Restaurant chain owner shares how Omicron hit hotel businesses

After suffering two national blockades and a pingemia, the hotel industry is once again in turmoil.

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

After weeks of demands for further financial support from business owners, 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, co-own restaurant group JM Socials

Here, 40-year-old Michael Raphel, co-owner of a chain of six restaurants in Cheltenham and Oxford, tells Fiona Parker how Omicron has wreaked havoc on her business …

saturday 27 november

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

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

However, there is already a ten day isolation rule for anyone who comes in contact with an Omicron case. What if that leads to another pingemia?

Almost half of our staff were on leave in August and we had to close our chicken restaurant for a fortnight. In a good week our company JM Socials will make around £ 75,000 but we have lost a third of our revenue that month.

Sunday November 28

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

JM Socials has around 90 employees working in our restaurants and many become anxious.

Some worry about the virus itself, while others worry about their jobs and schedules.

We put 40 front desk staff and servers on leave earlier this year, but that program was closed in September. What if we have to send the employees home again?

Tuesday, November 30

Our restaurants are closed on Mondays and this morning our managers have taken cancellations for more than 40 individual guests.

They are all sincere and sorry. A third states that they or a member of their group have tested positive.

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

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

Others just don’t want to risk catching it. I understand why they feel like this and above all value the safety of my staff and clients.

But with each dinner spending around £ 50, it’s a big financial hit.

Thursday 2 December

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

It has to be done, but it’s hard not to see a step back. I also know that it is not 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 formidable workforce is happy to comply.

Saturday 4 December

Cancellations are on the rise and it looks like we will now have to factor in a lot more for the weeks to come.

As of yesterday, reservations for 66 diners at Bhoomi, the South Asian restaurant in Cheltenham where I am based, have plummeted.

This will represent more than £ 3,300 in losses. Things are even worse in Prithvi, where Jay is based.

His team took 55 cancellations – and there are only 12 tables in the entire restaurant. We have fine dining at Prithvi and the average customer will spend around £ 100 which adds up to £ 5,500.

Tuesday, December 7

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

Fortunately, he has no symptoms and it doesn’t look like he will be too sore. Like previous staff who had to self-isolate, they will receive £ 96.35 per week in statutory sickness benefit.

It has been months since we had a positive case in our team and I hope this is not the first in a long series.

Staff who test positive and are forced to self-isolate receive £ 96.35 per week in statutory sickness benefit

Staff who test positive and are forced to self-isolate receive £ 96.35 per week in statutory sickness benefit

Thursday December 9

With so many cancellations, we can’t afford to keep our front desk staff at 38 hours per week – so they’ve been reduced to 25 hours.

As these employees are paid £ 12 an hour, they will come home with £ 300 before tips, instead of £ 456 – which is a big blow before Christmas. It is not a decision that we have always wanted to make, but it is essential to avoid cutting jobs.

Last night the Prime Minister confirmed that he is moving forward with the Plan B restrictions and hopefully this will lead to fewer cases. However, this will almost certainly discourage more people from dining out in the short term.

Friday 17th December

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

But we hardly welcomed those last minute bookings tonight. Guess it’s been two days now since Professor Chris Whitty told the nation to “prioritize social interactions”.

I have listened to every announcement regarding business assistance and there has been none. But I wasn’t optimistic about it when the press conference started.

Sunday 19 December

We have received fantastic news regarding our Bhoomi restaurant in Oxford – it is going to be featured in the Michelin Guide. This has caused a sharp increase in bookings, which are much appreciated.

Today, the newspapers are teeming with speculation about a future lockdown. Part of me is hoping this will happen. If we could put staff on leave and claim grants, a foreclosure would be an improvement and help protect the jobs of my staff.

Monday, December 20

The wait is over, for now. The Prime Minister ruled out any “immediate” restrictions this evening.

But it just means that we are stuck in this “no man’s land” where the government does not shut us down but also does not help us survive.

We still have energy and water bills, supplies to buy and of course salaries to pay. If this continues, we will have no choice but to reduce even more hours.

Tuesday, December 21

Finally, the Chancellor has finally committed to some support. Of course I would appreciate a £ 6,000 grant, but without knowing what restrictions will be made, it’s hard to say how useful this will be.

If we were to go back to take out and out only, our restaurants would experience a huge drop in revenue and I’m just not sure if the subsidy will be enough to cover our payroll and overhead for the period.

The number one concern for us is to cover wages. Our people will always be our priority.

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About Vivian J. Smith

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