A few nights ago I had a box delivered to my house, with dinner in it. There were a couple of excellent pieces of meat, one or two sauces, some brilliantly rich potato thing, pre-prepped veg and a cracking dessert. Everything was contained in beautiful branded packaging and there was a simple set of instructions.
It was from a restaurant I’d really loved eating in when that was still possible. Looking at my Instagram feed, I saw that I was not alone: dozens of food lovers all over the country were opening their own boxes that night and delighting in cooking their own dinner from their favourite restaurant.
It is worth reminding ourselves that months before the pandemic many of us were writing about the financial precariousness of our industry. How high rents for prime sites were squeezing independent restaurateurs dry and highly combative pricing by the chains was amounting to self-harm.
But now things have become immeasurably worse. Some of the large chains have used company voluntary arrangements (CVAs), in combination with the moratorium on seizure, to force landlords to negotiate, but tenants without corporate muscle and unable to meet rent have kept quiet, building up arrears. In many cases the landlords can afford to bide their time until the moratorium ends.
All the government support measures — the eviction moratorium, furlough, the VAT reduction and the business rates holiday — currently end by May. Depending on when they took them out, many businesses will also have to start repaying interest on their coronavirus business interruption loans (CBILs). Restaurateurs are not expecting to reopen sit-down dining much before May and are anticipating that social distancing and reduced capacity will continue for the rest of the year.
We’re looking at a stand-off that is set to end catastrophically, and across the whole sector. A frankly terrifying number of good businesses won’t survive.
Over the past couple of decades we’ve become used to eating out, even enthusiastic about it, and through aggressive competition the prices that we expect to pay have been driven unsustainably low. Nobody wants to say it but the best hope for survival is getting customers to pay more for food.
This is not going to be easy. Landlords need to reduce rents, yes. But restaurants need to charge more if they hope to carry on. Putting prices up when customers are hurting for money seems risky, to say the least, but it’s the adjustment we must make as state support evaporates. We need to think the unthinkable. Maybe a world where people can afford to go out and have someone cook their dinner for them four nights a week is not the way things should be.
Great food, with excellent service, in a pleasant setting, should command a fair price and that price is high, and if the customers won’t come . . . maybe there’s something wrong with the model.
So what has my “boxed” dinner got to do with all this? I know the restaurant I ordered it from very well. I know the owners and many of their talented team. Brilliant though they are, a year ago they’d never have had the bandwidth or — if we’re honest — the inclination to develop a new route to market. Why would they? Their restaurant was full and they could afford the rent.
I could have bought every ingredient in the box for a quarter of the price; I could have found the recipes online. So could every food lover “boxing it” that night, and yet no one complained. No one pointed out the seeming absurdity of a restaurant delivering ingredients for us to cook and eat at home.
I don’t believe that hard-pressed punters are buying box dinners as a charitable act — though God bless them if they are. Instead, I think the restaurateurs have been forced to improvise and have pulled something out of their collective hats that’s indistinguishable from magic. They have gone out on a limb and tested how far we will follow.
Now, for a significant section of restaurant-goers, there’s a new way to experience the brand and, most importantly, we seem willing to pay the price for it.
OK. I’m as desperate as the next over-upholstered sybarite to be back in a real restaurant, but boxes have proved there’s creativity in the previously rather constipated industry. It’s going to take a lot more than a few deliveries to rescue restaurants, but, somehow, reassuringly expensive boxes of ingredients and our willingness to pay for them gives me disproportionate hope.
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