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Last May Gary Usher was in a “pretty dark place”. His award-winning restaurants in the north-west of England had been closed for a couple of months and, he said, “I had pretty much given up. I was ready to go bankrupt”.
By the end of the summer, top chef Adam Handling had lost four out of his 10 restaurants in London. “I had bills spilling in that I couldn’t afford to pay. It was heartbreaking,” he said.
In desperation, Usher and Handling – along with other big-name chefs – took a radical step. They turned to “at-home dining” or “makeaways” – posh food created in elite kitchens and delivered to customers who finish and serve the dishes themselves.
It has been a triumph for businesses that were staring into the abyss of the Covid pandemic. “It’s been ridiculously successful. It’s the only reason why I haven’t lost any more restaurants and I haven’t had to make staff redundant,” said Handling, who delivers up to 5,000 dishes every week to customers from his new business, Hame.
“I had no belief that it would work but it’s been huge,” said Usher, whose Elite Bistros at Home sends out 250 boxes of à la carte dishes each week. “It absolutely saved my business. Without it we’d have gone under.”
The question now is whether at-home fine dining is a viable longterm business model when premises reopen as lockdown restrictions ease, or whether it will be remembered as a curiosity from the Covid era, along with crafting and home haircuts.
Handling is confident that Hame will endure beyond lockdown. “In a few weeks, Hame will have its own premises. We’ve taken a 10-year lease on a building to house the home delivery service and a development kitchen,” he said.
Stuart Proctor of the Stafford in London and the Northcote in Lancashire has invested in a special production kitchen, expected to be completed in six months, for its at-home dining service. Since September, the company has offered four-course Michelin-starred food boxes, costing £115 for two people, and is now selling 500 a week.
“This will continue. If you love great food and live in Bournemouth, you’re not likely to travel to Lancashire to taste Lisa’s food,” he said, referring to Northcote’s chef, Lisa Goodwin-Allen, a former winner of the BBC’s Great British Menu. “But now you can experience it in your own home.”
Usher is not so sure. “We’ll carry on doing home boxes, but the volume is likely to fall off when restaurants reopen.” Between last year’s lockdowns, orders for Elite Bistros’ boxes fell from 200 a week to 30 as customers flocked back to restaurants. “I’ll probably get this completely wrong, but I can’t see it being a huge business in the long term.”
James Knappett of Kitchen Table, who created his & Home delivery service last spring and now sends 130 tasting menu boxes costing up to £250 all over England each week, was also doubtful.
“When we reopened our restaurant last summer, the number of box orders crashed. Right now, it’s a very good business, but I don’t think it will be a big thing when normality returns,” he said.
The explosion of restaurant boxes means it is now possible, finances permitting, to eat food from Michelin-starred restaurants all over the UK. Some offer set menus, some à la carte, and the amount of finishing off that needs to be done at home ranges from dozens of processes to simple reheating and plating.
Customers include people celebrating a special occasion, those wanting to try out top chefs far from their homes, and an affluent few who normally eat in high-end restaurants several times a week but have switched to frequent box deliveries.
Demand over Christmas and new year was exceptionally high, and Valentine’s Day is heading the same way. Knappett’s & Home is already sold out, and the Stafford is taking no more orders for February.
But there have been significant logistical challenges to the new model, particularly the delivery of perishable goods over large distances.
“New Year’s Eve was horrible,” said Handling. “Two vanloads went to Newcastle instead of London. We paid out £63,000 in refunds – but the delivery firm has no liability for perishable goods.
“The reputational damage is far more important than the lost income – that guest will never order from us again, and will tell their friends what a bad experience it was.”
Delivery was “a nightmare”, said Usher. “Out of 100 boxes, two won’t arrive – and that’s down to the courier. Every week we’re losing hundreds of pounds because deliveries that don’t arrive on time have to be binned.”
Another important factor is packaging. Ravinder Bhogal of Jikoni created a restaurant box service, Comfort and Joy, last summer when lockdown provided an opportunity to put into practice an idea she had been considering for years.
“I was shocked by the amount of plastic involved, and it didn’t feel right. So we took time to find packaging that is 100% compostable, made from sugar cane waste. You can literally throw it on to a compost heap and in 90 days it has totally broken down.”
Bhogal, who currently only delivers in London, is investigating new eco-packaging that can be used for longer distances in the hope of going nationwide this year. “This is never going to be the same as the restaurant business, but it will definitely be part of what we offer in the future.”
Alongside individual restaurants, a growing number of fine-dining-at-home platforms are hosting different chefs, sometimes on a rotation basis. Finish and Feast last week announced that Tom Aikens, whose Michelin-starred restaurant Muse in Belgravia seats just 25 people, was joining its service.
Since starting deliveries in early December, the fledgling company now has 2,500 customers paying an average of £80 for two people.
“This is here to stay,” said co-founder Alex Pennington. “We’re going to see more people permanently working from home and moving out of the cities – people who are used to having top-quality restaurants on their doorstep. This market started as a means of survival, but it has a real future.”
Source: The Guardian
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