'For us it's about survival' - How one Grassmarket restaurant owner is planning to reopen after lockdown

Pubs and restaurants will open outdoors with social distancing in the second phase of the Scottish Government's 'road map' out of lockdown, and some of Edinburgh's hard-hit independent businesses are working hard to ensure everything is ready.

Umbrellas, perspex screen table dividers, disposable menus and a Wetherspoon-style app are among the features being considered by Paul Duncan, owner of pizza restaurant Mamma's and Italian eatery O'Oliviero in the Grassmarket.

The 48-year-old hopes to reopen his business between June 18th and 22nd, subject to the rate of virus spread being kept under control in line with the Government's lockdown exit strategy.

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The outdoor space in the Grassmarket is utilised every summer.

Mr Duncan, who has been stacking shelves during night shifts in Sainsbury's for the past eight weeks to keep earning, says he hopes to bring back all 30 of his staff who were furloughed, although some have gone back to their home countries.

He said: "Our staff are genuinely excited about getting back and out of lockdown. For us it's about survival. We need to get up and running to put meat on the bones before we go back into another bleak winter.

"We need the support of local residents to support the small, indepenent businesses. We are investing our lives and souls into our business and we need them to have confidence in what we implement to ensure they are confident to dine out and are not at risk."

Practical arrangements

The eating area outside Mamma's, which could reopen in late June.

Mr Duncan, who started out as a kitchen porter at Mamma's in 1990 but has owned the restaurant since 2003 with his wife, Caitriona, says they are still working out exactly what needs to be done to make their restaurants safe to open.

He has already spoken with a glazer about glass, perspex and acrylic screens being used to divide tables both outside and inside his eateries, in time for the third phase of the Scottish Government's lockdown lifting road map.

Eight-seater picnic tables are normally used outdoors in summer but screens will be needed and smaller benches may also be used to seat more groups of people. He will also need to take account of the wind and ensure each table has a water tight canopy or umbrella and fitted heat lamps for wetter and colder days.

Glass screen walkways could be installed inside with permanent sealed glass screens between tables, which could mean reducing the two metre distance. Despite this, he expects to lose a number of the 22 tables in there just now.

A fire door would be used as an exit to ensure people coming in and out don't breach distancing. In O'Oliviero, he hopes to create an exit door through the neighbouring El Toro Loco restaurant, which he also owns but won't be reopening.

Another hurdle is to ensure access to toilet facilities while maintaining physical distances.

Mr Duncan is also in discussions with Andrew Barnett, of local brewer Barney's Beers, to use a tiny van with four beer taps as an outdoor service counter. The aim would be to prevent more than one waiter going in and out of the restaurant and crossing paths. He says the van is small enough to be stored inside at night and that a mini generator could be set up for a soft drinks fridge.

Disposable menus and napkins would be used and staff would wear full protective equipment - gloves, aprons and facemasks - and tables would be thoroughly cleaned after each use.

Both alcohol and food would be served, something which has been done successfuly in the Gramssmarket for several years under careful management.

But Mr Duncan is also hopeful of having a new "Wetherspoon-style" app system ready for use for customers to scan in a code which links them up to the till for placing orders. Mamma's explored the idea of an order app two years ago, and work is now being done by technology provider, Laspsleys Ltd, to make it happen.

Technology for contactless card payments would also be brought in to reduce risk from physical contact.

Mr Duncan is also considering a "McDonald's style" kiosk order screen but is currently waiting to see how it would fit in aesthetically with their plans.

He continued: "It's going to be a learning curve. You see with supermarkets how they have changed as the crisis went on and I think hospitality will be the same.

"The First Minister's speech was like turning on the light and seeing the end of the tunnel, and we are now at the planning stage to make sure we are fully prepared, but that light and tunnel could be longer for businesses in shaded areas with busy roads and no pavements.

"We need Edinburgh City Council and they need us. The city needs to be vibrant again and generate money but we have to be cogniscent of the risk from Covid-19 as well."

He added that, without the support of RBS, government grants and the patience of suppliers they would not be in a position to reopen.

'Radical' changes needed

Last month, the Evening News reported that business leaders in the city backed the need to explore how an open-air cafe scene in Edinburgh might work under social distancing.

Edinburgh-based licensing specialist Caroline Loudon, a partner in UK-wide law firm TLT, says much still depends on the willingness of Edinburgh City Council to make decisions on closing public roads and using public space.

Caroline, who has 15 years experience in licensing law, said there is a need for "radical" change to enable more widespread use of outdoor space for businesses.

She is calling on all licence holders to look at what outdoor spaces could potentially be utilised, including a garden or car parking space belonging to them which hasn't been previously licensed, as well as occasional licenses in public spaces like George Street which is used by cafes and restaurants during the Edinburgh Festival.

Licensing boards would also struggle to process major variations to add elements like outdoor drinking consents, which would mean the need for further legislation to try and lessen that burden.

Caroline believes outdoor licensing can be achieved but only with the will of the local authority.

She added: "Continued partnership working, pragmatism and positive outlook on what can be achieved is very much needed to save a trade which has contributed hugely to the greatness of this city.

"We’ve got to get behind them and make it work, outdoors initially and then moving indoors come phase three."