Living on a Thin Line: Manchester Hospitality Once Again on the Brink

"Tell me now, what are we supposed to do?"

“All the wars that were won and lost, 

Somehow don’t seem to matter very much anymore. “

‘Living on a Thin Line’ – The Kinks

He may have penned it 36 years ago, but Dave Davies’ words on the above 1985 classic feel more pertinent than ever as the British hospitality industry prepares to enter the bleakest of mid-winters.

Taken from The Kinks’ 1985 ‘Word of Mouth’ album, ‘Living on a Thin Line’ not only laments a lost identity and yearning for ‘days of old’, but also directs an industrial amount of vitriol and disdain towards British politicians which, it’s safe to say, is a set of emotions we can all share wholeheartedly right now.

Since March 2020, restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes across Manchester have been mercilessly sieged not only by Covid-19, but also their own government, who’s overwhelming incompetence and blatant treachery has betrayed every single person working in hospitality, costing countless people their livelihoods, as well as an exhausting barrage of mental health issues that present us with another crisis on top of what is already currently being endured.

Those on the frontline for the last 20 months have been battered and bruised by the total lack of support from Downing Street, who have consistently lurched from one indecision to another, doing everything they can to withhold adequate resources from thousands of desperate business owners and their staff.

With every small victory, like last summer’s reopenings and ‘Freedom Day’ this past July, there was always that glimmer of hope that a corner MIGHT had been turned. That a rampant vaccination programme would allow a more permanent return to full, restriction free trading and, should any measures need to be reintroduced, that they would be done so responsibly with lessons learned from previous debacles.

Only Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s productivity levels only seem to spike when there’s a Cobra meeting that needs avoiding, an illegal, lockdown breaking party or cheese and wine laden ‘work meeting’ that needs attending or, of course, if foreign healthcare bosses register an interest in buying parts of the NHS. If you’re a restaurant or bar owner unsure as to whether you can open tomorrow or, more likely, you’re relying on social media leaks to be drip fed the government’s impending, weeks too late plans, then chances are your plight is not appearing near the top of any agendas being seriously discussed inside number 10.

Which leaves Manchester’s hospitality scene in a current state of despair and near disrepair. Yesterday afternoon, it was announced that £1bn of funding is being granted to British hospitality venues affected by Omicron. It is hardly news that inspires longterm confidence, mainly because the figures announced (a maximum of £6,000 per venue) won’t even come close to covering the cost of the damage that has already been done and is still yet to be done. As Manchester’s Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord tweeted shortly after the announcement, “This isn’t a package. It’s an insult.” This path has been miserably trodden several times before. Hospitality can only take so many hits before venues retreat to the trenches forever, unable to withstand constant assaults from new variants and despicable, morally bankrupt millionaires with more power than brain cells or integrity.

It’s enough to make you wonder if the back breaking efforts that have been made by so many across Greater Manchester (and beyond) have been worth it? Is this fight nothing more than Homer Simpson valiantly getting his head caved in by Drederick Tatum, unaware that the concussion inducing haymakers are never going to relent, each one thundering a destructive blow that shifts the bout one step closer to finality.

What we couldn’t do, what we wouldn’t do, 
It’s a crime, but does it matter? 
Does it matter much, does it matter much to you? 
Does it ever really matter? 
Yes, it really, really matters. 

With revelations of the government’s rampant criminality coming to light with increasing fervour over the past couple of weeks, the groaning scale of Johnson and co’s duplicity has rightfully enraged the public and made fools out of us all. For bar staff, waiters, chefs, glass collectors, suppliers, cleaners, general managers and everyone in between, it wasn’t so much a slap in the face as it was an entitled mouthful of gob being callously spat by an uncaring, self serving con artist.

Establishments had to evolve and reinvent themselves multiple times over during the multitude of lockdowns inflicted upon them over the past two years. Whether it be for takeaway services or reconfiguring socially distanced dining areas. Many had to morph into al fresco offerings, forking out for extra furniture while only able to serve somewhere in the region of 30-50% of their usual covers. Rules were resolutely adhered to, because what other options were there? As it happens, offering to cater one of the seemingly endless Downing Street do’s could have probably earned any number of restaurants a small fortune.

