After months of being shut, the hospitality sector has been given the all clear ahead of reopening and from today, Cork’s most-loved restaurant, cafés and bars will bring life back into the city.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed on Thursday last that the country would move to phase three of the easing of restrictions under the Government’s roadmap to reopening society and business which has been accelerated.
The move into phase three will see the reopening of a number of different sectors including hairdressers, barbers, nail and brow salons, beauty salons, spas, tattooing and piercing services; wellbeing services such as chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture, and reflexology; all remaining retail and services and commercial activities; all adult education facilities; creches, childminding facilities and pre-schools; and summer camps and youth clubs.
In a fast-tracking of the restrictions, museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls and other cultural outlets will also reopen, as will cinemas, music venues, leisure facilities, bingo halls, arcades, amusement parks, religious buildings, indoor gyms and exercise facilities.
Indoor gatherings of up to 50 people when conducted in line with public health advice are permissible and outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people when conducted in line with public health advice are permissible.
Subject to restrictions on numbers for public gatherings and other public health advice, phase three will also see the return of the hospitality industry with cafés, restaurants, pubs and hotels and holiday parks allowed to reopen.
Cork’s hospitality sector has taken a hard hit after Covid-19 with continued uncertainty surrounding international tourism and the wipeout of a large part of the summer season.
Businesses that relied heavily on international tourism and corporate businesses as footfall into the city, have had to reimagine and adapt their businesses during the pandemic, some turning to takeaway and delivery services.
Now, restaurants, cafés and bars have to reinvent themselves again ahead of reopening to the public under an extensive list of guidelines provided by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Fáilte Ireland and rely heavily on domestic tourism at a time when people remain nervous about staycations.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Mr Varadkar praised the Irish people for the efforts they have gone to in battling the virus.
"Our country has suffered greatly. Our mental health has been eroded. Some people became sick, many more were sick with worry," he said.
"People lost their jobs and were anxious about their livelihoods and their futures. We worried about family, we worried about friends, we worried about ourselves.
“This has not been an easy time for any of us, but we have come through it as a country. We must now try and repair the damage that has been done, across all parts of our lives, and show the same solidarity in doing so.
"I believe that if we show the same courage, the same determination, and the same care for each other, we will overcome these new challenges as well.”
The perspex screens have been fitted, hand sanitizer has been ordered, social distancing is in place, PPE is at the ready and Cork’s food offering is about to get even better as its eateries reopen under a fresh new take on dining.
Owners of some of the restaurants and cafés that are reopening from today, including The SpitJack, Nash19, Idaho Café, Sage Restaurant, Coqbull and Cornstore, and Koto, have spoken of the struggles faced due to Covid-19, adapting to a new norm and the journey from closure to reopening.
One of Cork’s most loved cafés, Idaho Café will reopen on Tuesday, July 7 as a more open, airy and relaxing space.
The café will have six tables in total indoors where 14 people can be seated at any one time and outdoor tables will be weather dependent.
The café’s location on the corner of Caroline Street and Maylor Street allows for four large windows which will allow for “a lovely bit of fresh air”.
Owners Richard and Mairead Jacob said that the interior feels “lovely and airy and fresh and clean”.
Almost a two metre gap has been given between tables which makes the café feel “nice and spacious” and perspex screens have been put in place.
A shorter menu which will be changed more often will be offered and the food is both grown by Mr and Mrs Jacobs themselves and sourced locally from markets such as the nearby English Market.
A mural has also been painted on the outside wall by artist Kevin O’Brien, an idea of Mrs Jacob’s as a means of having a happy, fun and inviting exterior for people coming back into the city.
Mr Jacob said that outdoor seating will be huge, “if for nothing else, so that people who don’t feel comfortable going inside, there’s an option for them”.
He said that VAT rates should be reduced for “every single business reopening with fixed costs”.
“We are running with the exact same costs as before but we’ve got half the number of customers in the café, so unless something is done with the VAT rate, a lot of businesses just aren’t going to be viable in about three months time,” he said.
Mr and Mrs Jacob’s team of five have been undergoing safety training and following the guidelines from the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Fáilte Ireland in preparation for reopening.
“We see it as an opportunity to restart and go back to what it was like when we first reopened 19 years ago,” Mr Jacobs said.
“It’s lovely, we've been in contact with a lot of people on social media and every day in town getting ready we’ve been seeing customers and chatting.
“There’s a lot of lovely positive atmosphere around the city and people are dying to see shops and cafes open again and there’s a real sense of we’ve all been in this together and now we’re all coming out of it together. People have really worked well together and there’s been a lovely community spirit,” he said.
The SpitJack, fondly for its breakfast, brunch and lunch offerings, is set to reopen this morning after months of closure.
The restaurant continued to offer a home experience with its click and collect and delivery service offering foods from its well-loved menu throughout Covid-19.
Now, the restaurant’s 35 staff members are ready to welcome back their customers to The SpitJack with a difference.
