Des Gunewardena, co-founder, D&D Restaurants, London

Like so many others in the sector, D&D London CEO Des Gunewardena is now well accustomed to receiving bad news.

As the operator behind some of central London’s most iconic corporate and fine dining hot-spots, the government’s latest round of restrictions forcing city workers back out of the office and socialites to bed by 10pm have had an inevitable impact on the business.

But Gunewardena is “trying to stay positive,” and having accepted that we could be living in a world of continued uncertainty for quite some time, his ‘new normal’ management style when it comes to the group’s 41-strong estate is “to suck it up and get on with it,” he tells MCA.

Last week, the group launched an all-new site in Bristol, Klosterhaus – a Mittel-European restaurant similar in concept to D&D’s well-known King’s Cross site German Gymnasium.

As a result of the curfew and limited group sizes, initially, the 13,000sq ft building won’t be able to fulfil its intended potential – it has several events rooms which remain closed for the time being – but consumer response has suggested the decision to open was nevertheless the right one.

“The thing about opening restaurants in troubled times, is that everyone’s miserable so when you come along and open a new restaurant it’s something positive, and people really react to that,” says Gunewardena. “We’re seeing that in Klosterhaus, the bookings for next week are very strong.”

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Across the rest of the estate, whilst ongoing restrictions are undoubtedly partially responsible for lower like-for-likes, sales “haven’t collapsed,” and with the group adapting as and when measures and subsequently consumer behaviour shifts, “they’ve been steadily getting better.”

Both the curfew and the encouragement to work from home has seen Sunday emerge as a peak trading period, and lunch “become the new dinner,” he says, “so we’re encouraging people to have a nice long lunch that flows into an early dinner.”

“People are adjusting, they’re not just choosing not to go out because they have to end the night at 10pm. People will go out at 6pm instead of 8pm.”

Whilst the City remains deserted with office occupancy levels at around 15%, undeterred by the complete decimation in its corporate business, the group has started looking for opportunities in different demographics.

“We’ve got some quite high-profile restaurants in central London, so we’ve been using that profile to attract a more social crowd,” explains Gunewardena. “We’re working hard to bring our more corporate restaurants to the crowd that go to the likes of Bluebird Chelsea.”

“So, whilst the number of people in the city offices may be 15% of last year, Coq d’Argent is still doing 60% of last year’s revenue.”

And although he is aware “without a shadow of a doubt” that the number of people coming into the City is likely to decline long-term, he adds that the ‘donut city’ trend has presented an unexpected opportunity for the business.

“People can’t spend their lives on Zoom and telephone calls, they want to meet,” he says. “Logically, if people live either end of London they will come to the centre, and we are seeing that.

“Although people aren’t going to their offices, they’ve started coming to our restaurants to meet each other.

“Our restaurants have got to evolve, but we won’t suffer quite as much as people may think as a result of what could be a permanent change in the way central cities work.”

In fact, the opportunities for D&D going forward go beyond the potential for a new consumer base, as the surge in administrations and CVA’s has seen the group “inundated with sites.”

“We already had a regional expansion strategy, but what covid has taught us is that it’s not a great idea to be massively dependent upon London,” Gunewardena says. “We’re very keen on Glasgow, Edinburgh, and we’re going into Birmingham.”

“A lot of property is being offered to us where the landlords are prepared to make the investment, and we take the view that this is a time for opportunity providing you are financially secure and have the capacity to expand.

“The best time to expand is in downturns, but you need to have the courage of your convictions.”

That being said, the business – which already has sites lined up for 2021 and 2022 in Birmingham and Stratford respectively – isn’t looking to rush into anything, and Gunewardena adds that before it looks at growth, the priority must be to ensure the government supports its survival.

Although he is understandably critical of the “ill thought out” 10pm curfew and decision to restrict pubs, bars and restaurants in a “trade-off” with sending students back to university, he believes that, at this point, attempting to reverse such measures could be a waste of industry efforts.

Instead, given the clear direction of policy towards increased restrictions and potential lockdowns, he feels that lobbying efforts should stop complaining about what is, and focus on securing support for what might be to come.

With costs at around £1m a week, Gunewardena says that if a two-week circuit breaker comes into force, the government “has to” put its staff back on furlough and compensate its losses.

And it is this imperative that the sector needs to ensure government understands.

“I’d rather stop the winging if it isn’t going to have any impact, but we need to make sure the industry is supported so we don’t suffer financially as a result of the decisions being made by the government,” he says.

“I don’t mind listening to Matt Hancock and doing everything that he wants us to do, even if he’s completely wrong, which he normally is, but government has to support the industry.

“If they do that then we’ll fall in with it, but we cannot keep putting hands in our pockets to fund what we don’t even believe are correct policies.”