Restaurant chain-owner tells how Omicron has hit hospitality firms

After suffering through two national lockdowns and a pingdemic, the hospitality industry is once again in turmoil.

The spread of Omicron has seen cancellations soar as families frantically try to reduce their risk of catching the virus ahead of Christmas.

After weeks of pleas from business owners for extra financial support, Chancellor Rishi Sunak yesterday announced a £1 billion bailout for the hospitality industry. But is it too little, too late?

In limbo: Michael Raphel, left, and Jay Rahman, right, are co-owners of JM Socials restaurant group 

Here Michael Raphel, 40, who co-owns a chain of six restaurants in Cheltenham and Oxford, tells Fiona Parker how Omicron has wreaked havoc on his business…

Saturday, November 27 

The first Omicron case has been confirmed in the UK. But my partner Jay and I do not know how worried we should be. 

It could be weeks before scientists decide whether or not it is a serious threat.

However, there is already a ten-day isolation rule for anyone who comes into contact with an Omicron case. What if this leads to another pingdemic?

Nearly half of our staff were off work in August and we had to shut our chicken restaurant for a fortnight. In a good week, our business, JM Socials, will turn over around £75,000, but we lost a third of our takings that month.

Sunday, November 28

We had three restaurants open for takeaways during the first lockdown. So I am ordering £2,000 worth of boxes and packaging today to prepare for the worst.

JM Socials has around 90 employees working across our restaurants and many are becoming anxious. 

Some are worried about the virus itself, while others are concerned about their jobs and hours. 

We furloughed 40 front-of-house staff and waiters earlier this year, but that scheme was closed in September. What happens if we need to send employees home again?

Tuesday, November 30

Our restaurants are closed on Mondays and this morning our managers took cancellations for more than 40 individual diners.

They are all sincere and apologetic. A third say they or a member of their group has tested positive. 

After weeks of pleas from business owners for extra financial support, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £1bn bailout for the hospitality industry

After weeks of pleas from business owners for extra financial support, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £1bn bailout for the hospitality industry

The rest just do not want to risk catching it. I understand why they feel like that and I value the safety of my staff and customers above everything else. 

But with each diner spending around £50, it is a big financial hit.

Thursday, December 2

Every morning Jay and I meet with our operations managers. Today it is decided an email will be sent to all staff instructing them to wear face masks once again.

It has to be done, but it is hard not to see this as a step backwards. I also know it isn’t easy for the employees. 

Wearing a mask in a hot kitchen is far from comfortable and waiters who rely heavily on tips cannot smile at their customers. Fortunately, our wonderful workforce are all happy to comply.

Saturday, December 4

Cancellations are coming thick and fast and it looks like we are now going to have to factor in plenty more for the weeks ahead.

Since yesterday, bookings for 66 diners at Bhoomi, the South Asian restaurant in Cheltenham where I am based, have fallen through.

That is going to amount to more than £3,300 in losses. Things are even worse at Prithvi, where Jay is based. 

His team has taken 55 cancellations — and there are only 12 tables in the whole restaurant. We do fine dining at Prithvi and the average customer will spend around £100, so that’s another £5,500 gone.

Tuesday, December 7

A waiter at our restaurant Bao + BBQ tested positive today. He came in early before the others had arrived and took a lateral flow test. 

Fortunately, he has no symptoms and it doesn’t look like he will be too poorly. Like previous staff who had to self-isolate, he will receive £96.35 a week in Statutory Sick Pay. 

It has been months since we have had a positive case in our team and I hope it is not the first of many.

Staff who test positive and are forced to self-isolate receive £96.35 a week in Statutory Sick Pay

Staff who test positive and are forced to self-isolate receive £96.35 a week in Statutory Sick Pay

Thursday, December 9

With so many cancellations, we cannot afford to keep our front-of-house team on 38 hours a week — so they have been cut to 25 hours.

As these employees are paid £12 an hour, they will be going home with £300 before tips, rather than £456 — which is a big blow ahead of Christmas. It is not a decision we ever wanted to make, but it is essential to avoid cutting jobs.

Last night the Prime Minister confirmed he was going ahead with Plan B restrictions and I am hoping this will lead to a drop in cases. However, it will almost certainly put more people off eating out in the short term.

Friday, December 17

This is by far the worst day we have had for cancellations so far — 131 diners in total. Our managers are usually busy taking calls from customers who want a spontaneous meal on a Friday night.

But we have hardly welcomed any of these last-minute bookings tonight. I suppose it is now two days since Professor Chris Whitty told the nation to ‘prioritise social interactions’. 

I listened out for any announcement about help for business and there was none. But I was not feeling optimistic about this when the press conference began.

Sunday, December 19

We have received fantastic news about our Bhoomi restaurant in Oxford — it is going to be featured in the Michelin Guide. It has prompted a surge in bookings, which are very much welcomed.

Today the papers are full of speculation about a future lockdown. A part of me hopes this will happen. If we could furlough staff and claim grants, a lockdown would be an improvement and help protect my staff’s jobs.

Monday, December 20

The wait is over, for now. The Prime Minister ruled out any ‘immediate’ restrictions tonight. 

But that just means we are stuck in this ‘no-man’s land’ where the Government is not shutting us down but won’t help us survive either.

We still have energy and water bills, supplies to buy and of course wages to pay. If this carries on, we will have no choice but to cut even more hours.

Tuesday, December 21

At last, the Chancellor has finally committed to some support. Of course I would welcome a £6,000 grant, but without knowing which restrictions will be brought in, it is difficult to say how much help this will be.

If we go back to takeaway and outside dining only, our restaurants would suffer a considerable drop in income and I just don’t know whether the grant will be enough to cover our payroll and overheads for the period. 

The No. 1 concern for us is to cover wages. Our staff will always be our priority.