Life

London Restaurant Owners Are Juggling Brexit and the Climate Crisis

When faced with the dual stresses of Brexit and not fucking up the planet, how is anyone meant to run a functioning restaurant?
October 30, 2019, 9:15am
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Photos (left) courtesy Native and by Liz Seabrook. Flags via Pexels. Collage by Jack Cummings. 

As we approach what was meant to be the ‘do or die’ Brexit date, the week looks set to end in yet another extension from Europe, plus the added bonus of a general election during peak Christmas party season. It’s been more than 1,200 days since Britain voted to leave the European Union and the country is no closer to taking back control.

This uncertainty is felt across the UK, not least in its restaurant industry. Due in part to the pound’s drop in value since the referendum result, food prices have risen at the fastest pace for over five years, squeezing British restaurants' already tight profit margins. A no-deal Brexit would likely cause these prices to rise even further. Britain would also be required to impose food import tariffs on EU products, and additional border inspections would create delays and perhaps even shortages, as well as impacting the shelf-life of certain foods. Last month, the British Retail Consortium ominously warned that despite Tory promises, it is “categorically untrue” that fresh food supplies would be unaffected in a no-deal Brexit scenario.

Food isn’t the only area restaurant professionals have to worry about. Lack of access to staff in the event of a ‘disorderly’ no-deal or delayed Brexit could cost the hospitality industry £1.8 billion a year by 2024, according to a report analysing Office for National Statistics data and a survey of senior hospitality figures. It’s little wonder that restaurant closures were up by 20 percent in 2017.

Despite what the headline news may suggest, Brexit isn’t the only issue facing the restaurant world. There’s also the small matter of the, uh, climate crisis – one that experts say we have just 12 years to fix. Dealing directly with food waste and the meat industry, restaurants also cannot afford to ignore their impact on the environment.

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When faced with the dual stresses of responding to Brexit and not fucking up the planet, how is anyone meant to run a functioning restaurant? We spoke to London chefs and restaurant owners about how they’re coping.

"For a long time, I was probably being overly optimistic"

If you're being more sustainable and wasting less, then it makes sense from a business point of view. Things like not using plastic is something we try really hard to do, but it's much harder than you think. We go as far as we possibly can, using packaging that's biodegradable. Obviously, it’s cheaper to buy crappy packaging, but it wouldn't even occur to me to think, “Oh, we can save 20p per person if we get this shit.” I don't think I'd be able to sleep at night if that was our approach. I feel pretty strongly that we should all do our part [to help the environment].

I think it's only been in the last week or so where the dial has swung back towards, “Oh Brexit is actually happening,” which for a long time, I was probably being overly optimistic and didn't think this would happen. Beyond encouraging our European staff to apply for settled status, in the next year they're going to have to figure out what's going on. Come 2020, they may start kicking people out, which is a depressing thought. James Ramsden, chef and owner of Pidgin restaurant in Hackney and Sons + Daughters, a new sandwich shop in Kings Cross.

"There’s no point in worrying and thinking, 'My restaurant’s going to fail'"

Any restaurant opening is intense, but even more so in the last few years because of Brexit. For the last year, we’ve been debating whether to open or not open, but we decided to take the risk. There’s no point in worrying and thinking, “My restaurant’s going to fail because we might be leaving the EU and things are going to change drastically.” We just have to carry on but so far, everything’s been good. We probably won’t see change until a few years further down the line.

Recruiting is a really big issue we’re facing, but I’m sure it’s the same elsewhere. Especially finding people for day-to-day operations, because the demand is much higher, the pool of available people are shrinking and on top of that, we’re competing with the other 16,000 London restaurants – it’s an issue to find staff. Enzo Mirto, director of recently opened Italian restaurant Officina 00 on Old Street.

"Without a radical reformation, the Earth's future is going to be a very infertile and polluted place"

East London has always been my dream destination for Silo, its pure coincidence to land at the dawn of Brexit. There have been some uncertainty from certain European potential team members, but thankfully, that hasn’t impeded our final dream team.

Everything [we use] is hyper-local. I would estimate 60 percent of all our produce is from within an hour and 99 percent from the UK, excluding coffee, chocolate and wine. If that supply chain was derailed by Brexit, there might be a protest. I truly believe that without a radical reformation, the Earth's future is going to be a very infertile and polluted place without any nice food. Chef Doug McMaster, owner of zero-waste restaurant Silo, which relocates from Brighton to Hackney this month .

