Ahead of his east London distillery and bar reopening on 10 July, Alex Wolpert - founder of Bow-based spirts maker East London Liquor Company - hopes that 105 days behind closed doors will encourage the public to show hospitality sector and staff the respect they clearly deserve.
"What we get out of bed for is to look after people and give them a great time, to make people feel special and to give them an experience that they might not have at home,” Wolpert tells The Morning Advertiser (MA). “The hospitality industry has been doing that for a long time and that's what we are so good at.
“My hope is that this lockdown, for all its negatives, has more sharply focused the fact that those in the hospitality industry are highly skilled, creative, individuals and that we're not the low skilled segment that we are sometimes referred to as.
“I hope the hospitality industry is taken a bit more seriously by everyone,” he continues. “Once you don't have it and you miss it you realise what a wonderful thing it is. I guess I'm really excited to be able to open our doors and start welcoming people back in.”
Fabric of our society
With Wolpert preparing to open a “radically different” site to the one that was order to close on 20 March – with covers cut by between 25% and 50% and trading extended into a nearby car parking space – he believes that staff having to quickly adapt to a wildly different new normal underlines the highly skilled nature of working in hospitality.
"I think people have missed being looked after, I think people have missed the joys of going out for a quiet meal and a drink or going out and meeting friends,” he says. “The lack of the social element which makes the hospitality industry so integral to our daily life has really put into sharp focus how important it is.
“People are now, hopefully, finally aware that it's such an important part of the fabric of our society - that can't be forgotten again.
“Finally, the arts got their long overdue funding from the Government, hopefully the tourism industry will also be supported in a bigger way. These are the three industries - hospitality, arts, and tourism - which were shut down first and will feel the impact probably longest. All of these are finally being given their due which is important.”
What’s more, with more than four in every five (83%) hospitality operators furloughing at least 90% of their staff during the coronavirus crisis, with 96% of sites putting more than 70% of workers on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme according to CGA’s Business Confidence Survey, Wolpert hopes that the sector is able to retain its best and brightest during these hard times.
"The other thing is really important is that I hope the talent that is in the industry remains and is encouraged to remain and flourish and that this doesn't dissuade the huge talent and creativity that exists in the hospitality industry,” he says.
“Really if the hospitality industry is given the continued support it needs to survive then we can emerge from this - albeit very changed but still emerge in a way where we can continue to add something to everyone's day to day."
As Wolpert prepares to welcome customers six days after Boris Johnson gave the UK on-trade the green light to resume trading – on his company’s sixth anniversary - he explains that he’s been encouraged by reopening success stories thus far.
"It felt like, particularly in our neighbourhood around east London, people were sensible,” he tells MA. “People were taking precautions and the venues were not crazily full but were having a lovely bustle - which I think is what people have been missing, the opportunity to be looked after in a space where they feel safe and with a good food and drink offering.
“My sense from having talked to a few operators near us is that there was really very little issue and that people were understanding of the measures in place by the venues to make people feel safe. I know that in central London there were some scenes in the press of there not being much social distancing in Soho, and I know there were some issues in Borough market as well, but I think on the whole my main take home is that people have been sensible and that operators are managing to find a way to trade in a sensible way.
“Obviously trade is massively depressed still, I don't think many operators did the same numbers that weekend last year, but it's definitely very hopeful to see that people are prepared to go out and eat and drink."