Published 15 December 2020
Five leading industry figures share their thoughts on 2020 and consider what might happen in 2021.
How has 2020 affected things from my perspective?
As I pour over my many notes and ramblings from earlier this year I remember the ups and downs, the intensity and sudden changes we had to make. I find my ‘Coronavirus Disaster Planning March 2020’ file and almost chuckle, almost. My notes consist of how to keep up team morale while not being in an office, then how to pay them and the relief of furlough. I cut as many expenses as I can.
Days oscillate between dealing with unreasonable landlords to fighting alongside hospitality giants for the survival of the entire industry. One moment I’m trying to repurpose office furniture, convincing my husband it could work at home, the next I’m having Zoom calls with the Treasury office.
The focus shifted from the strategic development of the business to company survival in a matter of days. New priorities were in play not only for our clients but for us too. Our work has always been fast-paced and intense, but now Alice and I work like never before to support our clients, keep the company alive and our voice heard. It’s a relief to have some of the team back in the summer; their hunger to get back to work, their scrappiness, professionalism and sheer grit give us renewed energy.
The pandemic has caused everything that we did to change in order for us to achieve the same outcomes and enjoy the same successes. We now do lots more digital management and creation. We’re still achieving the same results for our clients, but we’ve changed how we get there. We have adapted and embraced the new and altered landscape just as the restaurants, bars and hotels we work with have. We continue to support and drive business for them, just in a new way.
What will 2021 look like?
My biggest hope for the hospitality industry is that young people of colour would experience our industry as one of limitless opportunity, an industry that is as hospitable to its patrons as those who work in it. I am committed to the recognition that those of us who have found life-giving careers in restaurants, hotels, bars and communications, need to step up to ensure our industry looks like the city we serve, from its very top to its tip.
I also hope that new businesses will be able to thrive in this altered landscape. We’ve already seen an abundance of creativity with new enterprises emerging from the pandemic, and there will be more to come. Of course, it’s awful that some restaurants have had to close, but new ones will open in their place giving employment and opportunities to many. I’m looking forward to seeing what 2021 has in store for us.
It’s easy to see 2020 for the utter shitshow we all know it to have been … the pandemic, the lockdowns, the restrictions, the incomprehensible and uninformed scapegoating of hospitality, the visceral pain caused by structural racism, the economic devastation, the impact to physical and mental wellbeing.
But perhaps it is worth squinting a little and seeing it in a different light, in the hope that that does not diminish the experience of those for whom the first paragraph encapsulates the entirety of their feelings about the year. For some there were rays of light. Many people found that they were capable of so much more than they knew, that they had unknown reserves of resilience and flexibility upon which they could draw. Throughout the hospitality industry many people managed not just to survive, but found some spare strength to help others, to step in and nourish the bodies and souls of people who were struggling even more.
I believe the country woke up to how much hospitality means to us as individuals, as communities and as a nation. It is where we see friends and family, it is where we take refuge from the harsher realities of life, it is where we find experiences both new and so familiar that they remind us of our fondest days of childhood. It is where a significant number of us learn as young adults to stand tall and look others in the eye, and that being hospitable and giving people service is far removed from servility. Hospitality matters.
As we move into 2021 we know that our challenges are far from over. However, we should also look ahead and see green shoots. There is a pent-up demand to be happy, to have fun, to laugh and hug people, to eat, drink and be merry; to do the things that people do in bars, pubs and restaurants.
Opportunities will arise. In London in recent years it has been incredibly difficult for young people to do what my best friend Huw and I did in 2006 and start out on your own. It’s been difficult to try something genuinely different, interesting and challenging to the status quo because taking risks felt a little too risky for many. Those days are behind us, because just as we’ve experienced the scorched earth of Covid this year, we will hopefully see that some of the negative aspects of our industry have gone up in flames too, and that the germination of something new will follow as we try to build our industry back again.
The last year has been a time of personal and professional reflection. For 12:51 it has been tough but rewarding. We’ve been forced to adapt to survive. We moved quickly to set up our fried chicken delivery service concept Around The Cluck, which was a major hit with the local community when the restaurant couldn’t open. We had to think on our feet and worked our socks off to get it up and running. Because of that, we managed to keep the business afloat in the middle of so much uncertainty over what the government was going to do.
This time allowed us to take stock of where we were at as a restaurant. Both me and my business partner realised how much strain we were putting on ourselves, and the business. We really focused on what we do best. After switching to a tasting menu concept in the restaurant, it’s working like a dream and the customers are really responding to it. So, it was a bit of a blessing in disguise. In 2021 I really want to kick on and carry on fine tuning what we’re doing. Like everyone, we’re itching to get things back up and running like normal, but times like this make you see the bigger picture. People are craving a bit of normality. Something as simple as going out for dinner can play a vital role in making people happy and give them an escape from their day to day lives. There’s a power in that, it brings joy. I hope we can continue to play our part. We have big plans in 2021 – watch this space.
So the start of 2020 kicked off with a bang …forecasting looked buoyant and we had great expectations for a positive year ahead, how wrong we were …Covid 19 was just round the corner.
