Corona diaries: Week 14

We made it, everybody! Clap yourself on the back, congratulate yourself on your pluck and guts and book that table in the Allied for tomorrow, because lockdown is over. The pubs are starting to reopen – with the exception of killjoys like the Retreat with no gardens and selfish buzzkill merchants like the Purple Turtle – and although quite a lot of restaurants are yet to announce their plans, the good times are clearly just around the corner. I may not have got my holiday to Greece this year (I should have done a Stanley Johnson and just flown to Bulgaria before smuggling myself in: another trick missed) but who cares? The summer is fun is just about to begin.

Except. Except. Except I think we all know it isn’t really like that, and this stage of proceedings feels especially febrile. Hundreds of people are still dying every day – only in England, mind you, not in our more sensible regional cousins – my friends in Leicester (hi Adele, hi Mark!) are right back at square one and I don’t know about you, but the triumphalism coming out of some sections of the national press feels jarringly at odds with how I feel. I’ve spent nearly four months at home and I don’t remotely feel like the end is in sight; instead I have a growing, nagging suspicion that we’ll look back on lockdown, comparatively speaking, as the golden age.

Personally I’ll be at home tomorrow night, drinking some fantastic beers (I recently finally joined Untappd, which makes me a late adopter in much the same way as Mark Zuckerberg has lately adopted scruples about hate speech) and eating a takeaway from Namaste Momo. They do open for customers tomorrow as it happens, and I wish Kamal the best of luck, but I’d still rather get my fix delivered to my front door.

I’ve been thinking about the road ahead a lot this week, and some of this feels especially difficult for me to say. I love restaurants, I miss restaurants and I want nothing more than for restaurants to do well – especially the ones to which I’ve become rather attached. I wish I could be excitedly announcing all the reopenings, saying “see you there!” and racing you for that early table. I wish this was a diary post about that – it takes me back to nearly three months ago when I was writing about where we’d all go for our first post-lockdown meals. With hindsight, we all knew so little about how painful this would be: perhaps that’s for the best.

I can’t be that jingoistic cheerleader, because I think our restaurants are being hung out to dry. The decision to let them reopen is like the decision in March to tell people not to visit them (without actually closing them, of course). It is all about the government withdrawing support and leaving them to fail on their own two feet, and creating the illusion that life is going back to normal rather than the reality that it will. No more grants to fend off those greedy landlords, no more furlough payments for staff: restaurants are on their own now. It’s even worse – if that’s possible – in the arts: but that’s another story, albeit one closely linked to hospitality.

When I asked about this on social media, at least half of my followers said they didn’t plan to go into a restaurant for the time being. Couple that with the huge limitations that social distancing will impose on seating, and the admin involved in managing your customers, not to mention the risk that you will have to shut down when one of your customers or members of staff – probably from weeks ago – tests positive for Covid and the picture looks fraught with difficulty. Restaurants might feel they can’t say this publicly, so all the rhetoric is about how they can’t wait to have you back and see your faces (which I’m sure, by the way, is true) but could you blame them if, privately, they were shitting themselves?

This raises questions for all of us. Restaurants may have plenty of head scratching ahead about how they change their practices, but I think we also have to do some thinking about how we plan to support restaurants. Shrinking violet Jay Rayner started a debate about it this week when he grandly announced on Twitter that he was no longer going to publish negative restaurant reviews. He wasn’t prepared to kick anyone in hospitality at a difficult time like this, so if he didn’t have anything nice to say he wouldn’t say anything at all: if he went somewhere and didn’t like it he just wouldn’t write about it.

Would I do likewise? It’s a moot point right now, but an interesting one nonetheless. It’s different for Jay Rayner – he writes reviews that can genuinely boost or close restaurants (and has the ego to match) and I can see he might feel that with great power comes responsibility. But if you don’t tell people to avoid somewhere bad, isn’t there a risk that they’ll go there instead of all the lovely places you know about? And is thinking that literally everybody in hospitality is wonderful and doing their best to give you a fantastic evening a dewy-eyed act of self-deception? I’m sure, post-Covid, there will still be shysters and chancers, people ripping off trends or exploiting diners.

A lively debate on the subject on the ER Facebook page was fascinating but left me little clearer about my own views. Some people thought that a positive outlook like Rayner’s was just what was needed for the times ahead, others reckoned that there was a world of difference between an honest, constructive opinion and a hatchet job. One person very nicely said that my negative reviews tended to be nuanced (thanks Lucy, cheque’s in the post) – I wish that was true, but even I know that I can sometimes put the boot in. Would that be acceptable, post lockdown? Or would I just get told off because, ultimately, those restaurants pay wages and contribute to the economy, even if the food is bobbins?

Whether the state of affairs changes my habits as a reviewer, there’s no question that it can, will and (arguably) must change all of our habits as eaters. I’ve read a lot about how the age of the influencer is over, with bloggers (including local bloggers) rethinking their position on PR opportunities and gifted meals. And that’s right, I think, because it comes with a growing awareness that the restaurants that can still afford to do that are the chains. If you read my blog, you probably at least slightly share my values around independent businesses. If you do, I think there’s a lot to be said for thinking hard about your attitude to chains – especially big chains – from now on.

