be maintained then please enjoy a drink or meal with them in a safe environment whilst maintaining social distancing.

The very future of the industry – and the rich social and cultural life we enjoy in Brighton and Sussex – could well depend on it.