And now, here we are. A repeat of early March 2020. The public being encouraged to stay home to help curb the spread of Omicron without any actual solutions to keep businesses afloat. Oh, apart from the grant of ‘up to £6,000’. A flippant, token gesture that still does nothing to address the seismic losses that will be made when venues are forced outside for a couple of weeks during the impending ‘circuit breaker’ slap bang in the middle of the two coldest months of the year. Cheers Rishi. Nice one, Boris. Nothing beats sharing a meal with a mate or loved one while feeling like you’re sat on the side of the fucking Eiger. We’d be better served letting that mad fucking singing reindeer head from the Christmas Markets pass parliamentary rulings related to hospitality than the people currently in charge.

“It’s been soul destroying, incredibly stressful and hugely worrying,” says Nick De Sousa, owner of Northern Quarter’s Tariff and Dale and Chorlton’s Lead Station, when I ask him how the last couple of weeks have been on him and his staff across the two sites.

“The teams have been affected. They want to go home for Christmas and are frightened of isolating alone. No support on the horizon means that there is uncertainty about the business and everyone’s future. They have been so resilient in the face of all this, they’re incredible and I am so proud of every one of them. They’ve pulled together and reflected our culture and values.”

– Nick De Sousa
A familiar scene across the city over the last two weeks. Image: Tariff & Dale/instagram

This same whirlwind of emotions has been mirrored over at Common and Nell’s Pizza, with the NQ and Kampus residents feeling the sting of a depleted city centre.

“I’ve veered from despair, to determined, to despondent through to light headed hysteria about 12 times already this week” reveals owner Jonny Heyes. “We’ve probably taken around 50% of what we would’ve hoped. But ultimately we just need to crack on.”

And what of the potential two week ‘circuit breaker’ on the horizon, tentatively scheduled for 28th December, if yet more leaks from parliament are to be believed?

“I’ve pretty much stopped preparing for this stuff” shares Jonny, “you tend to spend lots of time doing stuff which quickly becomes completely irrelevant. So we’re just focusing on trading through to Christmas and then we’ll just roll with the punches.”

“The Lack of clarity is baffling, this is the dangerous part for us,” answers Nick. “They need to form policies which actually work with the industry they’re aimed at. Outdoor trade in January? OK then! Waste of time.”

The mood isn’t exactly any merrier over at Mecanica, either. The ‘gimmick free’ Swan Street cocktail bar was hit with a deluge of cancellations over the weekend and is likewise facing an uncertain close to 2021, as General Manager Phillip Aldridge tells me.

“The real issue for me is the lack of forewarning. Letting us all order up for a big Christmas only to take it away last minute just means we’re left with costs to pay without any way of clawing it back.

When the Tories won’t tell you whether you can open for New Year’s Eve or not. Image: Mecanica/instagram

“And now if we go into lockdown we’re left with an excess of stock that we can’t shift, which is obviously a massive dent in cash flow. Just make up your mind early and stick to it so people can actually plan what they’re doing, rather than just dithering and saying yes then saying no last minute.

“Pile on top of that you’ve got the mental anguish of the staff having to work knowing everything they touch could ruin their Christmas. Masking up because they’d like to spend Christmas with their family instead of in isolation.

– Phillip Aldridge

“I need to place orders today, do I buy champagne for New Year’s Eve or not? Are we going to be open? Who knows? It’s only 10 days away.”

Another newcomer, Delhi House Cafe in the Corn Exchange, has similarly been left floundering through the festive season, with Managing Director Sherry Lamba explaining how ‘disheartening’ this most recent ordeal has been.

“We opened in August last year which was a brave/stupid move. Opening between the lockdowns wasn’t easy. We tried our best and reached a point where we thought we’d got it.  But after the recent government announcements our bookings last week dropped by 70%, which was a big, big hit, especially when we were hoping for our first Christmas to be a good one. It all fell apart in a matter of two days.

“We are different from any other Indian restaurants in town, trying to promote something very unique. Delhi House Cafe is born in Manchester, trying to give the people of this great city the most authentic Indian experience.  Just when the crowd was getting what we are all about this hit us. It’s so disheartening.”

A space as good looking as this deserves to be filled with customers, not left to sit empty. Image: Delhi House Cafe/instagram

Disheartening almost feels too mild a word when you begin to process not only the scale of monetary losses, but also the physical and mental anguish that those within the industry are being subjected to at one of the most traditionally stressful periods of the year. Eunji, owner of the astonishingly good and incredibly named Thirsty Korean in Chorlton, emphasised the emotional strain December’s downturn has had on her and her staff.