Make no mistake, the battle for market share in the months ahead will resemble a war zone, and the chains are going to do their best to kill independent businesses right out of the blocks. When Prêt announces that you can prepay £20 for 20 coffees, it wants to survive by clambering over the corpses of all the CUPs and Workhouses in towns across the country. When Camden Town Brewery – owned by giant multinational brewery AB InBev – gallantly offers to give free beer to pubs, they are trying to establish a stranglehold that forces smaller breweries out of business. We’re going to see this trend over and over again for the rest of this year.

In “peacetime”, I’m as partial to a Pizza Express or sitting at the belt at Yo! Sushi or drinking a Prêt mocha as the next person (unless, of course, the next person’s Prince Andrew). But we’re not in peacetime any more, and the luxury of having this plethora of choices is one we no longer have. In honesty, it was never one we really needed.

Everybody has to make their own choices, but I look at it this way: only so many businesses will survive all this, so you have to spend every pound with the businesses you want to survive. That was always true, even before Covid – especially with margins in hospitality as slender as they are – but it’s quadruply so now.

I had a conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago with someone about the mighty Kungfu Kitchen. “I like the look of their menu, but I’ll wait until I can eat in” she said. I had to point out, with the best will in the world, that if everybody takes that attitude your opportunity to eat in might be – to put it euphemistically – limited. I felt a bit like Bob Geldof at LiveAid, banging the table, saying “give us your fucking money”. But it’s true, and it’s important.

I think people’s mindsets are maybe slow to catch up. You see that in the recent news that Reading might well get a branch of Wendy’s at some point next year, news which caused an entirely disproportionate amount of buzz. “It will be nice to have another option”, said someone I follow on Twitter.

With respect, no. We have enough options already, more options than we need. We are going to lose a lot of those options as things stand, without a big faceless American chain coming in and selling everybody square donkey burgers. “But the jobs”, people say. Well, there is that. But those twenty or so jobs are a drop in the ocean when you think of all the companies and retailers making thousands of redundancies, and I bet you our independent restaurants and cafés treat – and pay – their staff miles better.

Of course, as sure as night follows day, Berkshire Live published an excitable article about Wendy’s (and promoted it five times in one day on Twitter) in the same week that they pretended to care about independent businesses with their bare minimum Twitter campaign. “Tweet to us about your business and we’ll share it with our 93,000 followers” said an organisation that has spent over twelve weeks publishing practically nothing about the independent businesses we already have.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. But of course, a proper outfit with links to the community would have followed people and businesses, engaged and would know this stuff already. They wouldn’t have to launch a desperate campaign which involves you doing all the legwork so they can just Retweet it.

What have they been doing in lockdown, exactly? Not their podcast, that’s for sure: they recorded an episode about “our pivoting independents” at the start of April which they couldn’t even be bothered to promote on social media. And since then? Complete radio silence. Perhaps Berkshire Live, part of what used to be Trinity Mirror but is now the disingenuously named “Reach Plc”, is another organisation that people don’t really need any more, like those other big chains with genuinely no interest in the communities they serve.

The response to their Twitter appeal, incidentally, was exactly what you’d expect from a company with zero interest in its audience: a wedding video company in Essex and an organisation called “The Dick Incider” (I suspect the latter isn’t real, but I’m surprised they didn’t just Retweet it anyway).

Speaking personally, I plan to pick the businesses I want to survive and relentlessly support them where I can. I hope everybody does the same. If you split your spend between, say, fifteen different restaurants the grim reality is that some or all of them may fail. There are no guarantees in what lies ahead, but if you zero in on a smaller number you give them the best possible chance of making it through all this.

That doesn’t mean you want the rest to go under, merely that there are limits to what anybody can do. I would be sad if, say, the Prêt outside the Oracle closed: it’s a favourite of my family’s, so I’ve been there far more often than I might from entirely personal choice. But I would be devastated if we lost Anonymous, or Tamp, or Nibsy’s.

Every town will be faced with these choices, and it will be a real opportunity for Reading to show what many of us have always said, that it’s more than a chain town. Imagine if everyone had the tacos at the Lyndhurst instead of Taco Bell, ate at Pepe Sale instead of Prezzo, went to Bakery House instead of Comptoir Libanais. It’s always been important, but it won’t ever be as important as this.

I don’t know if it’s much of an exaggeration to say that it’s a battle for the soul of Reading, and you need to pick which side you’re on. You can sneer and run the town down, if that’s your thing: god knows you’ll find an audience that shares what passes for your values. Alternatively, you can play an active part in making it the place we all know it can be. Which would you rather?

Of course, that leaves me with the difficult decision about what I do next. I won’t be reviewing restaurants, not for now anyway, and I’ve already ruled out takeaways. I’ve really enjoyed writing during lockdown, and I hope that alternating the diary posts with the weekly interviews has given everybody something to read (and possibly something to skip, or take exception to). I’ve been hugely encouraged by the response to the diary posts – especially the many kind comments, Tweets, messages and emails – and I know that the interview posts have had a fantastic reception.

So the interviews will continue for the foreseeable future, and I’m open to carry on writing some kind of diary for as long as people want to read it. But blogs are no different to all the restaurants, pubs, breweries, cafés and bars out there: if you want them to be around in the months ahead you have to use them and promote them. Otherwise you’ll end up in a town of Wetherspoons and Caffe Neros, of Taco Bells and Berkshire Lives. I lived in a town like that, once. It was Reading in 2013, before we got some self-belief and a lot of brave, risk-taking entrepreneurs. I don’t personally want to go back there. Do you?

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