'Yet another Christmas ruined' – Burnley restaurant owner says lack of clarity is killing hospitality sector

A beleaguered Burnley restaurant owner is running out of festive cheer after seeing one third of Christmas Day bookings cancel in a matter of days.

Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 5:44 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 6:14 pm
Head chef Ibby Ali with second chef Eusuf Ali at Usha Indian Restaurant, Burnley. Photo: Kelvin Stuttard

Ibby Ali, who runs Usha Indian Restaurant in Rossendale Road, had been hoping for a much needed Christmas boost but now faces another festive disaster with fears over the Omicron surge compounded by what he believes is a devastating lack of leadership from government.

Lockdown restrictions meant Usha missed out on the busy December period last year. The restaurant, forced to shut in November, didn't open its doors again until May; a seven-month stretch Ibby called the toughest time of his career.

"Two weeks ago we were quite happy, everything was ok," he told the Express. "When we were getting a phone call it was either a takeaway or a booking, now it's for a cancellation. All the big parties in the run up to Christmas, the work parties; they've all be cancelling. And now one third of Christmas Day bookings have gone.

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Usha Indian Restaurant, Burnley.

"The hype around Christmas has completely died down. Boris promised us a Christmas last year, and yes, he may have delivered us one this year but it's a second hand one.

"Even today, it's Wednesday; this is one of our busiest days even when it's not Christmas, because of the offers we have on. And today we have about 20 people booked in which is nothing compared to even a normal Wednesday."

Ibby is expecting further Christmas Day cancellations, and said he was trying not to worry too much about the restrictions he believes are going to be announced in a matter of days.

"We know something is going to be coming in after Christmas Day. Everybody knows this, they know this. But we have to carry on like normal. We still need to order the food in, the alcohol, sort the staff rota. If we have only 50 people eating with us on Christmas Day, instead of 300, it costs us the same.

"I'd rather they just shut down, and financially supported us. At least then we would know what was going on. The management of it has been awful. They have done the same damage to our industry, but without using the word 'lockdown', so they don't have to properly support us. They're effectively saying keep your doors open, but nobody go.

"People are worried, they're wary about what's going to happen, and I understand this. In this country, people are very rule-abiding people, that's the way they are. So, whatever is said by the government, or government officials, we tend to follow. At the end of the day we put them there to guide us. So, now they've told people to 'be careful' and that's what people are doing. The problem is, it's hitting us restaurants hard."

What he can't understand is why he spent so much time, effort and money making his premises Covid safe, only for the government to treat restaurants, bars and nightclubs this way.

"It always seems that the first places to come under attack – I don't know what other word to use – are the ones within hospitality and leisure. It feels like they target certain industries, where people go to enjoy themselves. People need our businesses, and we need the people. This is our livelihood we're talking about.

"These support packages – the one now for £6,000 – that isn't going to do anything. We're going to be losing far more than that because of the way they have gone about this. Nothing stops for us. Our daily costs, our VAT returns; this all goes on."

Ibby should be looking forward to Usha's 20th anniversary in February, but is instead now scared about what the future holds.

"It does scare me. How long can this go on for? It's not just my restaurant. It's all the restaurants, and bars, and nightclubs. We just want normality, or the process managed properly; that is all we're asking for."