Opening a Restaurant During a Pandemic.
Just for a second, bear with me while I pause to think back to a particular moment in 2019, when Aaron and I felt we had finished writing version 2.0 of our business plan. There was a section titled “Key Assumptions” under which I had highlighted a basic list of requirements for getting Smoke & Salt open. This meant stuff such as “a slow-growth economy” and “ a trade agreement to be reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union before the end of 2019”. Honestly, we thought this second point was our biggest concern at the time, because everyone knows that opening a restaurant is a high-risk endeavour at the best of times. Little did we know that this wouldn’t even be the half of it…
On Saturday, 29th of February 2020, we closed the doors to our little shipping container in Pop Brixton, which we had initially opened in July 2017. We had just gotten the keys to our new home on Tooting High Street and even had designers and building contractors in place to get re-open by May 2020. Turns out, the next dinner service would not be until Tuesday, 22nd of September 2020.
Transitions are supposed to be exciting times of both of reflection and progression towards something new. It turns out that this unprecedented pandemic didn’t really allow for either of these to happen. People were getting sick….very sick. Hospitals, some of which already under stress, were now trying their best to learn about this new coronavirus. We were all then told to stay at home for what became an unpredictable amount of time, leaving us slightly in the lurch as to what to do next!
Quite rightly, we held off making any official plans with designers and contractors, whom were operating at reduced capacity, while trying to figure out what a furlough-scheme is. We had as many meetings as we could via “Zoom” calls and began to revamp our plans. Six months of rent payments still had to paid, so the longer this first lockdown lasted, the less of our “dream restaurant” we would be able to open with and we couldn’t just magic an opening date out of thin air.
Enter July, when it looked like things were in the clear. We hurriedly approved plans, sourced materials, wrote menu templates and did just about everything we could to ensure our restaurant would be open by September. With every restaurant opening there are always bumps and bruises along the way, yet despite this, we made it to opening night.
That first dinner service on the 22nd of September could have gone way worse than imagined. Staff had barely had 24 hours to train because we were so keen to just “get open”, and despite this, Aaron and I had nothing but plaudits for our team for pushing through everything and killing it on a packed out opening night. We cannot explain how amazing it actually felt to be back doing what it is that we love to do.
Sadly, this elation wouldn’t last, because 2 days later (and with no notice) we had to start ushering all of our guests out of the door at 10pm. To tell ask someone to politely vacate the restaurant because we are at risk of being fined or shut down due to a pandemic-enforced curfew is a mix of emotions which include embarrassment, awkwardness, confusion and annoyance. The team had worked so hard to get the restaurant open and were excited about being busy and doing what we do in the restaurant industry: giving people hospitality.
Five weeks later, lockdown 2.0 kicked in, with a promised re-opening in December. Fine….we deep clean, give away perfectly good food and then go our separate ways, just when we, as a team, have just started to gel and hit a lovely stride.
The restaurant re-opens at the start of December, and we’re packed and fully booked for the whole month. Our festive menu is one of the Smoke & Salt highlights of the year and with this being a new space, we really went for it. The new tier system had been brought into effect at this point, further limiting the number of guests we could serve, but we adapted…something that COVID-19 seems to also be doing around this time with various variants starting to pop up all over the world.
By around the 10th of December (after only having been open for one week) it became clear that another lockdown was imminent. With Wales and then Scotland shutting down for their lock-ins, Smoke & Salt closed again, for the third time in 2020. Another deep clean and another divvying-out of pre-ordered produce to team members meant that we would be parting ways yet again but this time who knows how long for?!
Running Smoke & Salt as a takeaway endeavour has been discussed, but between the exorbitant fees charged by food delivery platforms and the amount of marketing money it would take just to break even, this was never going to be an option for us. We want to build and develop a team with some of our best friends.
We want to have a successful business (it’s a business at the end of the day) and give faith to each and every one of those people who have been a part of our Crowdfunding campaign. Most importantly though, we want to get open again, start serving food, making mistakes, learning from them and just taking care of people again. At the end of all of this, I hope that everyone is still going to want to be out eating and having a great time. We did open a restaurant during a pandemic, yes, and now can’t wait to cook in one again after.