It was Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick's dream to open a restaurant. The brother-and-sister team started running pop-ups in 2017, serving a tapas-style take on Nigerian food at venues across London. On the 13th of February this year, after a lot of hard work and a £30,000 crowdfunding campaign, their ambition was finally realised: Chuku's opened on Tottenham High Road.
And then, a month and three days later, coronavirus hit.
"It was on the 16th of March that we took the decision to close, before restaurants were mandated," says Ifeyinwa. "So we were pretty much still finding our feet within our permanent site. The restaurant was still busy – even the Friday before we closed was one of our busiest Fridays. We were becoming more known within the community; the brand already has its following beyond Tottenham, but we were starting to become a place that locals were looking forward to coming to."
When I speak to the siblings on a suitably grey Monday afternoon, three months after Chuku's was forced to close, they are trying to stay optimistic, but are also aware that the future is currently a big unknown. Their priority is to ensure that Chuku's can continue serving Tottenham – in whatever form that takes.
"In some ways, one could argue that lockdown is and will be the easiest part of this whole thing," Ifeyinwa points out. "The support – to whatever extent you've got it – is there now, but it's the months that will come afterwards where the support disappears and we're told that it's 'business as usual' – that’s maybe when things will become even more challenging. As a restaurant, it is all about the community you serve. It almost doesn't matter what you want to do, it's: what would your community like from you? That's what hospitality is about."
The hospitality industry has been uniquely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. All restaurants, cafes and pubs were ordered to close on the 20th of March, and while some were able to adapt their menus to operate as takeaways, industry experts warn that as many as 30,000 may not reopen after the lockdown. Figures published last month show that the hospitality industry saw a 21.3 decline in sales in the first quarter of 2020 – and that was just two weeks into the period when lockdown started.
Trade body Hospitality UK has called on the government to support the industry with wage subsidies, rent controls and a safe plan for reopening across the sector, but so far these demands are largely unmet. Business Secretary Alok Sharma has urged restaurant owners to plan for a July reopening, without offering any clear guidance on staff safety or how the two-metre distancing rule would work within a hospitality setting. Even if this guidance does materialise, many establishments simply won't have the cash to reopen after three months out of business. Casual Dining Group, which owns Bella Italia and Cafe Rouge, has warned that it may be headed for administration, putting 6,000 jobs at risk.
"You want to do all these things in terms of being open and providing, but at the end of the day, you still are a business," says Emeka. "You have to do it in a way which is going to be profitable, so it's a question of: does it make sense to really be reopening? In terms of staff, I would love to give them the hours, but I just don't have them. By the nature of being in the hospitality industry, most of us are quite hospitable people. But then you're under a lot of pressure to make a business model, which was already quite narrow at the margins, even narrower, while still trying to serve that community."
Emeka isn't alone in this worry. Restaurant owners have criticised the government for lack of clarity on the "impossible" two-metre social distancing rule, with the Michelin-starred Ledbury closing altogether because it is incompatible with its style of service. While Westminster council has announced plans for parts of Soho and Chinatown to be transformed into a "continental-style outdoor dining area", this isn't much help for neighbourhood joints like Chuku's. Like many restaurant owners without backing from investors, their floorspace was limited to begin with due to high London rent costs.
Amid the uncertainty over opening dates and placement of tables, one thing is for sure: restaurants are going to look very different. So what will dining out be like in a post-lockdown world? Images circulating on social media in recent weeks purport to give us a glimpse. Tables shielded by shower curtains, a couple attempting to enjoy a romantic dinner underneath what look like two giant wine glasses, and a particularly troubling face mask that opens to allow for bites of food. Is this the future?
Matthew Scott, head chef at sustainable restaurant CUB, and Eddy Tejada, who has cooked at St. John and Silo, hope not.
"People aren't going to want to go to restaurants and be served by the man who looks after ET at the end of the film in one of those big hazmat suits," says Scott. "It’s like if you went on a first date and you were sat in a plastic box – it would just not be very sexy."
When Scott and Tejada found themselves out of work due to coronavirus, they wanted to do something that would alleviate their boredom and allow them to start cooking again.
