It’s been a rough period for restaurants and pubs. While the rebound is still slow, the last announcement has not seemed to brighten in the dark.
Although the restaurant industry was already struggling during the pre-pandemic, the current situation has not helped. Enforcing closures and restrictions have constrained many restaurants to rely on home delivery services to survive — rising to 35% plus VAT of commission on orders.
According to UKHospitality, the sector has closed for nearly 200 days, affecting the whole industry and chain to long-lasting recovery. The delay in the reopening means putting a lot of businesses on their last legs.
By losing £72bn in sales in 2020 — according to UKHospitality — the reopening ahead will not be simple, restaurants will continue to be under strict rules and restrictions, and few may not afford to stay afloat until May 17 — but the timeline will be dictated by the “data, not dates”, as per Boris Johnson latest announcement.
Dark clouds are still on the way, and for small businesses, the whole pandemic has fastened challenges and changes that gradually would have resolved through time.
For Monti Ristorante Italiano, a popular family-run restaurant in Southend-on-Sea (Essex UK), the pandemic has forced the business to change its previous approach to innovate and adapt it to rough “new normal”.
Thanks to its Roman origins, Enrico La Licata and his family have enabled to bring authentic Roman cuisine to Southend by maintaining traditions and quality recognised by locals, domestic and international visitors.
Enrico La Licata and Luca Vernich, owner and manager of Monti Ristorante Italiano, have allowed me to ask some questions about their reaction and response to this pandemic, both at the corporate and marketing level and the challenges the government should adhere to recover the hospitality open wound.
Here’s our interview
Monti Ristorante Italiano is well-liked here in Southend-on-Sea and well-ranked on TripAdvisor. Would you mind telling us about your story? When and how did you set out your business?
Monti began its journey on February 28 in 2019 — it is almost two years since we set up the business.
It is a family business with a long tradition in the hospitality industry. My family has always worked in hospitality, my grandad owned a pastry shop, and when dad took over the store, I used to help him after school. You can see that hospitality is in my blood! I was already in Chelmsford working for another company while my parents were in Italy when we looked at starting our own business here in the UK.
The Giardino’s owner- the restaurant before us- was looking for someone to take over the activity. We thought it could have been an opportunity for us – as it was one of my ambitions to have my business – we seized the moment. We got in touch with him and started this adventure along with bringing some Italian traditions to Southend.
What type of customers and concept has the business?
From children, young couples, groups to the oldest — even pets. Everyone can dine here and enjoy our meals and feel a warming atmosphere, a real family-Italian experience. We love sending the message that “hospitality is for all”, and we care about the concept of being hospitable.
On the wall, we have family pictures- from my grandparents to my son, for instance. Furniture, small ornaments are all part of the restaurant concept too.
How Monti Ristorante Italiano fought the pandemic
You have brought the concept of an Italian restaurant here in Southend. But how has covid-19 affected the restaurant- you guys as a family- emotionally and economically?
Last year was the most challenging year in which Covid-19 has forced a standstill for tourism and hospitality, putting a strain on small businesses like us.
Without bookings or tourism, we had to face the reality of alternative ways to stay agile while strategically facing this situation. During the first lockdown as a restaurant, we opted for takeaway, which we have decided to continue – even when we will be allowed to reopen.
The impact of the pandemic has affected the bookings. We had to re-arranged the settings of the dining and the bar area accordingly to the government rules. Also, we signed up for the NHS Covid-19 App for the safety of our customers, staff and the restaurant. Therefore, we have carefully planned our moves to minimise the losses.
Expenses for sanitisers or masks did not have an enormous impact on the business, but keep up with the situation itself. Profit and revenue have lowered down, which the outcome could have been different if we were open.
Emotionally the loss of potential income has put a strain on future ideas, but as a family, we try to remain positive.
How has covid-19 changed your communication strategy? What are the major challenges you have to overcome?
As the situation changed and adapted during the year, we thought of prioritizing and adapting our business model to be flexible as circumstance were/are changing daily.
As I mentioned before, we primarily moved to be partners of JustEat, Deliveroo and UberEATS, following the increasing presence on our social media pages through videos, news and images. This has challenged us, as we have to take a fresh approach. We have pushed the latest social media tools to maintain communication with our customers and new ones. On Instagram, we enable to increase our connections from a few followers to 2000, for instance.
