City pubs and restaurants' promise as Covid sparks cancellations

File photo dated 26/04/21 of a server carrying a tray of drinks from a pub in the Grassmarket in Edi

City pubs and restaurants will be hoping for a busy season over the Christmas period. - Credit: PA

Hospitality bosses across Norwich losing bookings due to Covid have urged people to call before cancelling as they pledged to keep customers safe.

After Christmas was blighted by Covid restrictions last year, the hospitality sector had been hoping for a bumper festive season to see it through quieter periods.

But with the spread of the Omicron variant and the country's move to plan B, owners are seeing bookings cancelled or scaled back.

At a press conference on Wednesday, England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the public not to "mix with people you don't have to" and urged the public to prioritise events and celebrations "that really matter to them".

It has sparked calls for the government to give clear guidance and offer more support, with celebrity chef Tom Kerridge saying he had seen 654 cancellations at his restaurants in six days.

Iain McCarten, of The Last, in the city's St Georges Street, said cancellations had been growing throughout December.

"We are having large scale cancellations now," he said.

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"So far this month we have had quite a lot of big parties, and we will have a certain percentage of the people who won't show up or will cancel last minute.

Chef Iain McCarten at The Last, happy to welcome customers back as Covid restrictions are eased. Pic

Iain McCarten at The Last Brasserie. - Credit: Archant

"Big companies are pulling the funding, cancelling and requesting deposits back. We have quite a big restaurant and this time of year is what we survive on."

The bulk of his cancellations are limited to corporate, rather than smaller table, bookings, though some Christmas parties are being postponed until January and February.

He said: "My skin is getting thicker, but it is devastating. One of the hardest things is the past year we've had with staffing - we don't have the people."

But Mr McCarten - who said he is considering returning to click and collect meals - urged people to talk to the team before cancelling as they may be able to help people feel more comfortable.

All restaurateurs the Evening News spoke to said government messaging on hospitality was unclear, and that keeping VAT reductions, instead of scrapping them in April, would go a long way to help.

Victoria MacDonald, who runs the Cellar House in Eaton said they had benefitted from deciding to move away from larger bookings.

Victoria MacDonald, who runs the Cellar House at Eaton and the Old Ram Inn at Tivetshall Saint Mary.

Victoria MacDonald, who runs the Cellar House at Eaton and the Old Ram Inn at Tivetshall Saint Mary. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

"We tend to be dealing in tables of eight to 10. We have seen the odd cancellation but they tend to be replaced," she said.

Through her role as national executive committee member for the Campaign for Pubs, she is fighting for support for city centre pubs in particular.

She said many would suffer on so-called Black Friday, December 17 - the final Friday before Christmas - a day when traditionally people do some shopping and pop into the pub.

And she echoed Mr McCarten's call to keep in touch with venues.

"Phone a venue, say what's your quietest time, do you serve a cup of coffee and go along with a friend," she said.

"If everyone did this it would make a big difference."

Hannah Springham, who runs Farmyard in St Benedicts Street, said they had seen cancellations in the last few weeks but some people were rebooking.

Andrew Jones, Hannah Springham, the Farmyard restaurant in Norwich

Andrew Jones and Hannah Springham, the Farmyard restaurant. - Credit: Simon Finlay Photography

"We're very cautious about whether our bookings will be as strong as they look," she said.

She added: "Most hospitality businesses expect to make a loss in January because it's just a quiet month - but you can get through it and pay the bills thanks to December. There will be a lot of small businesses in this industry wondering as to how on earth they'll go into a bleak January after a dismal December."

A waiter takes orders at a restaurant in Dublin's city centre as the Irish Restaurants Association i

Restaurants in Norwich have urged people to call before cancelling their bookings. - Credit: PA

A Treasury spokesman said: “As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are closely monitoring the impact of the virus on the economy which is why the chancellor is meeting with representatives from the industry.

"Our £400bn Covid support package will continue to help businesses well into spring next year, and of course we will continue to respond proportionately to the changing path of the virus."

How to help your local 

As well as urging people to talk to restaurants, many owners, including Mr McCarten and Ms Springham, said vouchers were a key way to help.

They provide an immediate income to help businesses weather trickier times, and give those keen to stay close to home something to look forward to.

Instagram account Enjoying Norfolk, which showcases local spots, urged people to let venues know if they can't make bookings.

Rescheduling, downsizing bookings instead of cancelling, being generous with tips and following restrictions without being frustrated at staff were also key to seeing businesses through, they added.