As soon as the gravity of the situation hit, we morphed into a hotel that we had never seen or experienced before, and never want to see again. Without any guests staying, our thoughts focussed into three different directions, how could we support the London emergency services, how could we look after our local neighbourhood and of course how can we best support and look after our staff. With a few weeks ‘The Berkeley 999 Drive-Thru’ was born, eventually serving up to 500 meals a days to Fire, Police, Ambulances, Police Horses and even the local streetcleaners… anyone who was doing their bit in keeping London safe… Belgravia looked like the latest episode of Casualty! Our local community also showed their support… with Harvey Nichols Food Halls wheeling in food along Knightsbridge, our neighbours baking cakes, even Marcus Wareing baking brownies and serving the crews – a supportive, caring, bond of kindness and community was formed and has become so important we have vowed never to let this go as we move forward into 2021. Our staff, most of who were all furloughed were also eager to play their part and volunteered to come in and man the entrance serving food and giving words of encouragement. A different kind of hospitality, but hospitality just the same.
I am a firm believer that if anyone believed they could do business like they used to do they would fall flat on their face, so like everyone smart in town we had to pivot our business model. In true Berkeley style we gathered our trusted colleagues and developed some ideas that we hoped would be commercially successful as well as reflecting the Berkeley Spirit of creativity and innovation. Introductions of The Blue Bar Bike Cocktail service, SW1X Delivered and take-away service, Breakfast in Bed from The Berkeley, all keeping our business alive and our staff motivated…and then of course, The Garden at The Berkeley, turning a carpark area outside the ballroom into a little piece of the South of France, and becoming even to us the surprise London hit of the Summer… even receiving rave reviews from Fay Maschler! Probably the fastest and lowest design budget restaurant we have ever launched but taught us the importance of getting the magical ingredients right, capturing the zeitgist of the moment led to record revenues throughout the Summer. We learnt to be nimble, push the boundaries and even have fun.
Moving forward into 2021, it will still be a very difficult year, which is unlikely to see International Travellers returning for some time . The UK market which has become increasingly important, will remain a strong focus for us and F&B in our immediate local area and London market will be a priority. We have embraced many of the lessons we have learnt this year, we need to be creative with outdoor dining, it is here to stay, The Garden at The Berkeley will become a permanent feature (our Winter Garden Cabins sold out). It has challenged our chefs to think more like creative restauranteurs rather than hotel chefs… more Green Egg BBQ than hotel club sandwiches. We have established a 999 Blue Light Club with treats and benefits for our new emergency services friends who have now officially become part of our hotel family, and whilst we have always loved and supported our neighbourhood we have had a renewed realisation of the importance of community.
Even though this is not the year we could have ever dreamt of, or would have wished on the world, we have as a hotel learnt some really important lessons and I could not be prouder of how our teams have risen to the challenges with true Berkeley spirit with an unparalleled support from our owners.
In a normal year, I’d spend over a third of the year on the road; catching up with our growers and tracking down new varieties out in the field. The first few months of lockdown were the longest I’ve gone without that direct contact, and it really made me realise how important human relationships are to Natoora. Working with a close community of growers and producers meant that we were able to respond quickly and on a much more individual level to the crisis.
The way we’ve built our supply chain over all these years enabled us to get food directly to where it was needed most and help people meaningfully at every point across the supply chain. From opening up our app to consumers to taking on produce from producers with sudden overstock to adding hospitality staff to our teams, the complexity and singularity of how Natoora operates became our greatest asset when Covid struck. Rooting our supply chain in human relationships – in spite of the inevitable logistical complexity that goes with working on a case by case basis – is what gave us the most resilience.
Internally, it brought the organisation closer, too – when the first lockdown hit, our focus was suddenly to pivot our app towards home deliveries to ensure produce grown for restaurants wouldn’t go to waste. Goals we’d set far into the future were hit in a matter of days – and that was down to our people. The result was that the needle shifted towards conscious consumption far faster than it would have done otherwise.
Likewise, announcing Natoora Earthworks at the height of the pandemic was not the way we would have planned it – but with the first crops coming in from our farm, it just had to happen. In a way, Covid gave the need for a soil regeneration project like this one a greater sense of urgency. Right now there is a real need to slow down, question where our food is coming from and understand the very real impact of our choices. Earthworks has the power to deliver full transparency across the entirety of the supply chain, all the way back to the soil, and make farming a force for good. At Melilot [the Cornish farm which Natoora co-owns with chef Dan Cox], we are still trialling varieties and narrowing our focus but people are already taking an active interest in it. It might not have registered in the same way, pre-Covid.
Whilst there might be a drop in interest when life eventually returns to something like normal, our hope is that people are going to keep carrying this awareness, especially in the restaurant industry. As we look ahead to 2021 and beyond, our focus is on harnessing that awareness and transforming the way food can have a tangible impact on our planet. From how we measure that impact – through carbon offsetting to measuring nutritional density – to how that information is communicated, we’re all in. We want to make sure everyone is not just informed but recognises their own power to drive change.