‘Phenomenal’: Gary Usher and the city’s restaurant bosses gearing up to re-open

For the people who work in Manchester’s restaurant and pub industry, today is a bit like Christmas Eve.

The menus have been tasted, the ovens fired up, the tables set and the floors mopped, ready to welcome customers back inside for – in some cases – the first time in eight months.

Tomorrow, Monday May 17, will be arguably the most significant day for hospitality of the year.

Bookings have flooded in thick and fast – as they did when outdoor hospitality could reopen last month.

Local operators are excited, raring to go, and a little nervous about what the next few weeks will bring as teams reunite on the restaurant floor.

Gary can’t wait to get back to it
(Image: MEN Media)

One of the north west’s most well-known and highly-regarded industry figures is Gary Usher, the founder of Elite Bistros and now a TV personality too.

Gary’s restaurants in Greater Manchester – Hispi in Didsbury, and Kala in the city centre – will both reopen this week at long last, and the chef says he’s ‘f***ing nervous’ about it all.

He said: “I’m really nervous, but obviously excited at the same time. Restaurants is what we do, looking after people, cooking, service, it’s what we do and we haven’t been able to do that for the last year. It’s a big sigh of relief.

“But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, everyone’s a bit rusty! We need to relearn to work together again.

“The restaurants are so alive at the minute, we’re decorating and spring cleaning and tasting food and wine again, it almost feels like we’re opening a restaurant for the first time ever again.”

Reservations at Hispi have been, and I quote, ‘f***ing phenomenal’, with 130 already booked in for the first Sunday lunch back.

Gary said: “Something happened with Hispi after the first lockdown. So many people came to us and said, ‘F***ing hell we thought we were gonna lose you’, like we’re a relative or something!

Hispi in Didsbury
(Image: MEN Media)

“So many people who actually live nearby and had never been. It’s built up this lovely local buzz. We’re really proud of Hispi, we’re buzzing about it.”

And on Kala, he continued: “Kala only had eight months before we got absolutely f***ing annihilated by lockdowns and covid.

“We didn’t have time to put it on the map. We had a couple of great reviews and awards, we were on a roll, but then we got closed. Becoming established is our goal now.

“If you asked me what we’ve changed in Kala to have a grand reopening the answer would be nothing, because there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a great product. Same team, the same team that love Kala, the same menu.”

‘It almost feels like we’re opening a restaurant for the first time ever again’
(Image: Lee Brown)

Gary’s already been able to partially open one of his six restaurants – Burnt Truffle in Heswall has an outdoor terrace – so he’s had a little taste of what Monday will bring.

Speaking of reopening, he said: “It’s really surreal. If you went back to April last year, I thought none of our restaurants would ever open again. I thought we were done, and I know I’m not alone in that in hospitality.

“So to actually see guests sat on the terrace again, it’s f***ing weird and it’s surreal.

“I hope it continues to be a bit surreal in a way. It’s a reminder of what could happen.”

One business that has never known normal in Manchester is the new Roxy Ballroom site on Withy Grove.

Roxy Lanes
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

When the bowling alley bar opened last year, it was under curfew, and then national lockdown, and then tier restrictions, none of which are conducive to its late-night business model of pizzas and beer pong and arcade games.

Roxy Leisure’s brand development manager Joel Mitchell says he’s ‘ecstatic’ to be able to reopen properly, at long last.

“We managed to put some outside seating out at the Arndale,” he said, “But we’ve been closed for a lot longer than we’ve been open.

“To be able to hear people back inside playing the games and having a laugh, it’s absolutely brilliant for us.

“That first strike at the Arndale – that’s 100 per cent what I’m looking forward to the most. Someone in England will bowl the first strike of 2021 on Monday, and I hope it’s at our venue.”

Roxy Leisure runs similar venues right across the north, and in Nottingham and Birmingham, so they’ve had to juggle different sets of regional rules simultaneously over the last year.

Joel continued: “The regional restrictions have been so complicated, even in head office trying to work out what rule applies to whoever’s on the end of the phone.

