Nimble Irish restaurants head back to basics as epic lockdown ends
In October 2019, shortly after opening, chef Jordan Bailey's Aimsir restaurant in County Kildare won two Michelin stars. Ten months later he was selling lobster rolls and lamb kebabs from a camper van.
CELBRIDGE, Ireland: In October 2019, shortly after opening, chef Jordan Bailey's Aimsir restaurant in County Kildare won two Michelin stars. Ten months later he was selling lobster rolls and lamb kebabs from a camper van.
Having been closed entirely to guests - like the rest of a hospitality industry emerging from Ireland's third COVID-19 lockdown - for all but four of the past 15 months, he had to innovate to survive.
"It really kicked in a few weeks into lockdown when things were getting worse and worse and worse, that's when it got really scary and forced us to start thinking how can we keep Aimsir going?" said Bailey.
An estimated 25per cent of Irish restaurants have turned their hands to offering meal delivery or collection services or, in some cases, even transformed their dining rooms into greengrocer shops.
Their flexibility has helped limit the economic impact of the current, longest lockdown to, Ireland's finance department estimates, around half that of the first in 2020.
Aimsir has been selling weekly meal kits featuring the likes of puffed cod skin and deer with smoked bone marrow emulsion, and a QR code for home cooks to access instructional videos.
General manager Majken Bech-Bailey, the other half of the husband-and-wife team, calls them a lifesaver that has even boosted revenues.
A lifesaver is also how Barry Fitzgerald describes the 30-40 euro a head cook-at-home collection kits he has sold out of through much of lockdown at his Bastible and Clanbrassil House restaurants near Dublin's deserted city centre.
Operating at 50-60per cent of pre-pandemic revenue with lower staff costs, a temporary halving of rent, and wage subsidies and grants from the government have kept both restaurants afloat and allowed him to rebuild cashflow.
"It's pretty scary just seeing your bank balance fade away," said Fitzgerald. "I'm so thankful the dining public were sick of cooking (from fresh) at home."
Despite most stores and the entire hospitality sector having been shut down since late December, Irish retail sales rose above pre-pandemic levels from February to April.
That points to an adaptability, also typified by the Dublin bookstore owner who took to her pushbike to deliver books when click-and-collect was banned, that Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe described as extraordinary.
Monthly spending on restaurant food, having collapsed 76per cent year-on-year to 75 million euros (US$91 million) in April 2020 during the first lockdown, hit 215 million euros in November during the second one and has averaged 175 million euros during the third.
(Adapting to lockdowns - Irish restaurant spending: https://tmsnrt.rs/2SRhUu5)
DAY OF RECKONING?
Outdoor dining has been authorised again in Ireland from next week, and limited-capacity indoor service is scheduled to resume in early July.
The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) believes those kitchens that found a way to keep cooking should emerge from the COVID-19 crisis relatively unscathed. But it also estimates that around 50per cent of operators are teetering on the edge of collapse.
Rent arrears is the number one issue, according to RAI chief executive Adrian Cummins, who says landlords have been evenly split between "the good, the bad and the ugly", those that have postponed or reduced rents, or expected them in full.
"The minute you open your doors, everyone starts coming looking for money and that's where you're going to have the big car crash," Cummins said, anticipating a "day of reckoning" next year when state supports are phased out.
Restaurants like Dublin's Las Tapas de Lola, which tried to adapt but simply "lost money hand over fist" due to steep labour and delivery costs and a cuisine ill-suited to takeaway, are instead counting on a sharp rebound once the economy reopens.
The restaurant has survived by exhausting money set aside for a potential expansion, deferring "massive" tax liabilities and agreeing to pay a percentage of its rent, co-owner Vanessa Murphy said.
With the sector desperate to tap into record levels of household savings and a public chomping at the bit for some normality, Las Tapas de Lola is already booked out well into August and it needs to be.
"It's going to take all of us about five years to rebuild," Murphy said.
(US$1 = 0.8212 euros)
(editing by John Stonestreet)