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How I'm unlocking my kosher restaurants

Restaurateur, Lee Landau, shares how Coronavirus has affected his business

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Will you be racing out to eat the minute after Shabbat ends tomorrow night? Or maybe you’ve booked a table for Sunday brunch? Lee Landau hopes so — and is optimistic that when diners are finally permitted to eat in, they’ll fill up his restaurant tables.

“Looking at Israel, when restaurants and bars opened, they were fully booked. People were fed up with being at home and wanted a change,” says the 33-year-old restaurateur.

His portfolio (run under the S-Group umbrella) includes Delicatessen; Soyo Café; Pizaza; Pita; Hot Cut and, most recently, Reubens. Lockdown has left 75 per cent of his 200-plus staff on furlough since March. “I’ve had a skeleton staff doing take-aways — a chef, a checker who boxes up the food, plus the mashgiach at each site. Normally, a larger restaurant, like Reubens would have 15 to 20 people working.”

The past few months have been tough. While many of his outlets are takeaway-friendly, the menus at Delicatessen and Reubens needed overhauling to be sufficiently portable.

The debate over social distancing for one or two metres was make-or-break. “With a two-metre separation, the number of covers [seats] in Delicatessen would fall from 45 to 20, whereas one metre only means losing five or 10 covers,” explains Landau. When the Government dropped the two-metre requirement, it made re-opening viable.

The S-Group restaurant portfolio was co-founded with business partner Elad Afnafi in early 2007, when Landau was fresh out of JFS and about to start A-levels for the second time. “I’d done well enough to go to university to study economics — but then decided I’d rather do medicine, so needed to study more,” he says.

His father, a property developer and estate agent, had met Afnafi — a chef looking for restaurant premises — and suggested his son might want to invest his barmitzvah money in Afnafi’s business “for some pocket money” during the 12 years he would be studying.

“At 18 it sounded great to have my own business, so I jumped in.” The following year, the pair opened modern pizza concept Pizaza, in Hendon. “I also studied while we ran the restaurant, but it was intense. I realised I couldn’t do both.” So he deferred for a year. “In 2010 we launched Soyo Café in Golders Green and I never went back.”

Over the next few years, they opened more branches of Pizaza; Pita — a slick falafel and shawarma bar; upmarket, Mediterranean-style Delicatessen and Hot Cut — a takeaway serving cold cuts of meat wrapped in toasted panini.

“Hot Cut has actually been busier than normal during the pandemic as it travels well. Once you toast the panini with the cold cuts, it stays hot for a long time. It’s also affordable, which is an appealing pitch in the current climate.”

He also partnered mental health charity Jami to create Headroom Café in Golders Green — a project from which he did not profit.

“Mental illness is close to my heart, as one of my best friends suffered from bipolar disorder and had committed suicide less than a year earlier.”

Most recently, he resurrected salt beef bar, Reubens — rescuing London’s West End from becoming a kosher desert.

Pre-lockdown, he had started planning to convert the site of now-defunct Flipside Burger, in Golders Green, into a three-part food court. There will be Mexican, Asian and Indian food, each from a different operator, with a shisha lounge out the front and a bar. It’s due to open later this year, although he admits the timing isn’t great.

For now, the more urgent need has been plans to come out of lockdown. “We won’t be able to lay the tables in advance, so guests will receive cutlery and glassware with their food. And menus will need to be disposable.”

Staff will be wearing visors and gloves and table layouts will be different. All diners will be asked for their contact details. Apart from that, there won’t be too much impact on their experience — the other changes will be behind the scenes.

A full-time cleaner will be required to clean toilets (potentially every 15 minutes) and to keep all surfaces constantly disinfected.

“We’ve already got 90 per cent of the measures in place, so we know what it looks like. We have two staff team bubbles at every site, so there is no cross-contamination, and if one member gets sick only that team goes down. The mashgiach wears full PPE.”

They are also hoping to increase the number of al fresco tables. “We have terraces at all of our sites, but we may be permitted to expand the table numbers in front of neighbouring shops in the evenings.”

Will prices increase? “Running costs have gone up during the pandemic. Deliveroo takes a large cut of each delivery basket plus a commission and our suppliers are also putting on pressure. Most landlords have not been lenient.

“But we’ve stripped back to reduce our costs as much as we can. If we increase our costs, it will be because we have no choice.”

This year is about survival, he says. “We won’t be taking dividends this year. We’re on thin ice and just want to avoid making a loss. I know that many of our guests are also under pressure, so we’ll only increase what we have to.”

You won’t find Landau at one of his tables this weekend. “Lord Haleem, our landlord at Reubens, noticed I’ve put on a few kilos. He has said that for every kilo I lose, he’ll reduce my rent by £1,000. But to stop me yo-yo-ing — for each kilo I gain, he’ll increase the rent by £2,000. So I’ll be at home with a lettuce leaf!”

 

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