The inability to effectively plan for the long-term is an issue that has blighted restaurant operators during the pandemic, but an Easter reopening makes the most sense to work to, says Steve Holmes, CEO at Azzurri Group.

Taking part in a panel discussion on the future shape of the restaurant sector, hosted by MCA’s contributing editor Peter Martin, alongside executive chairman of Oakman Inns Peter Borg-Neal, Holmes said that while the pendulum has been swinging over the sector for the past ten months, if the government sticks to its vaccination plan and Covid cases and death rates come down, then he hopes to be open by early April. But added: “We’ve got scenarios coming out of our ears.”

“I think in terms of cash forecasting and planning, operators would be very well advised to listen to Holmes,” agreed Borg-Neal. “However, I am a tiny bit more optimistic,” he said, adding that all being well, he hoped the industry could move to campaign for a much earlier opening.

Holmes said that while Azzurri’s business will largely operate in the same shape and form as before, albeit a little smaller following the restructure and recapitalisation last year, the future of Coco Di Mama in London was “more of a longer-term quandary”.

Given the City locations of many the Coco Di Mama’s sites, they haven’t traded since the lockdown in March. “That’s the slightly more problematic part of our business as we figure out what the recovery in London is going to be,” he said, although he is of the belief that ultimately it will bounce back. “London has an ability to repurpose itself pretty quickly and I’m sure it will be a thriving metropolis again at some point pretty soon,” he added.

Oakman Inns, meanwhile, has benefited to some extent from people working more from home, given its more rural locations and the size of some of its pubs. “We traded at record levels during the quarter from July-September and we are hoping we will see a repeat,” said Borg-Neal.

He explained that while its pubs were already set up for people working from their pubs in terms of wifi, he said one trend it has seen is the popularity of drinks being ordered and drank at tables, rather than the bar.

“We disagreed with the industry in terms of saying you could control people standing up, we thought that was an own goal, so we had people sit down only from day one,” he explained. “We found it very successful. We found that middle-aged and older drinks stayed longer, spent more and enjoyed it. We are considering, certainly in some pubs, laying it out to encourage people to sit down and be served their drinks rather than lean on the bar. Things like that I think will become permanent changes.”

To watch all the footage from the event please click here.

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