If there’s one thing the British public likes more than a pint, it’s adding kebab meat to chips after a pint. The kebab shop is more than just a fast food outlet: it’s a ritual, a place to commune with your fellow drunks, a hangover preventative (well, ish) and the sign of a night of carousing coming to an end (or setting you up for a decent showing at the afters).
Like almost every other conceivable business, kebab shops have had it tough during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that the British government has ordered the closing of pubs and restaurants at 10PM – meaning kebab shops are shut by the time drunk folk come calling – what does this mean for their meat-grilling, chip-slinging, sauce-drizzling employees?
VICE World News spoke to some kebab shop owners across London for their thoughts.
Sammy, owner of Sam’s Kebab, Peckham
A neighbourhood kebab shop and local institution in south London.
VICE World News: Did you have to close over lockdown?
Sammy: Yes, we were shut for three months. When we reopened we had to change our hours to be open longer in the summer but business was very slow, not many people around. Very quiet.
How have things been since the 10PM curfew came in?
Nothing. No customers at 10PM, nothing. Because the pub closes at the same time - I feel for the pubs because no one is going, and the fines if you stay open even one minute past 10PM, it’s £10,000. No one can risk that. And [south London pubs] the Victoria, the Montpellier, the Prince Albert… they are empty. All the businesses here are feeling it; the pubs get people out and then we get the passing trade but when the pubs are closing… it’s bad.
You’re not on delivery services like Uber Eats, are you?
We tried - we applied but there are so many people we can’t get on there. Three months we’ve been waiting, but nothing. And you’ve got McDonald’s and the big chains on there now, so we’re worried. We’re worried about what will happen because if there’s another lockdown, I don’t know what we’ll do.
I hope things improve for you - your food is so good.
Thank you - you stay home. No, don’t stay home: go out! But stay safe.
Ken, owner of Maz’z Kebabs in Finsbury Park
An outlet with the dubious honour of being the closest kebab to popular night-out spot Rowan’s in north London.
VICE World News: Did you have to shut down at all?
Ken: Yeah, in March, April we were shut.
And then when you reopened, was business quiet?
It was quite dead, yeah.
Have you had to sign up to delivery services or anything?
It’s been hard to set up the delivery services because their call centres are in India. Just Eat have sales reps here who come in and help me set up but the other two, Deliveroo and Uber Eats, you sign up by emails, they don’t reply to your emails, they don’t get back to you. When we need them most, as well. And they charge 30 percent commission which is a lot for us – so if we sell a doner kebab for £7, £2.10 goes to them. And with a doner kebab, the ingredients are expensive because of the meat; it probably costs us £3 to make, then you have the staff, the electricity, the rent…
Has the 10PM curfew changed anything for you?
Oh, definitely. Fifty percent business gone down.
[Through] the whole COVID, it’s probably down 70 percent. And now we have to shut at 10PM.
There seems to be a bit of confusion about the rules for takeaways.
It’s the worst rule so far, the 10PM thing. Because when the first lockdown happened, people used to go out at night at 11PM, 12PM, because there were less people; so you weren’t compacted into this space. So in the first lockdown people would be exercising 11PM, 12PM at night. Also because of COVID, crime has increased here.
Yeah, the pickpockets, because they used to go to central London for the crowds but there’s no crowds there now so they stand outside my shop and anyone with a phone or a backpack… I’ve told the council loads of times but they don’t do anything.
That’s bad. Have you had any financial help from the government?
Not us – but the last tenants, I think they got something.
How long have you been here then?
Since August - we were attached to the old business, they used to rent it from us. So, any help they got they took it and did a runner.
The landlord hasn’t given you any breaks or anything?
No. All the government has done is help the people who aren’t struggling. We make about £2,000 a week at the moment and we’ve got no help. And the Eat Out To Help Out, that was bad. While it benefited some businesses that were struggling, the businesses that weren’t struggling raised their prices on the menu and pocketed it.
Are you worried about your future here?
Yeah, definitely. No football, no pubs.
I used to come here after Rowan’s.
Oh Rowan’s, yeah, they used to have a capacity of 2,000 now it’s reduced to 250. It’s a chain reaction for us.
Ozan, whose brother-in-law owns the Kebab Centre, Angel
A shop on the busy Essex Road strip surrounded by pubs and fast food.
VICE World News: Did you close at all over lockdown?
Ozan: Yes, we had to close for some weeks.
How was business when you reopened?
Really quiet. Really quiet. Those first months were really bad.
And now that the 10PM curfew has come in, have you noticed a change again?
Yes, it’s dead. We don’t do much delivery and stuff, we rely on takeaways - and when there’s no pubs or bars or something, nothing open, so we don’t get many people in. We close now at 10PM, there’s no point staying open.
Have you had any help from the government at all?
I think my brother had some help from the government, I don’t know if he will this time because they extended it.
Are you worried about the future of the business?
Yeah, everybody is worried the same, not just us. Everybody’s business is really down, if they want to sell it, they can’t sell it because who will buy it? If they want to get rid of it they’ll lose a lot of money again. It’s very hard, you know?
How come you don’t do much delivery?
There’s too much competition, you know? And we just started delivery lately, we’re not quite old enough. We’re on Uber Eats and Deliveroo but there’s just so many. Even with kebabs, there’s just too much competition. We’re hopeful it gets better.
Metin, of Üsküdar Kebab
A local place on a quieter stretch of Essex Road, the only shop on its stretch.
VICE World News: You closed over lockdown, right? How was business when you reopened?
Metin: Quiet - it wasn’t as usual.
Where do your customers mostly come from – is it the pubs on this road?
The pubs yeah, and we get a lot of locals too.
So, has the new 10PM curfew affected you much?
Well, it just started this week so we’re still waiting to find out how bad, but it’s definitely been a slow week. Especially compared to before COVID. We were almost back to normal again, and now… it’s gone down again. We used to be open until 2AM, now it’s 10PM so that’s four hours gap for us. It’s big.
Are you worried for the future of the restaurant?
Yeah, we are, to be honest. We’ve been here for nearly 20 years and for us, for the locals, this is the only thing that has nearly shut us down.