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Restaurants facing uncharted territory

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FACING A NEW REALITY  Castlebar chef Barry Ralph outside his restaurant, House of Plates.

Anton McNulty

WHEN Barry Ralph closed the door on his popular restaurant House of Plates two days before St Patrick’s Day, he presumed, like a lot of people, that he would be back in business in a couple of weeks. Fast forward two months and the premises on Upper Chapel Street remains closed and won’t be opening until the end of June at the earliest.
“It has been very very frustrating,” Barry told The Mayo News. “It [closure] was a temporary thing in my eyes. I thought a three week closure and back to normal.”
Owned by Barry and his wife Helen, House of Plates has built up a reputation for excellence in the four years it has been open and has a focus of using locally produced, seasonal and artisan food. On a normal Saturday night, up to 90 people pass through the restaurant so Barry admits the current predicament is hugely worrying.
“I would have been used to working 12/14 hour days, six days a week, so to go from that to doing nothing is just crazy. We were doing quite well, we were in business for four years and in my eyes, before we closed, I would have said yes, we are very secure financially. But then all of a suuden, it was like, ‘oh my God, what that hell is going on here’. We were in shock, how do you prepare yourself for something like that?” he said.
The government’s roadmap for easing the Covid-19 restrictions has envisaged restaurants providing on-premises food from June 29, subject to them complying to strict social distancing guidelines. While he wants to get his restaurant open again, Barry said the predicament for him and other restaurant and cafe owners is that they face losing money by not being able to fill their premises to capacity.
“They are saying we can open up at the end of June but what are we going back to with social distancing? Are we going to go back with just 30 people on a Saturday night? Those figures just won’t pay the bills.
“I’m lucky enough in the restaurant that all my tables are a metre squared and quite big tables, compared to a normal restaurant table. I would be hoping that we’ll be comfortable enough because we have a bit of space but I fear for the smaller restaurants and coffee shops because it is just not possible for those guys to open with two metres social distancing. It just will not work,” he said.

No option
However, he stressed that he has ploughed too much of his money and worked too hard over the last number of years to continue to stay closed. After going through the new business plan for the restaurant, he says he will have to take risks, which will include introducing a takeaway element to the restaurant. It is something he never envisaged doing before and he also wonders if it will be sustainable in the long-term.
“You can do all the figures that you want but if you are not getting people through the door or getting food out the door it doesn’t matter. It is a risk. Everyone will be spending money to open up again, to try to make things work, but if it doesn’t work, you are done. These are scary times.   
“Any of the guys who have started doing takeaways are doing okay but that’s because the majority of us are closed. Once it comes to the end of June, and we all have to open, and we are all offering takeaway services, plus with all the takeaways that are already there, there could be 50 to 60 takeaways in Castlebar. That is crazy. The guys doing okay at the minute will have to compete with us when we open up and we are all after the same thing.”

Government support
The one advantage Barry believes having a restaurant in Castlebar is that the vast majority of his customers are from Mayo and they do not have to rely on the tourism sector. However, for the restaurant sector to survive he believes that it will need government support and says the first thing which will have to go is the current VAT rate.
“You still have your overheads like your ESB and gas and even IMRO to play music in the place. There are all these hidden charges which people do not see. They are still going to be there.
“They are on about bringing VAT down to 9 percent but I think it has to go to  four and a half to be honest with you. It has to go to four and a half for at least a year to get people back on their feet and I think they will have to make start-up grants available to us, not loans, but grants. The way I see it is, obviously the government will have to bring money in, but if there are no restaurants to create revenue for the government, then how will they bring money in. It doesn’t take a genius to sit down and work out what has to happen.”
Despite all the stress and uncertainty over the last number of weeks, the one silver lining Barry says is the time it has allowed him to spend with his three daughters. His four year old daughter Nora has become a social media sensation with over 300,000 followers on her ‘Nora on Food’ page, as she follows in her Daddy’s footsteps with recipes and cooking advice.
“To be honest I was so busy I would not have known my own kids personalities - how sad is that. All this has given me a chance to breath and spent time with the children.”