Leading Burnley hospitality figures open up on 'heartbreaking' lockdown restrictions

Dispirited Burnley restaurant owners are desperately missing the joy of seeing customers walk through their doors as the hospitality industry continues to be starved of hope under Covid restrictions.

The Lumes Burger @ Illuminati, Burnley
The Lumes Burger @ Illuminati, Burnley

Restaurants across the borough endured a summer of uncertainty after closing their doors during the UK's first national lockdown in March.

Despite August's 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme serving up brief respite, Tier 3 restrictions compounded by further lockdowns mean Burnley restaurants have not been open since mid-October.

And with no end to lockdown in sight, embattled restaurateurs are growing increasingly frustrated and anxious as they patiently await even a morsel of good news.

The Express spoke with a number of these owners who offered a stark and worrisome insight into life under lockdown.

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What do you miss most about being open?

Pino Cafasso (Palazzo) - I miss the people and the buzz, the happiness myself and my team delivered day in and day out. We looked after every person, of every age, for every occasion. I miss the life the people brought to our team, and the buzz that everyone from the surrounding areas felt with us!.

Abdul Majeed (Aroma) - Since the lockdown, what I miss most is welcoming everybody walking through my doors, talking to them and enjoying watching them have a wonderful time with us. Every time I think of retiring, and think of missing all this I change my mind and decide to carry on until my health allows me to do so.

James Gibb (Illuminati) - The one thing I miss most about being open is the people. I got into this industry to be able to create an experience for everyone to enjoy, whether it's dining with us in the evening or partying all night we just can’t wait for it all to be back.

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Do you think the hospitality sector has been unfairly treated?

Andrew Brown (Wilfred's and Bertram's) - Personally, I have mood swings when I think we should just get on with it and get back to normal and other times when I think the government has no choice.

Hospitality is just one sector that has been totally flattened, you can add in airlines, airports, rail, bus, theatre, cinema, bowling alleys, retail, gyms, and I am sure many others.

I have no problem with being forced to close, however the financial support is a joke.

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Even during furlough, we must pay our employment taxes, for us that’s £75,000 per month and then 'Nest' the government pension scheme is another £13,000 per month. Insurance £8,500, energy £20,000, site security, maintenance, licences, and a host of other costs.

Ibby Ali (Usha) - The treatment has been harsh for our industry. I believe we've just been treated as an easy walkover, as scapegoats. Things are going bad with Covid, the Government says 'Ok let’s close all bars and restaurants'. But will that keep people in? No, people make their own parties, where there's no Covid measures in place. I have stopped thinking about how long it's going to be before we open now, it’s too depressing. So, I’m taking one day at a time, and hopefully we will see brighter days soon.

Steve Reid (Kettledrum) - We know from so many people including the staff how simple conversations and interactions have been missed during the lockdowns. I feel the closures and restrictions enforced on the hospitality industry have been unfair given the lack of statistics backing up the claims that these are high risk areas. This industry and gyms especially, are two areas as important as food retailers regarding people’s wellbeing and should not be closed given the safety measures that are in place

How much longer can your business survive lockdown?

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JG - In our current position we have managed to build enough of a loyal customer base through our takeaway to cover costs and with the grants we can apply for we should be able to make it to the other side of lockdown. The only question is how long will bars and restaurants have to wait to open their doors after everyone else.

AM - The Government has offered good help throughout this testing time, but is it enough? Probably not for many. Even though I am an established restaurateur I am finding it hard to go through this tough time. I feel sorry for all my fellow restaurateurs who are under heavy commitments, and the young ones who started with great enthusiasm, and got caught in these unpredictable circumstances. Perhaps they will not be able to survive and will sadly lose all their investments and dreams.

What is your message to the Government?

AB - The Government needs to immediately signal that the Rate holiday is to continue for another twelve months. That the VAT rate for Hospitality will remain at 5% for the next two years.

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And that the offer of a £1,000 retention bonus per employee which was to be paid in January is reinstated.

We employ over 290 people, so far, we have made two redundancies, we do not want to let any more of our staff go as we have an excellent team.

The majority of our team are paid relatively low salaries, many struggle to get by on 100% of their normal salary, to survive on 80% is not realistic.

The Government has understandably made a lot of mistakes. Delaying the re-opening of things past mid-March will cause more devastation to the sectors above, mental health, delayed operations and screening, children's education and prospects for all those leaving education, to name a few.

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SR - From a business angle the Government and council support is appreciated but not enough as furlough for staff does not cover National Insurance, holiday pay or pensions. The grants unfortunately don’t cover the general costs of gas, electricity and water rates. It’s difficult to estimate the full losses with no exit plan foreseeable yet, but we have decided to see it through. If I were to forward a message to the Government, I would suggest extending the VAT reduction for 12 months after the lockdown to give businesses a fighting chance, hopefully our MP Antony would back us on this.

IA - Our message to the Government is, we understand the situation that you're in, and my heart goes out to all the people affected by this disease. My father-in-law Mr Atthur Rhaman is on a ventilator as we speak, and I ask for prayers from everyone for his recovery. But we just want the Government to not forget about us. And not to put us at the bottom of the list when everything returns to normal.

Will Burnley bounce back stronger?

PC - Of course, Burnley will be stronger. We hope for every customer, and every other restaurant, bar, club and leisure industry owner to be on their feet dancing with the great Burnley spirit we all know and love! In our HAPPY PLACE!

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SR - Burnley is in a much stronger place than most towns of a similar size. Given the work of the Burnley Bondholders over the last few years and the expansion of UCLan in the area the potential is excellent, and most businesses that stick this out will get a lot of support once the tier system is dissolved.

IA - Burnley gave me everything I have. It gave me my livelihood, my children were born here. I love my town, and we will be back. And I promise you all, Usha will tag along.

JG - Burnley can definitely bounce back from this and I see it as another chance for the town. Hopefully before then venue owners, council members and police can meet to discuss what our hometown needs to make it a safe and captivating destination for the public.

AM - Burnley has been through rough and tough times in the past, but has always managed to bounce back nicely and strongly. Burnley had a very bad start of the new millennium especially when the town was hit by riots. I noticed after that, Burnley went down badly. That was the most difficult and testing time of my career and for several others. However, I stayed positive and firm on my feet. I was always confident that things will get better in Burnley and time proved me right. I have all the reasons to believe that Burnley will come through this crisis, and bounce back stronger than ever.