Updated: Apr 8
Fish and chip operators have expressed excitement but also caution about reopening their restaurants over the coming months.
Under current guidelines, outdoor hospitality in England can reopen from Monday 12th April, while indoors must wait a further five weeks until Monday 17th May.
In Scotland the rules differ. From 26th April, restaurants can open outdoors until 10pm with alcohol permitted, and indoors until 8pm without alcohol. From the 17th May, customers can be served until 10.30pm indoors with alcohol permitted.
Wales and Northern Ireland are yet to issue a date when restaurants will reopen.
In preparation for opening outdoors, Eric’s Fish & Chips in Thornham, North Norfolk, has invested in a new frying range and ordering system to keep the queues moving quickly as well as covered outdoor seating and an open-sided marquee. Permission has also been granted for customers to use the next door orchard. However, owner Eric Snaith thinks it will take until indoor hospitality opens up in May before trade really takes off.
“Around us, it’s about 70% second homes,” says Eric, “so until people can travel and the pubs and hotels fill up we won’t see that boost in trade, that’s where a lot of our business is. I think it’s going to take a bit longer to fill up than people think. Although I think when it does, it’s going to be very busy and last a bit longer."
Also opening its outside space is The Scallop Shell in Bath, which has an 18 seater roof terrace that will work alongside the current takeaway and enable around 20% of the workforce to return. While owner Garry Rosser is looking forward to reintroducing an element of hospitality back into the business, he believes it won’t be until indoors reopens that the business will return to profitability.
“Even if we turn The Upper Deck over two to three times, with the takeaway too, we’ll still only just break even," says Garry. "But the positive of that is that at the moment we don’t break even. If we can start to bridge a hole, come May we can start to recover. I actually feel very lucky as there are a lot of businesses that won’t have that chance to recover.”
When fully reopen, The Scallop Shell will serve 96 covers rather than 134 before the pandemic, and Garry has no intention of returning to full capacity even when social distancing restrictions are lifted.
He comments: “We’ve learnt so much in this past year and probably one of biggest things is that people were enjoying more space, it made them relax a bit more, they were staying longer and, ultimately, spend per head increased. It proved better for the staff too who could enjoy the process more as they had more time to spend with customers and it wasn’t so manic. So we’ll never go back to a full restaurant now.”
Operator Jodie Zeniou, owner of Fylde Fish & Chips which has three restaurants with takeaways in Lancashire and Merseyside, has decided not to reopen the one site with outside seating for 20 but instead wait until she can welcome customers indoors. However, she remains sceptical about when that will be, commenting: “I can’t wait for our restaurants to open, especially Burscough because we only opened that in 2019 and it was just starting to find its feet when it had to close. But I am a little bit dubious though if it will happen as early as everyone thinks on May 17th. It all depends on the data.”
When the sites do finally reopen, Jodie plans to retain the shorter opening hours and reduced menu although will be adding a few specials trialled through lockdown thanks to the takeaways offering delivery and click and collect services. These include fresh lobster and mixed seafood sharing platters.
Jodie adds: “We have been lucky, we have been able to operate as a takeaway, but we are still losing revenue from the restaurants that we need to get back. I do think it will come back, I think people are ready, they are feeling more confident about eating out. We’ve got a lot of elderly customers who before would have been nervous to come out but now they’ve been vaccinated, I’m hoping they will be eager to return too.”
Also with 17th May firmly in his sights is Richard Ord, owner of Colmans Seafood Temple in South Shields, Tyne & Wear, who will be reopening bookings for the restaurant in mid-April.
Richard comments: ”When we reopened the restaurant after the first lockdown we were fully booked six to eight weeks in advance after just two or three days and I can’t see it being any different this time around. People want some normality back in their lives, so I’m really positive.
“After the first lockdown I had concerns because we were still in a massive unknown and no-one knew what was going to happen, but this time, seeing the numbers come down and vaccinations happening, there's a lot more on our side.”
Richard does aim to increase covers from the current 55 back up to 80 when social distancing restrictions are removed but says for now the plan is for people to come out and dine safely in the restaurant as they could before the pandemic.
Richard adds: “It’s been a long time since the restaurant has been at full capacity and we hope, come the summer, that will happen. But for now, we want to make sure everything goes smoothly and having this reduced capacity not only means we’re social distancing and keeping everyone safe, but we’re making sure we can get back into the groove of things and keep the quality and the service there.”
In the seaside town of Westbourne in Bournemouth, Fred Capel, owner of Chez Fred, is confident about reopening on 17th having spoken to several restaurants locally that have reported taking an unprecedented number of bookings already. He adds: “That tells me people can’t wait to visit restaurants. Being coastal too, it’s clear from what those in the tourism industry are saying that everything is getting booked up. A lot of our regular customer base will have had both jabs by the time we open, so I think, yes, we should be busy.”
A major benefit to reopening after this lockdown is the advance notice given by the government, which means restaurants can plan ahead. For Chez Fred, this has meant a reevaluation of the menu, and new items including fish, chicken and veggie burgers all made in-house, as well as sharing appetisers, will welcome customers back.
Fred adds: “To begin with we can’t be as busy as we were pre-Covid because we’ve had to operate with 35% fewer tables, but if restrictions do get lifted in June that will be amazing because we all want to get back to normal.
“It will be nice to reopen, we’re ready for it and we can’t wait.”
Having just reopened its takeaway this month, The Magpie Cafe in Whitby is also planning a full return on May 17th with chef Paul Gildroy encouraged by the number of enquiries.
Paul comments: "We're getting lots of booking enquiries on a daily basis for the restaurant and speaking to locals that own holiday lets, bookings seem to be coming in all the time so that's very encouraging. I think with the restrictions on travel we should be in for a bumper year."
Planning to bring a full team back, Paul is introducing twice weekly lateral flow tests for staff in a bid to reduce the risk of spreading Covid and keep the business open.
Paul adds: "It's been a hard year and a struggle for everyone, but the staff are eager to get back to work. After the last lockdown we were busy enough to bring everyone back and I'm confident we'll be in the same position come May."