"We met in Hackney Marshes in week seven [of lockdown] and decided to get back into the kitchen to relieve that itch of just cooking," says Tejada. The idea didn't involve hazmat suits or a socially distanced dining room, but instead Hot 4 U, a delivery-only restaurant offering a weekly £35 set menu. Operating on Fridays and Saturdays, diners order by Instagram DM and service ends when the food is sold out. Since its "opening" on the 10th of May, Hot 4 U has delivered dishes as diverse as rabbit glazed in fig leaf, mackerel crudo and roasted Iberico pork garum "pomme bears" across London.
"People are holding on to these little moments in their weekends that lift them or give them a bit of distraction from the world outside," says Scott. "This week, we're doing a snail and bone marrow dish and serving it with a shot of whisky that you can drink through the bone afterwards. We want people to party with us in the ether somehow, without necessarily being here in the restaurant."
Scott describes the Hot 4 U set-up as "nomadic" – they started out cooking from the old Monty's Deli site on Hoxton Street, and they're now at another unit on the same road. Like Chuku's, the dream is to operate as a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, but right now this is what they’re working with. "Essentially, all we need is an oven and an induction hob and a place to store everything," says Scott. "As things develop and lean towards reopening, it’s like: do we need a restaurant? Does anyone need a restaurant? The whole business model has changed so dramatically, and it’s hard to make a road map of your business and know where it’s going, because the future is so unknown."
According to its press release, Hot 4 U is the only independent restaurant venture of its kind to launch during lockdown. Scott and Tejada certainly acted fast, finding a kitchen, adapting their cooking style for takeaway, figuring out their finance system and forming a delivery team all within the space of a few weeks. "Setting up accounts has been quite hard, and the admin side of it," says Tejada. "We just wanted to cook, and then it expanded so much."
So far, the effort seems to have paid off: Hot 4 U originally planned to deliver 20 meals a week, now they’re having to cap orders at 100.
Is this what we can expect restaurants to look like as Britain transitions out of lockdown? Eater London seems to think so, claiming that the Hot 4 U model "could foretell the opening of more part-time, non-dine-in restaurants in the months before full reopening". Scott, however, would prefer to see an overhaul of government support for the hospitality industry.
Even before coronavirus, restaurants in London were struggling with Brexit-related staffing and food cost uncertainty, as well as astronomical rents. Case in point: Monty's Deli had to leave Hoxton Street, likely due to high rent costs and its location at the end of a street with limited foot traffic. An estimated 2,800 bars and restaurants closed in the 12 months before lockdown even began.
"It really signifies how much the restaurant scene was struggling anyway," says Scott, "especially in London, because of the overheads and rent prices and staffing costs. It’s going to be difficult to get back on that page without a mass review or help from the government. It’s a bit sad, but it’s also encouraging to see so many of our favourite restaurants adapting to survive and the customers supporting it."
Chuku’s has found support in its customer base. Since the start of lockdown, Emeka and Ifeyinwa have connected with Chuku’s social media following to host virtual supper clubs and Netflix Party screenings of Nollywood movies, as well as Instagram posts on Nigerian art and culture, and an "audio escapism" Spotify playlist. For the siblings, this online offering is an extension of the original Chuku's mission statement: to provide a place for people to learn and appreciate Nigerian culture, as well as eat good food.
"We always set out to be more than a restaurant," says Emeka. "To some degree, what this moment has allowed us to do is to dial up other parts of the business and the brand. So, obviously we’re centred around the food, but we couldn't do that so much, so now is the opportunity to put the focus on the ‘chat’ and ‘chill’ elements – so the education and social side of things."
Ifeyinwa adds: "I was taken back by the positive response that we've had every time someone has attended a virtual supper club. What has been so nice has been the extent to which people have still been able to form a connection, even through the screen."
The coronavirus crisis has prompted Scott, Tejada and the Frederick siblings to innovate. While their achievements are of course admirable, their move to virtual supper clubs and delivery is also a direct side effect of there being no clear government direction. Restaurants in Europe are already beginning to reopen. If Boris Johnson had acted when he was first warned of coronavirus and provided solid support for the hospitality industry instead of misplaced optimism, Britain's restaurant workers likely wouldn't be left to make things up themselves.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.