Manufactured screens with a perspex inset have been designed to maintain the same atmosphere in the restaurant with the same wood finish seen throughout the restaurant.
The restaurant, which seated up to 80 people at any one time pre-Covid, will reopen with a 30% reduction in seating.
Front of house staff will be provided with face shields and back of house will be provided with face masks. Temperature checking of staff members will also be in place.
Owner of the restaurant, Richard Gavin said that reservations must be made before visiting the restaurant but don’t have to be made days prior.
Mr Gavin said that the SpitJack’s application for a Restart Grant was accepted but that the grant has not been paid as of yet, money which he said “would have been helpful before reopening”.
The SpitJack had just opened its new Limerick restaurant seven days before being closed and did not qualify for a Restart Grant as rates on the building had not yet been paid.
“When we closed our restaurants it was Paddy's Day weekend so we probably lost about €15,000 worth of food stock," he said. "We donated it all to Penny Dinners in Cork and Meals on Wheels in Limerick.
“We estimated about a €100,000 loss when we finished March, and as of yet we’ve had no support so thankfully we were in a position that we can reopen the doors.
“We’re disappointed with what's available to us to restart, even the guidelines weren’t very clear.”
Mr Gavin said that PPE has gone up by about 400% in price since Covid-19, with a box of rubber gloves which started at €1.50 now costing €7.
He said that he can buy wine cheaper than hand sanitizer and that the Government should be helping and subsidising those costs and “stopping the inflation” being put on essential PPE.
Chef and owner of Sage Restaurant in Midleton Kevin Aherne has been hard at work ahead of reopening after Covid-19.
Renovations of the restaurant have taken place and a new foodstore has been added in place of The Greenroom, which was housed in the same building as Sage on Main Street.
The decision to close The Greenroom and amalgamate both restaurants was made prior to Covid-19 and the space has been materialised into a food store offering pre-prepared meals and a grab-and-stay fridge to minimise contact with staff.
The courtyard is being turned into an outdoor restaurant which can seat 34 people in total at two metres apart with an enclosed heated area and overhead canopy.
An online booking and ordering system will be in place so staff can prepare ahead of time and allow for an organised systematic approach.
People can make a booking under a specific time slot and pre order their meals from the menu, making for no manic rush as the kitchen will have the tickets prior and will be prepared for each booking.
“We won’t have 34 people ordering at the same time, we’ll stagger them and people will have their specific time slot booked online.
“The idea is to have it systematic so we know how many we’ll have at a certain night and we’ll be pre prepared for it so we’ll know how to prepare for the night before it hits,” Mr Aherne said.
Indoors, a space dedicated to larger family groups who want to meet post-Covid is being developed. The inside space will be renovated over the summer months while the outdoor restaurant will open from July 2 offering a full menu.
Mr Aherne said that none of his staff members have been told that they do not have a job to come back to and that although working hours may reduce, that he would prefer to reduce everybody’s hours as a collective as opposed to cutting jobs.
“We’re looking forward to reopening and welcoming customers back and we’re just taking it all in stages,” Mr Aherne said.
“Outdoors will be reopening on July 1 and we’ll be tipping away inside in stages over the coming months then.
“We’re trying to keep it positive and get on with it and move with the times,” he said.
Nash 19 will reopen to its loyal Cork customers on Tuesday under new safety measures after four long months of being shut.
A stone’s throw away from the English Market, the three-in-one restaurant, shop and gallery will continue to offer fresh produce from the market each day, serving up some of Cork’s tastiest dishes.
The restaurant is known for its gallery and will continue to exhibit and support young artists in Cork, in partnership with Cork City Council Arts Office.
Owner Claire Nash and her team have been working closely with their food safety company in ensuring the health and safety of both staff and customers and have been practicing and putting into play new guidelines over the last two weeks.
A lot of changes have been made to the interior of the restaurant and six tables will be placed outside the restaurant on Princes Street as part of the ‘eat-on-the-street’ concept.
Business owners on the busy Cork city centre street presented a proposal to city officials that would see the street, which links Oliver Plunkett Street to the South Mall, closed to vehicular traffic and turned into a pedestrianised outdoor dining area.
“The vision is that the street will be a knockout tourist destination and it’ll be a culinary destination for any tourist that comes to the city,” Ms Nash said.
Within the restaurant, the new food shop, which Ms Nash described as “a foodies haven”, has been relocated to cater for social distancing and the 16 indoor tables, some of which can seat six people, have been spread out.
“We’re very lucky in that we have the luxury of space, we’re not rammed into a small channel,” she said.
Although it is advisable to make a reservation for the restaurant, Ms Nash said that she will also cater for walk-ins and that she “would only be thrilled” to welcome more customers.
The Nash19 team of 11 full time staff has been working hard in preparation for reopening and preparing for what is the new norm.
