CODE meets Laura Christie & Selin Kiazim, Oklava

Published 28 July 2020

With sites in both Shoreditch and Fitzrovia, Turkish-Cypriot restaurant and wine bar Oklava is a firm favourite on the London food scene. Founders Laura Christie and Selin Kiazim recently made headlines after announcing they were scrapping service charges for good. Here, we speak to them about this decision, preparing for reopening and how the industry needs to change in the coming months.

First off, how has it been preparing to reopen your new sites?

Laura + Selin: We are of course really excited to finally be back open but it’s brought a lot of challenges. The main focus is our staff and customers feeling safe, introducing new procedures but still keeping the essence of “the Oklava experience” and finding a balance between the safety measures and a relaxing “normal” feeling atmosphere. We have had to make compromises over hours while offices aren’t back, and it very much feels as if everything is still balanced on a knife edge to make it through this crisis.

What have been the biggest challenges for you when it comes to reopening?

Laura + Selin: The biggest challenge by far has been one of our landlords. There is simply no compromise over rent and we have been personally threatened repeatedly with legal action. It’s a huge pressure and whilst the rent moratorium is protecting us now, ultimately it will expire and more intervention is needed from government as some landlords wilfully ignore the code of good practice that has been set out.

We have also been really concerned by the possibility of no shows now our capacity has been reduced. We worry taking deposits or card details puts off guests, but we are a tiny place and 5 covers represents 10% of our capacity on a busy evening, even more on a mid-week day.

We saw you decided to scrap service charges. What was behind that decision?

Laura + Selin: We have never operated a tronc scheme, but its treatment during the pandemic in relation to furlough cemented thoughts we had already had over service charge. We have both worked in the industry since being teenagers, we are passionate about it being a respected career choice and ultimately feel part of that is a decent wage. A decent wage cannot be discretionary.

Do you think that other operators will and should follow suit?

Laura + Selin: It’s a complex issue really as there are obvious tax benefits to tronc which quite frankly struggling operators will not be able to absorb right now. We are publicising our decision only so customers can understand the inevitable rise in prices to incorporate the service charge into our menu prices. We have no wish to kick other operators for their own business decisions while the industry is on its knees. But we do of course hope it starts a conversation for the future.

What is the biggest lesson you learnt in lockdown?

Laura + Selin: Finances must come first. There is a temptation in hospitality to allow our passion to rule decisions, but it is quite unbelievable that literally no one had a few months’ rent in the bank once COVID-19 hit. Without the finances in order you cannot take care of your staff and even a small bump in the road never mind a pandemic can derail the whole operation.

What was your go-to meal to cook in lockdown?

Laura: We have been bbq-ing an awful lot – missing Oklava’s mangal!
Selin: Anything and everything we craved from fried chicken to bao to Pides!

Other than Oklava, where else are you looking forward to eating now you can?

Laura: I am looking forwards to going back out in general. There’s such an excellent selection of food of course, but mainly it’s about showing my support and confidence in the industry rather than any specific meal!

Selin: I am loving being back out visiting restaurants. I have missed eating out immensely and have already visited Orasay, Perilla and Bright. As well as enjoying eating out I think it’s incredibly important to be supporting the hospitality industry right now.

How do you think the industry has adapted to the ongoing situation?

Laura + Selin: There’s been some really inspiring adaptations in business model to enable businesses to keep their head above the water. This doesn’t surprise me, it’s a hugely creative industry full of people who aren’t afraid to take on new challenges. More adaptation will be necessary to move away from short term survival into long term and some difficult questions will need to be addressed – pay, deposits, cancellation charges, rent, landlords etc.

What change and support is needed in the industry to ensure jobs are protected and as many restaurants as possible come through the other end?

Laura + Selin: Furlough needs to be fully funded by government for our industry until October. Employers simply cannot contribute even small amounts and job losses are inevitable. The cut in VAT and eat out to help out will be useful but I question if either scheme is operating for long enough. A solution to the backlog of rent must be found and government must intervene on a legislative level.

What would you say to guests nervous still to eat out and visit Oklava?

Laura + Selin: We are an industry well used to prioritising the health, safety and comfort of our guests. We have put an awful lot of time, effort and money into new procedures and training. We are ready to welcome you back safely.

And what would you say to young people looking to open a restaurant or bar?

Laura + Selin: Go into it with your eyes open in terms of the commitments you are making and ensure you get the right advice at every stage. Passion and enthusiasm are essential but it’s not enough if the numbers don’t stack up.

For more information about Oklava or to book a table, visit the website here

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