'Feast or famine' - On the frontline in restaurants during Covid

Eric Snaith, pictured centre, at Eric's Pizza, and Jordan Bayes, right, of The Chequers Inn at Thornham.

Restaurants have coped with a challenging 12 months, ranging from lockdowns to the rush of summer. Eric Snaith, pictured centre, at Eric's Pizza, and Jordan Bayes, right, of The Chequers Inn at Thornham. - Credit: Various

Pubs, restaurants and cafés have faced some of the most restrictive rules since the pandemic started, including three shut downs and a 10pm curfew.

And that turbulence has hit every area of the business - from bar staff to suppliers and chefs to owners.

We spoke to those in different areas of the industry to find out their story.

More than 10,400 people have lost their jobs in Britains restaurant industry this year.

People in the restaurant industry have spoken about the challenges of 2020. - Credit: Archant

The employee

"The first lockdown came suddenly, and it was a shock," said one man, who has worked in a Norfolk pub and restaurant since 2017.

"We have quite a few young members staff who have responsibilities and don't have a lot of money to throw around and the job is really important to them.

"No-one really knew what length it was going to be, that was the main concern. Our owners were really good and helped people before furlough started."

When they reopened, the government's Eat Out to Help Out scheme began.

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"The restaurant went ballistic," he said. "We were doing double settings, working extra shifts. The amount of holidaymakers was incredible, it's never been so busy."

The strong summer helped the industry through a more challenging autumn, which culminated in a lockdown in November until the start of December.

Restaurants, pubs and cafés can register for the Treasurys Eat Out to Help Out Scheme Picture: Getty

Restaurants have said 2020 was feast or famine in terms of demand. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Norfolk and Suffolk emerged in Tier 2, under which people were only able to drink alcohol with a 'substantial meal', and mixed households were only allowed to eat together outside.

"We had to make sure when people phoned up and booked we were asking all the right questions. It was very stressful," he said. "There were tears. We completely lost the custom. Staff in Norfolk restaurants rely on tips and for people working in the hospitality industry that was a body blow."

He was quick to praise customers, in particular regulars, who he said had been "brilliant" with their support.

EDP Norfolk Magazine. Titchwell Manor for Dining with David food feature. Chef Eric Snaith.

Eric Snaith. - Credit: Angela Sharpe

The owner 

"It was a strange year for us, because March time was really concerning," Eric Snaith, chef and owner at Titchwell Manor Hotel, Eric’s Fish and Chips and Eric’s Pizza, said. 

"It was the worst I've ever known it and realistically we were thinking there's a chance we could not survive it.

"We had just come out of a rubbish winter anyway and the nature of our business is in the seasons. We were at our worst point in March almost to the day, and just about to have a really busy weekend."

At the other extreme, the summer brought "four record months".

"We have been on the coast 30 years and I have never known it like it, it was almost breaking point," he said. "It's felt like all of last year you were just surviving - worried about surviving, or trying to get through day to day."

In summer, they opened Eric's Pizza in Thornham, which got off to a "fantastic" start.

Eric Snaith preparing pizza in The Yurt at Drove Orchards, Thornham, near Hunstanton Picture: Chris

Eric Snaith preparing pizza in The Yurt at Drove Orchards, Thornham, near Hunstanton Picture: Chris Bishop - Credit: Archant

But Mr Snaith said it had been tough since November, with the hotel now shut under lockdown rules.

"It's a strange, emotional feeling shutting the hotel, and we have done it three times now," he said. "We have been there 32 years, I have grown up there and we have never shut.

"Going into this winter we had a good enough summer that we'll get through it."

The supplier 

The industry's repeated closures and limited capacity has had a knock-on impact.

Anglia Culinary Suppliers, based in Hellesdon, supplies business in the east with food, drinks, packaging, cleaning goods and more.

Managing director Nick Wells said: "The biggest impact is the market place has been taken away from us. If you supply cafés, restaurants, social clubs and community centres, it's not easy."

He also supplies local train services and employers.

Currently, compared to 2019, business is roughly 60pc down.

"It never quite returned to normal levels for two reasons - the trains never really were at capacity and County Hall was closed," he said. "But in terms of seasonal business, it was excellent. Really strong."

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Many people have missed heading out for a coffee. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

During summer, with international travel still advised against, many people enjoyed a staycation instead, with tourists flocking to the north Norfolk coast. It was, he said, "feast or famine".

The last year has seen the business adapt.

"In the first lockdown we did a very successful click and collect service, you could go online and order our products," he said.

"Then, there was a lot of panic and supermarkets weren't prepared, and that did force people to panic buy. But in lockdowns two and three supermarkets are much better, and there have been no shortages."

For now, existing work is keeping them ticking over. But Mr Wells said the impact went further, including to factories and firms making the products and packaging he uses, as well delivery drivers.

The chef 

Jordan Bayes is now heading up the kitchen at The Chequers in Thornham, serving clean, simple dishes

Jordan Bayes at The Chequers in Thornham. - Credit: Archant

Jordan Bayes had only started as head chef at The Chequers Inn at Thornham, on the north Norfolk coast, five months before the pandemic started.

"We felt like we hadn't really had a run at it," he said. "The first lockdown happened and in spring we missed the first Norfolk asparagus. It's only one thing, but we missed that completely which was a shame because the seasonality is so important."

Their return in summer was a busy one.

"The hotel was full other than about two days for 10 weeks, which was fantastic," he said. "It dropped off at the start of December, the coast in general was really, really quiet."

They, along with hospitality colleagues, have adapted as best they can, offering at home New Year's Eve and Christmas meals and outdoor seating.

But for now, they are battening down the hatches and laying low until they can return in spring.

A busy Chequers Inn at Thornham.

A busy Chequers Inn at Thornham. - Credit: Jordan Bayes

"For me, the first lockdown came out of the blue, and we were locked down so long that it was stressful," he said. "Now it's almost expected, and we are more used to it. There's just no timing of when we will be back, but hopefully we will have the same sort of summer."

He said a return in time for Mother's Day, usually a busy weekend for restaurants, would be "crucial".

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