2020 Being a restaurateur during the pandemic.

Hello people.

So that’s us done for 2020 unfortunately. What a weird and crazy year. It’s hard to look back 12 months ago and not feel like December 2019 was 2 years ago. So much has happened in this mad world in both work and personal life.

I started 2020 with my family in Thailand with a 25 day holiday, stress free and fun. I remember watching BBC news quite often in the mornings after the 7am trip to the bakery with my little boy. Most of the coverage was either about the pending war with Iran, or this new virus that was battering Wuhan…I paid little attention to the virus news as were rarely affected in the UK by these things.

Fast forward 2 months and were printing large red X signs to close off certain tables…ordering 5 litre bottles of hand sanitizer which are now double the price…ordering hazard tape at 8 quid a roll…and reservations are cancelling like never before. Things really started to heat up and the rumour mill was spreading news of a lockdown…again being a Brit, I thought we were immune to such things. Ok Italy and Spain had it…France, Portugal and Germany were announcing the same stuff, but not us surely. I decided to open at 5.30 on the Friday as I wanted to see Boris’s speech…and boom…like that we were closed.

I really didnt stress at this moment. My initial thoughts were “well 2 weeks isnt the end of the world…we have Mothers Day, Eater weekend and then into the crazy May swing…so I’ll chill at home, playbsome golf with my best mate, and spend some time with my wife and children. Obviously I was carrying a good bit of stock so I had to launch a decent bit in the bin…but the meats I used for dinner in the house…we ate like kings. I even cooked a 24oz Tomahawk on a 2.99 disposable bbq from eurospar…it was pretty sublime…not many things rival an outer-charred steak, med rare in the middle.

Anyway…2 weeks turned into 4…mothers day menu was binned…as was easter…good friday and the rest… At this point it was sheet frustration…not so much financially worried, because a government grant had covered some bills and our landlord had offered us some great support. For me it was more about the uncertainty of not knowing when we would be trading again. I’m thr worst person in the world when I’m not busy, I need full days and work better under pressure. I love leaving the house at 6.30 and arriving in aberystwyth to pick up stock from the butcher, buy the drinks and dry goods from bookers, then shoot back through Tywyn via the fish man…then get to work and smash the prep…be finished by mid day…then get home to see the family and chill for a bit before work in the evening.

Now I found myself sitting at home trying to think of things to do. We went on a lot of walks with the children, baked a lot of cookies (or I drank a few beers whilst my wife and daughter baked, while my 8 month old boy cleaned the whisk off with his mouth)…and made a lot of barbecues. We made some brilliant dishes. I was especially proud of the Lemon Souffle we knocked up in our kitchen…especially using a standard home oven.

Fast forward a bit…both getting restless but loving the unusual amount of family time…we decided to have the floor sanded in the gatehouse…this took a few days…then a few days to varnish and looked amazing. So good that we decided to do the tables too. Within a week or 2 the place was looking great. This kept us busy, the kids were with us, we had fun…and it was a lovely time.

At this point it must have been early may…I was obsessive over the hospitality developments and has spoken a few times with some well connected chefs in Liverpool. The type of guys that were on a few committees, one was a well established member of the academy of culinary arts and was on the panel of hospitality advisors, putting plans to the government for consideration. He told me that if we had an outdoor area, wed have a head start on opening by a good few weeks. I immediately walked down to the gatehouse and called the builder round for a beer while I pitch my idea. 2 beers later I had ordered a load of wood from huws grey, and me & vita decided the garden was going to be a covered wooden structure. 2 days later the wood arrived.

Anybody that knows me knows I’m a ridiculously impatient bastard, I cant help it, I like to go gung ho at things immediately. Once the structure was looking decent, I started to paint it. I actually spent my 36th birthday evening painting it…just me, a 4 pack of bud, paint, a brush and the jamie carragher podcast on my speaker. I really enjoyed those evenings. I got so much done, was half pissed and finished in complete darkness.

My chef mate was correct…we had the thumbs up to open in July from the garden. Menus created…dishes tried and tasted…social distancing in place…overpriced sanitizer purchased…staff trained…and off we went. It was quite an emotional feeling after night 1. We had some lovely returning faces and some new ones. The menu was spot on, we nailed the service, feedback was great and I gave my wife a big hug after the last plate left the kitchen. The buzz was back. I’d missed it so much. Being a chef isnt glamorous, it’s hard, dirty, stressful, sweaty, sweary & tiring, but I love it, and it was back. I’ll never forget the first few days back, it was truly magical. I’m not sure people believe it when us chefs say it gives us great pleasure to see happy customers, because maybe that’s what we are meant to say, but it really is a mass complement to know a family put their trust in you to deliver a happy birthday, or any special occasion for that matter. If I earned double the money but served crappy frozen food in masses, I dont think I’d wake up feeling as happy as I do…its hard to explain, but coming back after 4 months off, the fire is well and truly burning again in me as a chef.

The summer continued to be insane. Eat Out Help Out was unreal…I have never seen such demand for tables. This was as full on as anything I’d ever known…more in fact. Some days I would have 8 staff on shift, serving a few hundred people. On the last few shifts I genuinely thought I was going to collapse. I haven’t felt like that since my london days. I was mental.

The craziness continued right through until the 2 week lockdown. Since then things have been hit & miss, but November is traditionally a bit of a grim month anyway.

For the stresses I felt during the first long lockdown, I dont think I would have felt this way had we been given a reopening date. I think the uncertainty was tough on the head. That time was a fantastic opportunity for me to bond with my children, my 9 year old daughter who is more like a best mate, and my little new born baby boy who is football crazy. I used that time to do a lot of family things, and had some lovely walks and talks with my wife. So in a way I’m very thankful for what it brought to us as a family, and the great summer/autumn helped us recover big losses.

TAKE AWAY.. 😬

I forgot to mention takeaway. I sat in the home kitchen one day eating a bowl of tuna pasta, and wondered if takeaway would work. Now I have always been conscious of devaluing my business with cheap offers or inadequate quality products, hence the reason I dont open for lunch (I feel we are a bit over the price bracket for lunch in dolgellau)…so takeaway was giving me a bit of food for thought. I jotted down a menu and pitched it to my wife, she was game…then we talked money. The margins on takeaway really are tiny…high 5 to people who are stimulated by mass production with low margins. We came up with a decent menu…burgers, pizzas, ribs, fajitas and a few other bits. It was so exciting. We planned just a one off weekend. IT. WAS. MENTAL.

This was a full on kitchen service. Takeaway shouldn’t be hard, so I thought…how wrong could I be? In fairness we were not set up for a mad one, the phone just didnt stop ringing and i was too excited to turn anybody down…so we got well and truly slammed. One thing that really did touch us was that it was all locals. People supported the takeaway so well for many weeks, and it was lovely to see such support & feedback. As a thankyou we made one last takeaway night, the friday before reopening…this was a free meal for every person who had ordered. 178 burgers and 184 pizzas later, and we closed the door and had a few beers!

All in all, it’s been weird…its been a roller coaster…its been upsetting…its been stressful…but it’s another year that from a business perspective that I’ll look back on with fond memories and can still smile. For those businesses that are hurting, my heart really does go out to, I know how proud I am of my place, and I’d be heartbroken… so I can only wish all of the best. Wales will be booming next year, so hang on in there and let’s smash this together in 2021!!!

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