Eat Out to Help Out: Hampstead pubs and restaurants warn of slow return to normal

Milo Mulgrew, general manager of the Horseshoe in Heath Street. Picture: Harry Taylor

Milo Mulgrew, general manager of the Horseshoe in Heath Street. Picture: Harry Taylor - Credit: Harry Taylor

A restaurant owner had 26 cancellations in one night last weekend, as restaurateurs and landlords across Camden and Hampstead warned that the drop in takings since reopening isn’t sustainable.

As the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme started, enabling diners to get up to £10 off food and non-alcoholic drinks, some proprietors said income had been as much as 70% down on this time last year. Rinaldo Mollura, who runs Villa Bianca, Coffee Cup, Piccola and the Fish Café in Hampstead Village said he had 26 cancellations on Saturday night, costing him in the region of £1,300. Many owners are talking hopefully of breaking even, but have written off making a profit in this calamity-hit year.

The scene in many pubs on Tuesday lunchtime was as it would have been before lockdown, a handful of drinkers getting a bite to eat on their day off.

READ MORE: ‘Deal on the table’ could see Hampstead’s Magdala Tavern reopen in 2021, with the Albert in Primrose Hill also set welcome back drinkers

General manager at The Horseshoe, in Heath Street, Milo Mulgrew said the first few weeks had been steady. The pub’s kitchen reopened for the first time this week, as the Camden Town Brewery pub took part in the government initiative.

FIsh Cafe in Hampstead High Street. Picture: Harry Taylor

FIsh Cafe in Hampstead High Street. Picture: Harry Taylor - Credit: Harry Taylor

“We took the first few weeks slowly and wanted to get used to being back in business and having the safety measures in place. Once we were comfortable with that, we have opened up for food and started doing our Sunday roasts, which a lot of people were asking for,” he said.

“The first week was the busiest, definitely. There was a bit of a rush from people. It’s calmed down a bit, but people are starting to get more comfortable to come out. I think people who come out for the first time see it’s a simple process. It’s not clinical or over the top.”

READ MORE:Coffee Cup and Villa Bianca in peril: Hampstead restaurateur ‘scared for future’The 29-year-old worked throughout the pandemic, delivering beer, while staff members were on furlough, with pay topped up by Camden Town Brewery so they were on 100 per cent of their wages.

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“More business would be great, we’ve got a lot of making up to do. We got in a lot of debt with bills to pay and we still paid staff, but we’re on the right track.”

The sentiment was shared by Sam Moss who is set to reopen The Albert pub in Primrose Hill in the coming weeks, but also runs the Haverstock Tavern.

“We have been really encouraged by the response and it should be helped out by the government scheme. That’s really positive,” he said. “We’re seeing people getting to know their local restaurants and pubs a lot more.”

General manager at The Flask Jesse McGoldrick, who lives above the pub in Flask Walk, is far more cautious. Before the pandemic it was taking £30,000 a week. That’s now down to £15,000 - and it has already started making some cutbacks. It opened on July 20 to give the pub more time to prepare, but has been hit by the double whammy of a lack of tourists and the current closure of Hampstead tube station on evenings and weekends.He said: “It’s the little things. Young’s (the company behind the pub) and the Flask aim at the higher end of the market. So we have the little things, but they have started to be cut back. We have a local window cleaner but we’ve stopped that. We had the florist across the road making flower baskets who we have had to stop.”

The 31-year-old said: “It’s not sustainable to offer that kind of service with the money we’re taking. We have a slightly larger more flexible team who can give customers more attention but, again, we might have to reduce that unless more money comes in.”

Mr McGoldrick added that the tapering and eventual closure of the furlough scheme could hit pub companies hard, particularly with some staff still on partial furlough.

“If we’re having to pay everyone what they would have been paid (on the current takings) it will be a very significant problem for the business. We would have to cut staff, look at the ingredients in our food, and look at our offer.

“We usually take £5,000 to £6,000 per sitting on Christmas Day. I couldn’t imagine what it will look like this year, especially if the rules are the same on more than two different households. Christmas parties will be the same.”

The pub is taking part in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, but Mr McGoldrick said he thought there was a chance that The Flask could be squeezed out by people looking for the cheapest meal possible, or those wanting to eat at top restaurants with an available discount.

His scepticism towards the initiative was shared by Mr Mollura. None of his businesses are taking part in it, as he told the Ham&High he doesn’t have the cashflow to take the initial financial hit, before claiming the money back from government.

He said: “It may help McDonald’s and Pret a Manger, but it definitely doesn’t help me as a single operator. I don’t have that ability to go to the bank and not have that money straight away.”

His restaurants are well below the level of takings in March, or this time last year. At worst, Fish Cafe in Hampstead High Street is up to 70pc on last year due to a lack of available inside space. Older customers, such as lunchtime regulars at Villa Bianca are yet to return to their old habits because of health concerns. The problem was similar at The Flask, with some older regulars also stopping going in as they cannot pay in cash and do not have bank cards.

Amid wet weather on Saturday, Villa Bianca’s cancellations, some with half an hour notice, lost Mr Mollura an average of £50-a-head on each booking.

“We can’t actually make up for lost customers,” he said. “We can’t replace that.”

Taking a break from overseeing work on The Albert, Mr Moss said people need the confidence to come out again, as concerns about a second wave loom.

“We would always like more people to come through the door but I understand why people might not want to,” said the 37-year-old. “There are a lot of people prepared to go out and support their local hospitality venues, and they appreciate the measures we’re trying to take. We need people who have been in pubs to tell other people about it, and that breeds confidence.”

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