‘WFH’… the new normal needs a new solution

Opinion Piece – Mark Laurie, NCASS

Pre-covid, 16% of the UK workforce, did so from home, it’s now almost half. This follows the necessity to lockdown during the early spike in the pandemic and government advice continues to encourage it where possible.

A recent survey suggested that half of those working from home either did not expect to return this year, if ever. This shift in work patterns threatens to reduce the viability of many hospitality businesses that rely on that trade, and often pay handsome rents for the privilege.

Handing back the keys

On Friday Byron Burger announced the closure of 20 restaurants as part of a CVA arrangement, on Wednesday pizza express was put up for sale and announced the closure of 49 sites at the cost of 1,100 jobs. It is looking increasingly like hospitality could be about to see its second blow in a year. It is believed up to 1 million hospitality staff have lost their jobs since February and the big issue for many is likely to be rent. This has been compounded by protections to stop landlords taking back properties due to end in the Autumn. Many will simply not have the resources to pay the rent that is due. The Industry has asked the government for help to resolve the issue with landlords, not just around owed rent – but that their properties are now arguably over-valued and is awaiting additional measures and support.

Eat out to Help out

The eat out to help out scheme, while very welcome for many businesses and consumers, finishes in September, furlough winds down in October and rent becomes due in the Autumn. The Christmas party season, critically important for most restaurants, bars and caterers is unlikely to happen – bookings usually take place in August, many hospitality businesses are staring down the barrel already. This means that the future is surrounded by yet more uncertainty and will not be able to sustain itself without additional support. 

Taking to the streets

People still need feeding and businesses need to survive. An increasing number of restaurants bakeries, mobile & street food traders have taken to the streets using click and collect models or negotiating their way through street trading regulations to give themselves a fighting chance.

With so many mobile caterers restricted from trading, restaurateurs desperate to pay the rent or keep their customers are taking their offering mobile. Delivering pre-ordered food either hot or for reheat has been the go to option to avoid licencing requirements, however, there is arguably a need for a more formal way of regulating and enabling such businesses.

In the USA last week a manifesto was launched in San Francisco for a Street Food revolution. Which would enable food businesses amongst other options to pull up in car parks – pay the parking fees and serve food from the parking bays, enabling al fresco (safer) dining and mobile restaurants that travel to demand – this is increasingly helpful when half of the nation’s office workers are based at home

The government are understandably reluctant to pay the mortgages of landlords or leases of hospitality businesses and have encouraged the two to come together and compromise. The hospitality sector is hoping for an industry wide deal as many landlords are apparently reluctant to offer any discount for the period the businesses were forced to close by the government. The landlords risk cannibalising their business model if they don’t come to the table but may not be able to due to their own obligations.     

With all this in mind and an uncertain future ahead, enabling a more fluid hospitality offering locally will allow businesses to weather the storm until the dust settles. Having an option to go mobile may also offer a better future to the million unemployed hospitality workers and the chef restaurateurs struggling to pay the rent. In order to secure some kind of future, we must have an open dialogue and work together to enable as many independent hospitality businesses to trade.

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