“To be honest, no one had it as hard as Manchester. Beyond doubt, it was hit the hardest with all those restrictions, it just went on forever.”

Gaucho in Manchester
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

Martin Williams is the CEO of Gaucho, one of the country’s most popular and successful steak restaurant groups.

He said he and his team of are ‘really happy’ to be getting back to business properly, but it’s tinged with frustration over how long the Government has taken to get to this point.

He said: “For every day hospitality can’t open it costs £220m, some of which would be going to the Treasury.

“It’s like Stockholm syndrome – you’re grateful because you’re open again and you’re really excited to welcome guests and teams back, but on the other hand you’re equally frustrated that it’s taken so long.

“It still feels very disproportionate that restaurants are closed when you can stroll around a shopping centre.

“For our restaurants with no outside space, like Manchester, it feels like a very long time since we’ve opened.

“There really has been an outpouring of demand too, from people who want to get back to restaurants. Once they realise how safe we are they can relax and have fun, and enjoy, which is what it’s all about.”

Tom Kerridge’s Bull & Bear restaurant, which sits within Gary Neville’s Stock Exchange Hotel, was open for only a few months before lockdown struck.

Tom Kerridge with guests in the private dining area at the Stock Exchange
(Image: Natural Selection Design)

General manager Jacqui Griffiths said: “This reopening day feels like it’s been a long time coming.

“We’ve had the 17th in our head since February and we’ve just worked to that – if Boris had turned around and said that date wasn’t going to happen we’d all have been in despair.

“Demand’s been phenomenal. Everyone is clearly looking for things to look forward to – the demand for rooms and table reservations has been fantastic.

“Even the weekday nights have picked up significantly. It’s looking promising.

“All those events that people didn’t get to do last year, weddings and birthdays, we call them Missed Milestones, it’s so nice that people can finally celebrate and be together.”

Jack Dennett is general manager at The Refuge, a hotel, bar and restaurant on Oxford Street.

In April, it opened around 20 outside tables but on Monday more than 90 fully-booked tables in the bar and restaurant will once again be graced with the presence of food, drink and hoards of happy humans.

“It’s really exciting,” said Jack.

“With outdoor opening the guests are so happy to be back and the team is happy to be back. You can see it can get back to normal.

“Coming out of lockdown feels different this time. We can see light at the end of the tunnel and people want to get back out and visit their favourite places again, I think it will do us all the world of good.

“We’ve been on furlough so long, and the anxiety, worries and stress that brings. But after about two shifts back the team are starting to love it again. It’s that social interaction that people have missed over the last year.

“Coming to a bar, ordering a drink, having a laugh and a chat – rather than ordering in from an app.”

Reflecting on the crisis, Jack added: “It’s been tough, really tough.

“Every week is different and there have been moving goalposts. It’s been difficult to work off what the Government’s expectations are.”

Like thousands of businesses, The Refuge has used furlough and flexi-furlough throughout the pandemic ‘spikes’. The hotel side of the business has been kept afloat thanks to cabin crew bookings.

With 106 staff currently back at work, the team will be adding to its ranks over the coming weeks as demand increases.

Although Tim Reynolds, director of operations at The Refuge, is celebrating indoor reopening with the rest of his staff, he also urged a note of caution.

He said: “We lost 100 per cent of our income for every month we were closed and there are a lot of fixed costs you can’t remove – you can reduce electricity but this building is hundreds of years old, you can’t turn it off or it would fall apart.

“It’s been hugely impactful and continues to be. Yes, we are reopening and we are seeing things coming through but it doesn’’t mean you just recover immediately. You’ve got a year’s worth of debt to start to recoup.”

He added: “If outdoor opening is anything to go by then Manchester’s thirst for hospitality is definitely there.

“People are just really happy to be back out. More than anything people are happy to not have to cook and do the washing up, and a homemade cocktail is nothing compared to one made professionally at a bar with the the right ingredients and equipment.

“It’s a glimmer of hope that we can start to rebalance the books – but it will take some time.”

He appealed for customers to use the NHS app to register to speed up the process of checking people in to their tables.

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