HOW ARE RESTAURANTS AROUND THE COUNTRY DEALING WITH COVID-19? HOTEL & CATERING REVIEW CAUGHT UP WITH KEVIN AHERNE AT SAGE RESTAURANT IN CORK AND GALWAY RESTAURATEUR JP MCMAHON TO FIND OUT

KEVIN AHERNE, SAGE

Restaurateur and chef Kevin Aherne has adapted his restaurant in Midleton, Co Cork into a takeaway service. It is, he says, a process that’s continually adapting as he redefines the structure of the service to ensure the safety of both staff and customers. “Last week we had 34 staff and today there’s three of us here. Changing to a takeaway wasn’t a decision we took lightly but bills have to be paid. We need to generate a bit of income to cover what has been lost already and what will be lost in the future. We’ve been very clear about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it; we’re not taking any risks,” said Kevin.

Customers who place orders at Sage must collect their food. They pre-pay over the phone and they’re then given a designated time to collect. “There’s no queuing and I’m only taking a certain amount of tickets every day. We have ensured that people aren’t meeting each other at the door. Luckily, we’re not in a big city so we don’t have crowds outside.” The response so far has been very positive. “There have been a lot of encouraging texts and well wishes from people. There have also been one or two negative comments which I dealt with directly. I think some people were unaware of how we were setting up the process, they thought we were running a restaurant on a full staff. That’s obviously not the case. There are two of us in the kitchen and one person out front.”

Kevin’s kitchen is large enough to allow for social distancing guidelines to be adhered to. “There’s usually five or six of us in there so it’s not really that difficult. We’ve set it up so that one person is on one side of the kitchen and the other person is on the far side.” Each morning, the three members of staff sit down and plan out the day ahead along with the following day. “We can’t work too far in advance as everything is changing so fast.” When Kevin began operating as a takeaway, he ran a full menu which has since evolved into a more pared back offering. “We found that with the full menu, there was a bit too much moving around in the kitchen, too much prep. We have since refined it to include a family dinner for four, dinner for two with two options and a special dinner. During the week we’re a bit healthier and at the weekend, we make the food a bit more fun. We’re trying to give a bit back as well and so we give a family dinner away every night to someone that needs it. We’re not just inside the kitchen trying to make money.”

Kevin and his team start at 4pm every day and finish at 8pm. “In that time, we do about 25 tickets. There’s no stress in the kitchen and no-one is meeting outside. If customers arrive late to collect, they’re asked to stay in their car.”

So far, the service is working quite well. “We’re rigorous about the process, about social distancing and about hygiene in the kitchen. We all need to pay our bills so I’ll continue operating as a takeaway for as long as I can. This crisis is going to last for three months or longer and that’s a long time for any business. if a member of staff feels unwell, it’s game over or if a staff member decides they’d prefer not to work, that’s absolutely fine. We’re operating on a day by day basis right now so we’ll have to see what happens.”

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JP MCMAHON, GALWAY RESTAURATEUR

Aniar, Cava Bodega and Tartare Café closed on the 15th of March. “Social distancing wasn’t working at all. We considered opening as a takeaway but I think the market is saturated and for us, we would have been coming up with a completely new concept. That’s a big risk. At the moment we are closed and there are rents and rates that have to be paid but we’re not losing money. If there are too many people doing takeaway not everyone will survive.”

Insurance companies are refusing to pay out on claims made by restaurants and pubs that have closed due to Covid-19. “There are two things that I don’t have faith in – the banks and the insurance companies. It’s ironic that the hospitality industry needs a bail out now, something that probably won’t be forthcoming. I don’t think the insurance will come through. On The Late Late Show, Paschal Donoghue said we can’t stiff the insurers but if anyone needs to be stiffed it’s them. I’m also very concerned about rents and rates and the things that we can’t control.”

JP says more steps need to be taken to help businesses in the industry. “Employees have been taken care of now which is great but more steps need to be taken to help restaurants. Some local councillors are talking about deferring rates but the rates need to be cancelled for the closure period altogether. Why a restaurant would pay rates when closed is beyond me.” Restaurants may be hard pressed to come up with the capital required to reopen, whether that’s in four weeks or eight weeks. “We won’t have been trading for a period of time but we’re still going to owe the landlords and the Revenue. Summer trading will be impacted too. The USA will take a lot longer to recover from the virus so we could see a massive fallout in tourism. I think we need to seriously look at what the tourism industry gives to Ireland. That’s something that we’re not very good at that.”

As a country, we have a tendency to talk about things but then push them down the track. “We’re not good at taking the lead. We tend to look to other countries. The Irish government needs to decide what’s good for it as opposed to what’s good for the banks and insurance companies.” Restaurants outside the big cities may feel the effects of the crisis more significantly. “A country restaurant is going to find it very difficult in the summer with no tourists about. No measures have been touted in terms of landlords. Most of our TD’s are landlords, Sinn Fein is one of the biggest landlords in the country so of course there will be no breaks there! We need to look at how we’re going to get people back to work. Half a million people are going to lose their jobs and a lot of them won’t get their jobs back.”

JP hopes to have his three restaurants reopened by June. When we reopen, and if we’re quieter, we won’t have as much employment. When we closed the restaurants, we laid off nearly 45 people and that’s just three restaurants in Galway. if every restaurant drops two or three staff that’s going to be a lot of unemployment.” To help restaurants recover once restrictions are lifted, the RAI is pushing for the VAT rate to be lowered. “I hope the VAT rate is brought down to 9%. If we were to keep our prices the same then we could possibly recoup our losses in the summer months.”