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"We will not reopen until I am certain that we have a business case" - Nick Nairn on the current crisis facing the industry

As restaurants look set to reopen this month, chef Nick Nairn discusses his thoughts on the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Published: July 4, 2020
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Leading TV chef Nick Nairn has revealed he has no plans to reopen any of his restaurants until government guidelines around the exit from Covid-19 lockdown are made clearer.

The 61-year-old Michelin star chef has voiced his fears that excitement over the reopening of the hospitality industry may not translate into actual bookings

Ahead of series two of The Great Food Guys, which airs on BBC Scotland and BBC One, Nick Nairn chats about reopening his restaurants and the future of the industry. Nick has also been a regular guest on our podcast Scran, which you can listen to in full below.

"The legislation’s not clear, obviously it has been hurried through really quickly," Nick says. "There’s a ruling that you can’t have a gathering of more than 30 people, does that mean we can’t have more than 30 in a restaurant? I guess not, but the way the legislation’s written, it’s not clear."

Social distancing

Despite an excitement about restaurants being able to reopen, which should be from 15 July, Nick isn't sure if that will translate into actual bookings. "I think a lot of people will be really nervous about going indoors to eat out" he says, plus social distancing could be an issue.

Nick's on Henderson Street is the celebrity chef's latest venture, which he opened with his wife Julia in February this year, has two terraces but with social distancing measures, they'll only be able to host 30 people on these.

Nick adds: "Restaurants like Nick’s on a good day would have done 600 covers, but with social distancing we would struggle to do 150.

"I still have a lot of the costs associated with a restaurant that is capable of doing that volume so that model won’t work, so we have to try and reinvent the model. Which means less covers, so can I charge more money? I very much doubt it, because people are going to be feeling the pinch."

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Extra costs also present themselves with the safety restrictions needed at this time, which affects every business model.

"Al fresco dining might be the thing - stretched tents, coverings, alcoves - but it’s all expensive.

"I’m going to have to have extra staff to service that, look after the loos , clean the tables down and make sure that everybody adheres to social distancing - but where’s the business model? I don’t see it at the moment. I do not see how restaurants can survive on half their business, still paying their staff the same and all the associated costs.

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"So until such time as the government recognises this and says we’ll give you a VAT break or we’ll help you with delaying HMRC payments or some form of financial aid we will not reopen - not until I am certain that we have a business case.

"It’s incredibly tricky. We traded through the banking recession of 2008-9, we traded out of the oil crash in Aberdeen in 2015 but I’ve not seen it like this. This is way off the scale."

Future of the industry

With regards to the future of the independent hospitality industry in Scotland and beyond, Nick says that without sufficient support, businesses could close for good.

“The independent sector, if we’re not careful, could be lost. And the chains will predominate. Is that what we want? Do we want a landscape that is  McDonalds and KFC and Burger King and all of these big chains - who will definitely survive?

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"All the individuality, the local produce, seasonality, highly-skilled chefs returning to work in Scotland and opening their own restaurants - and we have a proliferation of these now - they could all go.”

Nick is keen to stress this isn’t a charity situation, saying: “You know we’re not looking for charity, we just want to survive, and there’s every chance if nothing happens then a whole slice of the independent restaurant industry in Scotland could disappear. Overnight almost. It will happen the first two weeks in August, as soon as the furlough starts to taper, then people will be making redundancy or closure decisions.”

As for ‘super Saturday’? Nick reflects that “you can pretty much write the script.” The weather plus the wait for a pint in the pub will lead to busy bars. “It looks like the weather’s going good, it will be the first time Britons will be allowed to the pub - it will be carnage.

“Then we need to wait for a week or ten days after to see what kind of spike we get from people being together. If there’s not a spike, if it’s fine and there is no reinfection, we’ll probably think about going for it ourselves, but I want to wait and see what’s happening post 4 July and the pubs being open.”

Nick Nairn has been a guest twice on the Scotsman podcast Scran, and gives a new cooking tip every episode. To listen, just search Scran from wherever you get your podcasts.

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Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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