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Northern Ireland hospitality, one of worst hit sectors in our economy, ponders a very uncertain future


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Darren Gardiner, owner of the Ground coffee chain

Darren Gardiner, owner of the Ground coffee chain

Pedro Donald of Sunflower Bar

Pedro Donald of Sunflower Bar

Darren Gardiner, owner of the Ground coffee chain

Hospitality has been one of the hardest hit business sectors during the coronavirus lockdown with many bars, restaurants, cafes and hotels forced to shut before any other service.

In a bid to ensure trading can continue when social distancing measures are eased, many have taken to offering delivery services to stay afloat.

Others simply just hope to be able to make it through the duration.

Ground cafe chain, owned by Darren Gardiner, is one business that has grave concerns for the future. The company, which has 30 units and more than 240 employees said current help from the Executive will not be enough.

Mr Gardiner said: "We are acutely aware that six to nine months after lockdown will be an incredibly difficult landscape to trade in. It seems incredulous that businesses who have year on year invested in this country and its people are not being offered the same lifeline that similar businesses in England, Scotland and Wales are able to take advantage of."

Mr Gardiner was referencing a grant scheme open to businesses of his size in the retail, hospitality and tourism sector who will receive one £25,000 grant from the Department for the Economy. Elsewhere in the UK similar businesses are offered grants based on the venue numbers.

"The one grant per business as opposed to one grant per qualifying premises seems to be a staggering error of judgment," added Mr Gardiner.

"We've invested significant funds in growing and developing our business and it is honestly truly devastating to see the effect that the current pandemic is having on the sector. Many of these homegrown mini chains are honestly at risk of collapse if a robust package of support is not forthcoming from our elected members."

Pedro Donald, owner of both The Sunflower and The American Bar in Belfast, feels confident that his establishments will come through the crisis, but not without a cost.

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Pedro Donald of Sunflower Bar

Pedro Donald of Sunflower Bar

Pedro Donald of Sunflower Bar

He says he is dipping into "rainy day money" and believes a phased opening could be one way of returning to business.

"I have had several discussions with others in the trade. The answer is, we don't know (what's going to happen). They may say we can open gradually and limit numbers. For example, if we are licensed to have 100 people, we only allow 50."

Mr Donald, who is paying his staff their full wages, says he has been kept busy selling out stock.

"That's for two reasons: to get some stock into cash and pay wages, and because the stock is going to go out-of-date.

"We are all in same boat. It might take a year or two to get back to where we were, but I believe that will happen."

Other restaurants like Yugo in Belfast have returned to trading through delivery services.

The Asian-fusion eatery received more than 150 orders within 24 hours of announcing its new service two days ago.

Owner Kyle Stewart said: "We were planning on riding it out until the end but with no end in sight for hospitality that just isn't financially sustainable. We feel it's now time to lift the shutters up and give it a crack."

The restaurateur was two weeks from opening high-end casual establishment Lottie's in Ballyhackamore when the lockdown was announced. He added: "All our money was tied up in the other restaurant. It has been really bad timing for us."

Mr Stewart, who runs the restaurant with Gerard McFarlane, will have two chefs working in the building with orders taken from home. Meals will be partially cooked.

Meanwhile chef Michael Deane, who is offering a delivery service from his Deane and Decano restaurant on the Lisburn Road, said his business was in a safe position.

He added: "It's a tough one for sure and certainly testing my mind big time wondering how if and when we can move forward. We are in a reasonable position as we have a good track record but will need to dig hard. There will be many restaurants that will not come through this.

"Opening will be staggered and we can only hope we can add up the numbers."

Mr Stewart added: "I think hospitality will be one of the last sectors to open and even then it will all come down to the confidence people have in going out to eat."

Mr Donald added: "It's in the Government's interest to keep things alive."

"Hopefully we will all learn to respect the restaurant table a lot more and not take so much for granted when we raise that glass," said Mr Deane.

Belfast Telegraph