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'The Day We Had to Close', By Restaurant Owner, Andy Oliver

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'The Day We Had to Close', By Restaurant Owner, Andy Oliver

All images sourced from @somsaa_london Instagram

Co-owner of som saa restaurant, Andy Oliver, shares a very honest, raw account of the day they made the decision to close som saa as a result of the current crisis.

Som saa closed on Tuesday March 17th. Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, it should have been pretty obvious this was coming. For all of us, I’m sure, the timeline from seeing a news item about a virus in Wuhan, China, to that virus being here on our doorstep - very serious and very real - felt frighteningly short.

As a busy central London restaurant, we were always going to feel the impact early. We were watching things carefully; briefing our staff on hug-avoidance, extra santising and hand-washing. Customer numbers were more-or-less holding up, but we were increasingly aware of the moral dilemma; running a restaurant requires staff and customers to mix in a busy space, when people could perfectly well get a meal at home. Yet closing the restaurant would mean sending nearly fifty staff home, without an answer as to when they’d next have work.

The journey of realisation for those of us running som saa was certainly a quick one. In the space of a week, we went from COVID-19 being a worry and thinking about what measures we could take, to, in just a couple of days, being concerned we might have to close at some point, to thinking we might make it to the end of week; to the frightening realisation that it was best to just close now. Not after service, but better just now, at 3:30pm, half way between lunch and dinner services - with chefs doing dinner service prep and bar staff cutting limes and stocking up.

The day before, the PM had announced that people should avoid going to clubs, bars, pubs and restaurants. From that moment on it was really a case of when, not if, we closed, and in the end we decided to do it sooner rather than later. That afternoon, we gathered the team and were pretty straight with them. We had to do this because it was in the best interests of staff and customer’s health, and frankly, because we didn’t expect there to be any customers in a couple of days. Beyond that, we couldn’t tell them much; we could only reassure them that they would be paid full pay, and that we would need a couple of days to work out what the plan was.

The staff were brilliant - none of them were angry, and many of them expressed how sorry they were for us - having to shut down our business, with all that worry and uncertainty. All the while, we were busy worrying about them. How long would we be shut for? Weeks? Months? How long could we afford to keep paying them? Would there be any support from the government? Would we have to lay anyone off?

“How long will we be shut for?”

Before everyone went home, we sat down for a final meal. The chefs were given carte blanche to cook anything they fancied from the fridges full of ingredients, and the bar staff brought some good bottles of open wine that now weren’t going anywhere. It was a lovely team meal; lots of food, laughter and positivity, but I distinctly remember catching the look in the eye of one or two staff as they left that day. They were clearly worried about the future; how they would pay the bills, and in some cases feed their family too. Restaurants are home to tight knit groups of people who work hard and spend a lot of time together. Worrying about what was going to happen to the whole som saa family all at once felt pretty overwhelming.

The next few days were really difficult. There were only questions and no answers. How long could we afford to pay the staff for? How could we continue to pay rent, rates and bills when there was zero income? Who might be the most in need? Would there be any government assistance at all?

Thankfully, the news we’d been holding our breath for came just a few days later. The Chancellor announced a new furlough scheme, which would guarantee our staff 80% of their wages at least for now. This along, with other assistance (such as cancelled business rates), was a real lifeline. It allowed us to keep our staff on, and gave us confidence that som saa would be there on the other side of all of this.

“there were only questions, and no answers”

Yet for many restaurants, this will be terminal. It’s common for high revenue, low-margin businesses like restaurants to only hold a month’s worth of expenses in the bank, and so, tragically, many will never reopen. More help from the government is needed, particularly when it comes to rent, as many landlords are asking for payments that hospitality businesses just can‘t afford. Right now, it does not feel like an exaggeration to say that a complete decimation of the previously vibrant UK restaurant industry is possible.

Since closing, we’ve been trying to stay positive and make a difference where we can, by having a cook-up and donating food to a homeless shelter, and dropping ingredients to food banks. We’re still hoping to do more - we’re talking to a couple of charities about how we could use our space productively, and many of our staff are volunteering locally. Otherwise we’re just locked down, like everyone else - making the most of yoga videos, zoom calls, baking bread - and guessing, hoping, that some kind of return to normality isn’t too far away. But it does sort of feel like it might be, and we never stop wondering; how long before hospitality businesses are allowed to open again? And, when we finally reopen our doors, how many customers should we expect to see in the first few weeks and months?

“we've been trying to stay positive and make a difference where we can”

For now, we look forward to the day we’ll be lighting the grill and the wok burners again, stocking the bar, mixing drinks and showing customers to their tables. We hope that our customers miss it too.

Help support the hospitality industry:

Petition to have service charge included in the government job retention scheme

Support the Jonathan Downey’s (@DowneyJD) campaign for a 9 month national rent free period #NationalRentFree

Emergency appeal for hospitality staff facing hardship:

Andy Oliver

Author: Andy Oliver


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