Tuesday cocktails and uncertainty - what has changed since restaurants opened on July 4?
PUBLISHED: 13:29 04 August 2020 | UPDATED: 15:13 04 August 2020
While Friday and Saturday nights might have been our go-to for a special meal out, coronavirus has started to tweak our habits.
Social distancing measures mean restaurants have been forced to lower their capacities and encourage diners to join them mid-week to ensure they still see vital trade.
Chris Carr, co-owner at Zak’s, which has restaurants in Norwich’s Waterside and Mousehold and Poringland, said in order to keep diners and staff safe they had been attempting to, borrowing a phrase from the prime minister, flatten their own curve.
“People are coming every night of the week now,” he said. “We are fully booked most nights up to our new capacity.
“We would normally do 300 to 400 covers on a Saturday and maybe now it’s 200, but we are also doing more on a Tuesday, for example. It’s really about spreading it out through the week.
“We are seeing people come in on a Tuesday night dressed up to the nines and ordering cocktails.”
It has been a steady reopening process for the team, who, after lockdown was introduced in March, decided to shut up shop completely.
“We made a decision that people should be at home with their families, not risking their lives to cook someone a burger,” he said.
In June, they introduced takeaways with a skeleton team, responding to 3,000 orders across two sites in its first week.
On July 4 they ran a test night at their Waterside restaurant with no customers to see how they could operate in the ‘new normal’, before fully reopening the branch on July 6. Since then, less than a month ago, Poringland has followed suit, while their Mousehold branch is still focused on takeaways.
“It’s been most strange for our staff,” he said. “They’re a close team and couldn’t come in and hug each other or help each other.
“Before everybody dived in and helped each other, but now the team have their own four, five table restaurant. They do everything. Even if someone asks someone else for napkins they have to find that person and they do it, so we have that traceability.”
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Inside seating capacity has dipped to make way for social distancing - Waterside is down from 90 covers to 68, though they have invested in the outside area, and at Poringland it’s down from 200 to 120.
But Mr Carr said that diners new to the business were arriving and that their online presence has grown during the pandemic thanks to a focus on staying engaged with customers digitally.
They have received 2,500 followers on Facebook, and Mr Carr, who thanked people in Norwich for their support, said online ratings were “through the roof”.
“It’s a small market place at the moment and a smaller capacity within that,” he said, “so it’s really giving us the chance to drive some new business.”
For now, their Mousehold site will remain takeaway-only, to cater for those who are not yet comfortable to venture back out.
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Elsewhere, Paul Williams, at Oakfired at the Royal Oak in Beccles, said the takeaway side of the business, which he had really pushed just before lockdown started and before the business shut down for a few weeks, was still proving successful.
“The takeaways and collection service is still very popular,” he said. “We can be sending 20, 30 takeaways on any one night, including Mondays and Tuesdays.”
While customers are returning to the restaurant - Mr Willliams said people were coming both locally and from further afield, with its garden area proving particularly popular - he said confusion over what laid ahead made it difficult to focus on one particular area. Currently, seating in the restaurant puts it at about 50pc capacity.
“Realistically we are still concentrating on the takeaway business,” he said. “There’s a lot of confusion still about. While you think ‘good, we’ll recruit and take on staff’ you never know what’s around the corner. We are keeping a small team and we are working to our capacity.
“It makes it a little bit frustrating ordering, including beer for the cellar - I don’t want to lose another cellar full of beer.
“Year on year it’s a completely different business.”
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For Eric Snaith, chef and owner at Titchwell Manor, Eric’s Fish and Chips and Eric’s Pizza, it has been a promising start - but he is aware uncertainty is always around the corner.
“The main thing I have been amazed by is how busy the coast has been,” he said. “I feel pretty lucky with where our location is. In terms of trade and being busy, it’s been brilliant.
“Obviously the biggest worry is there being some outbreak and the worst happening and one of our venues being forced to close.”
Inside dining capacity at his fish and chip shops - in Thornham, Holt and St Ives - hovers around 60pc to 70pc, he said, with collection and takeaways proving popular.
At the hotel, the team are largely focusing on resident trade, with room service performing strongly and the dining areas able to sit around 60 people.
“The vast majority of our customers have been really sensible,” he said. “I’ve felt from day one that this isn’t about just putting it on business owners, everyone has to take a bit of responsibility.
“People are thoughtful and respectful. You do get extremes but we haven’t had many who are blasé about it. Some people are very cautious.
“We’ve tried to take a sensible approach to it, while still trying to make it enjoyable.”
Though caution remains, demand for eating out has been strong - Wayne Palmer, general manager at The Ivy Norwich Brasserie, said they had been “delighted” with the number of reservations the restaurant had received.
And Emily Francis, of the Kings Head in Bawburgh, said since fully reopening on July 8 - they initially trialled a food and drink garden kiosk - they had been busy, and had extended their opening days ad times.
“We are quite lucky we have got the outside space,” she said, “as the majority of people have chosen to sit outside if the weather is nice.”
Capacity inside has seen table numbers lowered from seven to four, but there are an extra 19 outside.
“We wanted to make sure people felt safe but also that it was cosy and warm,” she said. “In general everyone has been so understanding and really supportive.”
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