How do the clients and customers feel about these changes?
The outlook has considerably changed; we are mainly online; we interact with our customer indirectly. They show us their support by sharing and being engaged through our social media, especially on Instagram.
The latest live video has increased our followers, meaning that we can communicate in the right way.
Also, we have a good impact on UberEATS, JustEat and Deliveroo, where we rank as the first “eats” with good feedback in any platform along with TripAdvisor, where the reviews are positive- but this was even before the lockdown.
Small businesses. Has the government done enough?
How about the approach the government has taken? Do You feel protected, compared to the rest of the world? And what was your reaction to the last reopening announcement?
Absolutely. I mean, if I have to compare it to the rest of the world — such as Italy — although it has been hard so far. For the last announcement, we were frankly not surprised, I felt relieved but not surprised at all, will see what is going to happen. The circumstances can change at any moment.
What should the Government have done for small businesses like yours?
To be probably among the most affected sectors, we needed to receive help, as the government did with various grants over these last lockdowns. The expenses have been the same, but the revenue has decreased by 95%.
Also, the government could have improved the furlough scheme. What I mean is, perhaps to pay the employees for the minimum hours they work instead of leaving us without a workforce. As a result, we have found this to deprive us of any help, as the revenue is not high enough to cover both wages and business expenses with current turnover.
The work for us has practically tripled almost 24 hours a day, but the return decreased by 95% if you know what I mean.
Could have the flexible furlough worked out for you?
Yes, of course. The flexible furlough means that we have paid the hours that employee have worked. Therefore, we cannot afford it because we are already at a loss even though we work without staff.
By adding staff, even with the flexible furlough scheme, we would have likely failed by now. I think as we are a family run business; we have been quite lucky. But for those businesses that unfortunately don’t have the help of family or friends and only manage the restaurant with paid staff, I imagine they would struggle to survive.
This more a complaint from a single restaurant, it is more for the entire sector.
How has renovated and what choices has the restaurant made?
I see the partnership with JustEat, Deliveroo, UberEATS and the platform Food Hub. Why did you choose this path?
These platforms are needed if you want to stay afloat nowadays. Although it is becoming difficult because of the high commissions while dealing with the risk of having to re-do the order because either it is not delivered on time. It is a waste and the reputation of the restaurant may lose out.
That is why we prefer using our Food Hub platform or taking direct call orders, so we can deliver the best quality meals.
Considering the partnership with home delivering services, did you need to review the menu? And which packaging do you use for delivering your meals?
On the contrary, the menu has been extended.
We have our own sausages, the typical English breakfast, our own homemade burgers, the concept of Italian patisserie, which is here on display. There is also the choice of Italian delicacies from various regions such as Naples or Rome — this is proving to be extremely popular among the riders who wait to pick up the take away. So with this, we are exploring alternative possibilities too.
The packaging that we are using is also recyclable — sustainable boxes — and we are committed to further reducing the use of plastic. Also, when ordering your meal from us, we provide a sticker that gives a visual of the logo and a description of the food order so you know what you have.
What results from today and what the future will be
What is the outcome today for the restaurant?
At a local level, we could maintain our standards under the feedback received and data available. It is a hard time, but luckily we are a family business that enables us to do more things that perhaps others are limited to do.
Hospitality is equal to innovation, I see the pandemic has not stopped you from pioneering new possibilities. Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
We have some post-pandemic projects too. As we mentioned, the newly started Italian sweet pastry’s along with the production of Italian sausages and burgers.
This lockdown has meant we have been more involved in preparing and proposing the new offerings among our array of English breakfasts. Therefore, we are considering a street food brand that focuses on breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
We intend to introduce rolls, sausages, steaks and more, with the concept of Italian cuisine style. Being a standalone project requires careful consideration, but will see the circumstances.
Free space for you guys. Being an advocate and foodie person, what makes your restaurant special and what meal would you suggest?
What makes our restaurant special is the passion and the commitment, and the advantage to be a family business, the homely atmosphere and the fresh food.
So, we suggest for sure the ‘Carbonara’, which is a typical Roman dish, with a mix of flavours and traditional family authenticity using only the finest ingredients directly from Italy itself. But the takeaway is another story.