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Lasagne made with grey squirrel meat, served at Native. Photo by Liz Seabrook.

"Sustainability isn’t something new"

Of course, there are environmental benefits to reducing waste but above all, it just makes business sense to use the whole part of a vegetable or animal. With increased food costs and costs of living, we’ve had a lot of people come to us who are interested to learn about our approach so they can apply it to their home lives. If we help people look differently at what and how they’re eating, then that, for us, is great.

For us, ‘sustainability' isn’t something new, it’s a way of life and how our restaurant has always been run. We've always sourced our produce as seasonal and local as possible. We're a small business built entirely from scratch and so have had to utilise everything we possibly can. We forage weekly for local ingredients and use ingredients that would traditionally be destined for the bin. We’re currently using carrot tops in one of our main dishes – they have an incredible flavour when smoked. Imogen Davis, co-founder of sustainability-focused restaurant Native in Southwark.

"Staff is a problem for everyone"

Brexit is going to cost everyone more once we actually know what that is. How can you prepare [for Brexit] when the people who are in charge clearly don’t even know what they are doing? Our importers deal with much of the pain, I feel for them more than for us. Our wine list features wines from around the world because we love those wines and the people who make them. Those wines have risen in price and will potentially rise even further. When and if that happens, we’ll look at what we buy. The opportunity in the future is to get closer to our suppliers and farms.

Staff is a problem for everyone. Our Australian Michelin-starred head chef has already been through the painful process to allow him to stay. We’re not looking for European staff, we just take the best that are available and seeing as I voted to Remain, I don’t feel guilty about that. That said, I have to see Brexit as an opportunity for us to push the industry forward.

[Sustainability] is an obligation to do things better, to be smarter. We’ve been approached by groups who want us to quantify our environmental impact so customers get a single, easy number to show how sustainable you are. I’m not into TripAdvisor and I’m not into that. We could be better in terms of using off-cuts more productively, but the best solution for that is to have a business nearby that can help with that. Again, that could be a brilliant new business and if we find the right place nearby, we’ll get on it. Ed Thaw, owner of Michelin-starred Hackney restaurant Leroy.

"I'm too busy, focused on just making sure that I get bums on seats and the restaurant is full every night"

I try to be environmentally friendly by not using straws or even any takeaway for customers to take leftovers home because we don't want to use loads of disposable containers. We really want to encourage people to just finish their food in the restaurant. I haven't thought too much about being environmentally friendly or finding more environmentally friendly ways of doing things because I'm too busy, focused on just making sure that I get bums on seats and the restaurant is full every night.

It's hard to say whether the price of the supplies have gone up, more or less because of Brexit, but they've gone up by at least 10 to 15 percent across the board three years ago. The main thing about Brexit is that it's just so uncertain, you just don't know. My main concern actually is about the price of supplies and ingredients.

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Fundamentally, businesses need certainty to be able to grow and to plan. When you don't have that, everyone's bunkered down and trying to make the best of what they can. Mandy Yin, chef and owner of Malaysian restaurant Sambal Shiok in Holloway.

"I'm not going to put British wines on our menu just for the sake of it"

The only real fear is about visas. We don't have a lot of British people working for us, we have a lot of staff from all over, ranging from Australians to Lithuanians and Canadians. It makes the visa and staying-in-the-country situation in general a huge thing, and I don't see it being any easier to stay in the future.

On a produce level, we work with local farmers and fishmongers. That sort of thing is great, but for me, we're not quite on the same level of quality, wine-wise. I'm not going to put British wines on our menu just for the sake of it, and prices for wine have already gone up because the pound has significantly weakened. Everything's going up little by little and that's only going to worsen with whatever the outcome.

With the wine side of things, we try to work with people who make sustainably farmed wines, and that has followed through to our mentality when it comes to selecting produce in the kitchen. Our wines are very much biodynamic, organic and cultured with minimal intervention and because our chefs tend to love that as well, that has transferred through so we use a lot of organic farmers throughout the UK. Phil Bracey, general manager and co-owner of the wine bar-restaurants Bright, P. Franco and Peg in Hackney.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

@Angela_Hui