“This is a huge thing for us to try to get through, opening safely. The expectation is that we’ll all be able to do what we always did, but we’re not going to be able to do that because we’re in the confines of tighter spaces. Even though we’re bursting to get back to normal, what is the new normal?
“The new normal is what we're trying to open into and we’ve been practicing that for the last two weeks. We’re going to do it in baby steps first and we’ll walk before we can run so that we don’t make mistakes and so that we don’t end up with a cluster within the organisation or an issue that we can't come back from,” Ms Nash said.
She reminded people that it is an anxious time for staff and asked that the public be patient upon the restaurant’s reopening.
“It’s a bit of a minefield to be honest and we hope the public will be patient. I can’t stress that enough, it is a very anxious time for us,” she said.
Cork Chair of The Restaurant Association of Ireland and owner of Coqbull and Cornstore restaurants, Mike Ryan, is set to reopen his restaurants after adapting his businesses to what was the new norm during Covid-19.
Both Coqbull and Cornstore offered a takeaway service which was something new for both businesses.
Mr Ryan said that the Coqbull Takeaway and Cornstore At Home services was an exercise in what he believes to be the future for a lot of restaurants.
“A lot of former managers we have working around the world said restaurants in some countries that have reopened are still receiving about 50% takeaway orders," he said.
“That’s a new trend and I think people in Cork are the same, I’m shocked at the amount of takeouts we’re doing."
He said that people may be more comfortable to order a steak meal and cook it at home in the safety and comfort of their own homes, rather than eating out.
Although the takeaway service proved popular for both restaurants, Mr Ryan said that the cost of packaging and a delivery service that didn’t exist before now has to be covered and said that it’s “not a profitable business model” for his restaurants.
Mr Ryan is currently preparing to reopen and is deciding how tables should look, how the menu should be presented and how best to keep his staff safe.
He said that the bookings for both restaurants are “on fire” and that while walk-ins are also welcome, they will also be treated as bookings for contact tracing reasons.
By taking a booking, he will have the name and contact information of at least one person sitting at each table if the need to hand over their details to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) arises.
“If someone walks in, I still have to take their details and treat it as if it’s a booking straight away. Tables also have to be available for people to sit down straight away, not to have people standing at the door and congregating with other people.”
Coqbull, which deals with 80% walk-ins, and Cornstore, which operates at about 40% walk-ins, have a system in place that can be adapted where bookings can be taken with a phone and information will be sent to the central system.
He said that the lack of direction from government surrounding guidelines for reopening is causing frustration because businesses are facing the differing opinions of their customers .
“It’s going to leave a lot of ambiguity and these days some people can be malicious about it.”
He said that “loads more” can be done to support the “over 500 eateries” in Cork city alone and that the government should not expect businesses to reopen at 50% capacity and continue to take 100% of their teams back, pay all of their rates, overheads and VAT.
He said that the lack of footfall to the city with many large corporations still working from home and the loss of corporate entertaining will be a huge hit to the hospitality sector.
“There’s no profit this year or into most of next year, all we can hope to do is not lose money,” he said.
Asian street food restaurant Koto which first opened its doors on Carey’s Lane in 2017 is set to reopen on Tuesday offering lunch and dinner to its customers.
Managing Director of the restaurant, Jeffrey Safar Hamidi, said business on the pedestrian street had been “very good” before the virus forced it to temporarily close and that he looks forward to welcoming back both regulars and new faces after operating as a takeaway for the last two months.
Mr Hamidi said that his small, tight-knit team are excited to return to working together again but that they are a little bit nervous to see what the demand will be as staff from larger offices continue to work from home meaning less footfall in the city.
He said that he had to start fresh and had to reevaluate everything and how everything is done, from the way guests are welcomed in, to how tables are set up while still providing the same “stellar service”.
Enhanced hygiene and social distancing will be in place and PPE will be made available to staff.
Perspex screens have not been installed as payment is taken at tables and customers will not be permitted at the desk or bar counter.
Hand sanitiser has been placed at every entrance and throughout the restaurant, tables are spaced at least one metre apart are tables and menus are wiped down and sanitised between sittings.
Koto will reopen with 50 of its 75 seats in operation excluding the outdoor seating area which people can also avail of and bookings are being taken for a time slot of 105 minutes.
Walk-ins will also be welcomed and customers’ details will be taken in the restaurant’s reservation book.
Mr Hamidi said that more can be done at local authority level for the small businesses which are “the engine of the economy”.
He said that they should be supported in every way possible and that a cut in VAT close to 0% is “needed to fuel the hospitality industry”.
“Rates for this year should be written off to give every business in the city centre a decent chance at recovery.
“City Hall needs to do more to encourage footfall back into the city and to make Cork city a place for people to come, we need them to bring some more life into the city centre and invest in parks and outdoor facilities,” he said.
Mr Hamidi said that it has been too long since having his customers in and that he and his team have “really missed the buzz of a busy service and the atmosphere of having a full house of happy customers”.