“Since Plan B has been applied, we’ve had cancellations every day. As soon as we open, the phones are ringing just for people to cancel their reservations. There was literally two tables during prime time on Friday and Saturday.

– Eunji

“Our revenue has been 50% down on the previous two months. Mentally if I say honestly how it has been affecting me, I felt like I was a failure running a business even though I did everything I could. Two weeks ago on Sunday I put my staff on from five o’ clock until closing. The staff closed the venue 90 minutes earlier than closing time and said to me that they had no customers. They felt wrong staying open even though they needed the hours to make money. We try hard to stick together not only in business but as friends, as it is the loneliest months we are going through.

“All of our stock is miserably full, as I was ready to be busy in December. I have no idea what to do with it all if we get locked down. At the moment opening the venue is more expensive than closing the venue and it hurts not being able to guarantee them that many hours so close to Christmas. It’s horrible.

The toll that is being taken on hospitality workers is relentless. The life altering circumstances that have been thrust upon them ignored by those in power, unaware of what an actual day’s work feels like. As it transpires, when you and your mates are sitting on a ‘weekly big shop at Fortnum and Mason’ level of wealth, you tend to turn a blind eye to the suffering of those who make your privileged existence possible in the first place. Who knew?

Those who toil, living hand-to-mouth on an ever decreasing collection of tips to supplement their disappearing hours from the rota, are precisely the people who enable communities and cities to thrive. The delirious masses pouring out of bars in Ancoats, Stevenson Square, Canal Street and Oxford Road are the result of innumerable hours of graft put in by the staff serving them and cleaning up after them, generating a thriving economy that provides work for thousands more desperate workers, all waiting in the wings to contribute, to perhaps build their own businesses, carving out their own corner of the city to make a name for themselves. These people build cities.

The likes of Night and Day, The Castle Hotel, The Crown and Kettle, Temple Bar, Corbieres – all historic venues that have provided a cavalcade of timeless, endearing memories. Refuge, Kala Bistro, The Creameries, Schofields, Sugo, Tokyo Ramen – newcomers over the last few years who have ingrained themselves into the brickwork of the city, immediately feeling at home. These are the venues we cannot go without. They are a magic Manchester cannot replicate if they were to shutter because there is simply not enough money to staff them any longer. Yet, along with countless other venues, they are being ripped apart by a deplorable level of cowardice from the people who are supposed to protect them. And those who are now wondering how many more times they might clock in and out are suffering much more than merely in the pocket. They are suffering mentally. If Boris Johnson is foreshadowing a ‘tidal wave’ of Omicron hitting the British Isles, then the mental health crisis accompanying it is a tsunami so monstrous it may never be recovered from unless proper help is invested in and invested in immediately.

And this is an area Paddy Howley, who heads up So Let’s Talk, a group who specialise in being mental health advocates for the hospitality industry, knows all too well.

‘’One in two hospitality professionals either have or are experiencing ill mental health whilst working in hospitality,” Paddy explains to me. “Scary, isn’t it? What’s scarier the fact that this stat was released earlier this year and with the current lack of compassion and blatant disregard for the hospitality industry that the Government has shown its set to get worse before it gets better.

“The lack of clarity and support is crippling our beloved industry. The team at So Lets Talk spend our days running sessions on mental, physical and financial health to the people within hospitality. We talk to hospitality business owners and teams in Manchester daily and the feeling of uncertainty has never been stronger than it is now.

“Mass cancellations, people not wanting to work in hospitality and team members having to isolate means that businesses are forced to close early or ride the storm once again and hope for some support in the future.We’re hoping Rishi realises that the VAT on £0 is £0. If the government doesn’t act quick the fifth largest industry in the UK will never be the same again.

“We want to let everyone know that SLT are here for you now and always. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for support.”

Living on a thin line, 
Tell me now, what are we supposed to do? 

As Dave Davies’ words from 36 years ago ruminate a little more, the question remains. What are we supposed to do? What is six grand supposed to do in the long run? What is abject government ignorance going to achieve other than to leave the hospitality industry in tatters? A headline grabbing figure of £1bn in grants might sound like an eye watering amount on paper, but it’s merely a drop in the ocean.

There needs to be clarity. There needs to be actual, proper support. There needs to be understanding. Without any of this, we could be looking at an even bleaker picture come Christmas 2022.

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