Around the world restaurants are starting to re-open, with temperature checks for staff and customers, hand sanitisers at every turn, staggered eating times and plexi-glass screens between tables just some of the measures being taken to encourage diners back. Are we going to see all of this in Ireland, or is eat-in dining on the back burner for the foreseeable future as restaurants pivot to new takeaway and delivery models?
"I will do whatever it takes to be back up and running," says Gina Murphy of Hugo's on Dublin's Merrion Row. "I want to look after everyone, staff and customers. If it's financially viable, I'll do it. I can't if I am making a loss, but if I can break even I will keep going for as long as it takes. As restaurateurs, our biggest overhead is our rent - if the landlords play ball then we are in with a chance."
While Hugo's has been closed, Gina has been having regular Zoom meetings with her head chef and manager, and this week met them in the restaurant - "in a socially-distanced way" - to walk the premises and figure out the practicalities of re-opening.
As yet, there is no indication what the rules regarding social distancing will be when restaurants are allowed to re-open. Adrian Cummins of the Restaurant Association of Ireland says that he has submitted recommendations based on WHO guidelines, but has yet to hear whether these will be accepted. In a nutshell, these would involve a maximum of four customers per table, with each table occupying a minimum of 10sqm of floor space. There would be 1m of space between the back of one chair and another, when diners are seated, meaning a gap of 2m from the edge of one table to the next.
At Hugo's, they worry about how this would work. "We took out some tables for the last few days that we were open to implement social distancing," says Gina Murphy, "but I feel that it gives the place a very bare look. This is a very atmospheric restaurant normally, but it feels like a barn, so I think we will bring the tables and chairs back but mark them as unusable. Our kitchen is quite departmentalised - it's not too elbow-to-elbow; we will start with one or two chefs. We used to have eight back in the day. We are looking at three different menus depending on what the level of business will be - we won't know until we start. I hope prices don't have to go up."
A few kilometres away in Blackrock, Damien Grey of the Michelin-starred Liath, currently operating as a contactless meal-kit collection service is not planning to re-open any time soon. "Let's be realistic," he says. "The essence of dining out is human contact - if you don't have that chemistry it's just eating. Until we can engage, what's the point of going to a restaurant? The fun is gone. I can't see social distancing in restaurants being practical without massive square footage. For now, people are staying home. I see private dining being the new normal for the foreseeable future. Lots of people in the restaurant business have their heads buried in the sand. I can see it being easily 24 months before most can re-open - until then, the essence of restaurants must be shelved. I don't believe that the industry is gone forever, because we all crave eating good food and drinking wine with friends. In the meantime, restaurateurs have to adapt, get creative and evolve, and be dynamic enough to keep their customers interested in what they are doing. We are learning day by day."
Liath is designed to accommodate 22 guests, which would reduce to 12 with social distancing - a number that Damien believes may be feasible in financial terms, but he's in no rush to re-open. He thinks that he may be in a position to offer Liath to small groups before it re-opens to the public - "if there is a market and we can make it work from a business and safety point of view, we will do it" - and perhaps to bring the Liath experience into people's homes, also for small groups, but for the time being is going to focus on expanding the number of kits that he and his team can produce each week.
"It keeps the show on the road," he says. "It's tight but we can pay staff and suppliers and keep a handle on our borrowings. My biggest fear is that restaurants will open and have to close again and that we will be looking at multiple lockdowns. That would be a disaster. Liath is not supposed to be a takeaway but that is what we are now as a way of making the best of a terrible situation."
In Galway, Jess Murphy of Kai, a neighbourhood restaurant that sources most of its ingredients from local farms and producers, has been spending her time during lockdown volunteering for local charities, making sure her staff (particularly those whose English may not be good) are okay and mulling over what changes she will be making to her restaurant when she re-opens.
"Kai is too small to implement social distancing - if we were to take out half the tables we'd have to lose half the staff. Plexiglass screens and masks in a hospitality context? I just can't see it. Even takeaway is difficult because our kitchen is teeny tiny - it's like a caravan with fridges and I can't do it all myself. I have highly trained pastry chefs and if we can't do the food the way that we want it's not worth doing. Fifty per cent of a restaurant is the staff, rather than just the food - it's the beautifully made cup of coffee, the perfectly poured glass of wine. Doing a beetroot salad takeaway would break my heart. It's a choice that each restaurant has to make for itself.
"We are going to sit it out. We are open nine years this year, and by waiting we are just watching our savings deplete but I can't ask staff to come in until I can be sure it's safe for them. They are bored at home and keep asking when they can come back to work. [My husband] Dave and I are in here every day, cleaning, running the coffee machine, keeping busy. I think it will be mid-June before we can open, that's my guess-timation as a non-medical person. We'll just have to wait and see.
"Although there are huge negatives to the current situation, one positive is that we have time to think about how we will make things better when we do re-open. We've been like hamsters on a treadmill for years and this gives us time for reflection. For one thing, our staff are going to work eight-hour shifts, not 12, just like every other job. I don't think prices will need to be higher, ingredients will still cost the same."
Adrian Cummins of the RAI is lobbying the government hard on behalf of his members and says that there is awareness in government that hospitality has been hardest hit of all sectors.
"We need measures in relation to fixed costs, commercial rates, VAT, income subsidy and so on," he says. "Clever restaurateurs are thinking outside of the box, and one of the key things as we come into the summer is going to be flexibility regarding the use of outdoor public space - there should not be obstacles put in the way of operators that can utilise these to implement social distancing."
Kevin Aherne of Sage in Midleton was in the process of transitioning from fine-dining to a more neighbourhood feel when the lockdown hit, so he took a couple of weeks to remodel his menus in such a way as not to damage his 'hard-won' 12-mile brand (almost all the ingredients come from within a 12-mile radius) and now offers a contactless takeaway service of both cooked and heat-at-home food.
"We have one prep chef in from 8am to noon, then two chefs in two separate rooms in the kitchen from 12pm to 8pm and then the kitchen porter comes in from 8 until midnight. It's working well enough, but will it sustain? That depends on government measures. Is it long-term? Yes, for six months, but I'm not sure about two years. I don't see the restrictions being lifted until July or August and it may not be feasible for us to reopen then, if we lose the wage subsidy it definitely won't be possible, whatever about social distancing. But most people in the business are pretty optimistic, we are used to evolving and moving along."