Our Key Hospitality Sector Needs Executive Action For Survival

The possibility that many of the current Covid-19 restrictions could stretch into the first quarter of next year has understandably revived concerns over the future of our talented hospitality sector. 

Hospitality, other industries and indeed the wider community needs hope that things will change significantly especially when the vaccination programme has been largely completed. We all need something positive to look forward to. The sector needs to know that it has a future, that it’s day will come…and soon.

Top chef and restaurateur Michael Deane, a Taste of Ulster member, was characteristically forthright last week about the prospect of such a lengthy ban on the sector, warning that many of the existing restaurants, cafes and bars may never open again. What sort of hospitality sector are we likely to have to support efforts to regenerate tourism port-pandemic? 

Tourism, of course, is a key economic driver and before the advent of the coronavirus was on target to reach over £1billion. The sector has no idea when it will be allowed to open again for business. And once it does open, it will be reliant on local visitors while public confidence to global travel returns. 

I support Michael, who recently saw the prestigious Michelin star retained at the EIPIC fine dining eatery in Belfast’s Howard Street, and the Bib Gourmand by Deane’s at Queen’s, and endorse his call to the Executive to give hospitality sector,which has invested huge amounts to ensure that the various establishments are safe for customers and staff, a well-deserved ‘break’.

It’s a sector which deserves great praise for its resilience and creativity. While many have sought to keep ticking over by launching call and collect and delivery services from limited menus, others have developed different responses to the crisis. At least three that I know of have introduced province-wider delivery services – Mourne Seafood, Shu and Coppi, all based in Belfast – a costly operation.  

Other encouraging responses include Pier 36 in Donaghadeepackaging its most popular fishes for sale by retailers in the town and nearby Millisle; and Cyprus Avenue, Belfast introducing a novel Corner Shop stocked with local artisan foods, an extremely useful service for smaller producers and shoppers seeking genuinely local food.

Many of those involved in such initiatives are also Taste of Ulster members.

Interestingly, an initiative for redundant chefs and aspiring hospitality entrepreneurs has been developed by two experienced marketers, Ryan Crown and Ema O’Kane, in the novel Hill Street Hatch in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, once the city’s hospitality and entertainment hub.

Hill Street Hatch offers individual chefs and entrepreneurs an attractive space in which to create convenience food in particular and sell to the public through the hatch in Hill Street.  It aims to become a food innovation hub which can be used on a short-term basis to try out and develop new ideas.Belfast certainly needs such a hub.

Another interesting project is the Lagan Street Food Market that’s planned for Drumbo Park outside Belfast which will focus on our street food sector.

The sector’s fight for survival merits an action plan from the Executive that will encourage entrepreneurs to get up and running as quickly as practicable when it’s deemed safe to do so.

The main components of such a plan should be action on rates, the long-term retention of VAT at nine percent, speedy implementation of licensing reform and funding to enable companies to get going again. Northern Ireland – and our high streets in particular – needs a vibrant and ambitious hospitality infrastructure.