Liverpool's hospitality industry will come back bigger and stronger says Art School boss Paul Askew - The Guide Liverpool

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Liverpool’s hospitality industry will come back bigger and stronger says Art School boss Paul Askew

19/04/2020

The closure of bars and restaurants paints a far from pretty picture for the city – but Art School boss Paul Askew says Liverpool’s hospitality industry will come back from the coronavirus crisis…

And what’s more, he says, it will come back bigger and better.

“I make no bones about it, it is and will be incredibly difficult,” he says. “But whenever there is adversity, this city rises back up with a smile and a swagger.  And it will do that again.

“Liverpool will overcome this. This industry will bounce back.”

Paul is chef patron of the renowned Art School Restaurant in Sugnall Street, launched in September 2014, before which he was Chef Patron and food and beverage director at The London Carriage Works and Hope street hotel where he and the team helped to build the city’s reputation for gastronomic excellence by opening its first boutique hotel with a fine-dining restaurant.

It’s his hand on this particular tiller that’s seen Liverpool steer its way from 23rd most visited city in the UK to third most visited, behind only Edinburgh and London.

And, while things might look bleak now, he is determined, as joint chair of Liverpool Hospitality Association, to maintain that position after lockdown. In fact, the title of his own book says it all – from here it can only be ‘Onwards & Upwards’.

“It will be quite a challenge, as you can imagine,” says Paul. “We were one of the first sectors to shut down and will probably be one of the last to re-open because of our business and what we do.

“There will probably be many restrictions still in place at first. Social distancing will mean we can only have perhaps half as many tables and covers, no private dining, no bar area…but,” he stops himself. “We can’t really plan it because we don’t know what the government will say or put in place, there are still lots of guidance points to be considered.

“It’s a battle, but we have started to work on how we can recover from this.”

There are two phases according to Paul, first of which is stability and survival.

“That’s what all businesses in the hospitality industry are thinking about at the moment, looking after staff, putting them on furlough leave, looking at what they can claim from insurance companies – another battle! – whether they are eligible for government grants or business interruption loans…none of which is as easy as it’s supposed to be,” he smiles.

“It’s about battening down the hatches and looking after staff, keeping in touch with our brigades so that when our doors can be re-opened, they are ready to engage again.”

The second phase, of course, is recovery.

Paul says: “I have been using my time to re-evaluate and that’s what others probably are doing and need to do. I’ve been looking at a different price point, different style menus; thinking about what the atmosphere will feel like in a restaurant with half as many tables… I’m trying to use the time wisely to get all of this stuff in place, ready.

“The way I would normally work would be to think about what I wanted to provide and set my stall out, and then I would get the staff I needed to do that and cost everything accordingly. In the future, at first at least, much of that will be dictated to me.

“Getting hold of the ingredients will be a challenge, food producers and suppliers are struggling, and being very much about seasonal, locally grown produce, I may have difficulty getting hold of ingredients (although I think I will be okay, it depends what kind of restaurant you have).

“I’m looking at new menus and new ideas. Most of us will have to do this, reducing the amount of dishes so as to deliver the same quality but with less choice. I will still want to offer my flagship tasting menu, but that might need to be reviewed too, in terms of courses and content.

“Bringing back staff will be hard because it could create division if some return early and  some remain furloughed and requires careful man management – it has the potential to be quite destructive to the group in its own way but we have to do what is right for the business.

“Also, diners might not come out as often, or be more frugal, because they will be facing their own financial challenges too.”

But, continues Paul, there is cause for optimism.

“Liverpool always finds a way to come back from adversity. We are known for that.

“While the current situation is worse than the 2008/9 financial crisis, we found a way through that. I was at The Carriage Works at the time and we had to stop being fine dining and a brasserie to just being a brasserie, and it survived and did really well.

“There’s no joy in cooking three or four menus if you’re bankrupt so we will once again focus on high quality but perhaps less choice.

“I want my lovely guests to come back and for us to deliver what we are known for. It’s just finding a different way to do it.”

And he says: “In this industry, we are creative, innovative and passionate. We are robust, and we have to remain positive as there are plenty of reasons to be so.

“In 08/9 I remember saying to someone that we were supposed to be in the middle of regeneration and reaping the rewards of being Capital of Culture, and here we were in recession. The reply came back: ‘what are you talking about? We have had a 30-year recession and that didn’t stop us having a good time’.

“That attitude won the day then, and it will win it now.

“The restaurants already have a WhatsApp group and we are talking to each other and helping each other out. It’s a galvanised unit ready to recalibrate and rise again.

“We have been talking to the city council which, amid everything else it has been doing, is already formulating a recovery plan for the whole city. That’s hugely reassuring and encouraging when we are only in week four of lockdown.

“To be a restaurant, a bar or a hotel is quite scary right now, but customers can help by using delivery services which are there, buying gift vouchers to help current cashflow, and supporting those involved in community projects – the good guys.

“And…we will be ready to greet you and welcome you on the other side of this. This is Liverpool.  We’ll be back with our legendary hospitality, and we will continue our work where we left off.”

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