Since the UK voted to leave the European Union last June the restaurant industry has been living in the shadow of a looming Brexit. While the terms of the divorce remain unclear and timings are at best hazy, the industry waits to see exactly what the impact might be.
This week Jason Atherton made headlines urging government to set out its plan soon, instead of leaving us all waiting ‘like plonkers’ and earlier this year Jamie Oliver announced the closure of six of his Italian restaurants blaming the rise in import costs.
The industry is feeling shaky but it’s not all doom and gloom. With challenge comes opportunity, or at least an excuse to get creative.
Restaurants have already been focussing on locality and provenance for the past few years. Customers care about where the food on their plates comes from, and exotic, long-haul ingredients have been phased out and replaced with the best seasonal, British-grown fare.
A focus on locally-sourced products is not only better for taste, producers and the environment, it will also go some way towards ‘Brexit-proofing’ a restaurant over the next few years. Restaurants relying too much on European ingredients will bear the brunt of the fall in sterling as the cost of imports from countries such as Spain and Italy rises.
While the drop in the pound has hit imports, it has given London’s tourism a boost.
Our capital is well known for being a pricey city, especially if you are coming from a less-expensive part of the world — which is pretty much anywhere apart from Switzerland, Scandinavia and Japan!
The weaker pound makes it cheaper and therefore more appealing, and recently the city has seen record numbers flocking to make the most of its new-found affordability. This is creating an enlarged market for restaurateurs, especially if they can give tourists what they want: the best of British.
Exciting takes on classic British dishes, using aforementioned local ingredients, will attract discerning foodie tourists and it is a great excuse to resurrect some more traditional dishes that have fallen out of fashion in favour of influences from France, Italy and Spain. After all, if tourists wanted to eat pasta they would probably go to Rome.
While the tourist market is growing, it is important to continue to attract regulars and locals too — this will always be a restaurant’s bread and butter.
Despite Brexit fear, the number of people eating out in London is still increasing, however the amount they are spending each time is decreasing slightly.
Restaurants need to acknowledge this by finding ways to keep the cost of their dishes down, so they can offer affordable menus without eating into their profit margin.
Using more veg and keeping expensive meat and fish to a minimum is one way of achieving this. And foodies love it: cauliflower is way more fashionable than chicken at the moment.
Where meat is used, cheaper cuts cooked long-and-slow, pre-cured or smoked can be far more effective than a great slab of prime fillet.
Wines and Spirits
The English wine industry often popped up in the referendum debates as it is one of few that could actually benefit from Brexit, in the short-term at least (link to wine blog post).
But there are lots of other British craft ales and spirits that could also stand to gain. The last few years have seen craft distillers pop up all over London and beyond, the capital is now producing exciting gin, vodka and whisky of excellent quality — by stocking back bars and wine lists with UK-made products restaurants can skip the import hike and support local businesses and economies.
Restaurants and bars are always looking for ways to be more sustainable. What we eat and drink has a huge impact on the world we live in, and in light of other Trump-shaped world events, the environment is likely to become an even hotter topic as the year goes on.
On a simple level, flying stuff in from all over the world creates a big carbon footprint, so opting for local is not only kind to the profit margins but it is eco-friendly too! In the wake of Brexit, changes to how we import (and export) food are going to be on the negotiating table.
With the threat of US food products (which are currently banned as they fail to meet EU food safety rules) entering into the British market, now is the time for restaurants to show their commitment to supporting local British producers and safeguarding the quality of what they serve. They will not only be doing good, people will notice.
Imports and currencies aside, the restaurant industry’s biggest concern when it comes to Brexit is about staff.
Currently the vast majority of staff in London restaurants — both in the kitchen and front-of-house — are from Europe. Few are British.
This is in part because the UK has never had the strong food culture of many European countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, but that is changing.
A shortage of workers from overseas will be scary in the short-term, but it will also push the industry to invest time and resources in encouraging young Brits to take up food industry roles and to help train them.
In the long-term this will mean we can create a new generation of homegrown British restaurateurs, chefs, maitre d’s and food industry leaders. The restaurants which get in on the act early will be the biggest winners.