Letter to the Chancellor & Prime Minister (October 2020)

Prime Minister and Chancellor.  I wrote to you back in March about the situation that Lunya, and Elaine and I personally, were in – and in fact pretty much every restaurant and small business in the country. I cried writing that letter, I was so scared, angry, frustrated and ashamed at the time.

This sort of thing doesn’t make me cry any more (actually that’s not true as I blubbed on TV this week).  Too much has happened.  I’ve become battle-hardened. I never thought that we would get through lockdown; by rights we were odds-on not to.  Out of cash, huge current liabilities, and enormous debt.  But thanks to the incredible support of our vast number of customers, our own diversification and rapid response in providing take-away meals, frozen meal delivery and national online sales from our deli, and thanks too (at the time) to some great targeted support from the government, we have. 

Our debt is bigger, but if we can trade normally, it’s manageable; apart from landlords and lenders, we don’t owe a penny (but that debt is well in excess of half a million pounds).  Up to date on all of our supplier payments. However, the cost of that has been tremendous.  We had to close our very successful site in Manchester as the losses in a city where the area where we were is deserted.  The constant worry and the anxiety that this induces is hard to capture.  I’m sure it’s no different to running the country, but nonetheless, at times we feel close to collapse on a personal and business level.

When we reopened in July, we did so by far exceeding all of the Covid-safe requirements. We have maintained that, always being one step ahead, ensuring that we have as safe a place as possible for our staff and guests.  In fact, since we reopened, we have had 10,000 people though our doors. We have not had one single instance of staff sickness or any report of any customers with Covid symptoms, despite being in the UK’s hot-spot for COVID infections.  We knew that if people felt safe and secure, they would come.  We know that our food, drink and service draw people in, but that isn’t enough these days, rightly, people need to very safe, and the sensible ones vote with their feet if they don’t – as it should be. 

We had a great July, would have had a great August anyway, but it was spectacular with Eat Out to Help Out, September at the start was mostly good, but each additional restriction put in place and government advisory has been like a nail in the coffin each time.  Like every other restaurant, I imagine, after the impact of the last lockdown and caution since, reserves are a flight of fancy.  We live from day to day.  A contributory furlough and Job support Scheme is unaffordable.  Just to give you an idea of why.  Our Albert Dock restaurant, Lunyalita, took £168 and £198 on Monday and Tuesday.  Our wage bill for those very few staff working on those two days was £462 per day (that is our minimum that we can safely trade with).  On Saturday, we have 1 table of 2 booked so far.  The ability to contribute is not there. We cannot survive like this.

A small family-owned independent business like ours has paid all of our taxes.  We don’t have a single off-shore account.  We are proud of paying our taxes (around £8M in the 10 years we have been open); they pay for all of the vital public services that we want to personally receive and want every other citizen to receive, too. We also know our staff (they are more than colleagues), we know that when we have to do short time working or lay-off or redundancy that (names are changed), Paul and his wife, with two young children, and a mortgage to pay,  will quickly get into arrears and he has no savings (you don’t have savings in our industry with the wages that are paid). Alice, who has just taken out a new tenancy, will immediately default on her rent payment and likely lose her accommodation. Freya who has 2 children and just moved into a bigger house to accommodate her growing family, will also likely lose her house, and be unable to get another on in the area they are living and probably her young children will need to move schools.

It really hurts to know that decisions we may have to take will have that impact.  We can say it’s not our fault, but it will be our active decision.  That doesn’t make it easier, it makes us profoundly sad and ashamed if it comes to that.

We are fighters.  We know we have a successful and profoundly viable business, if we are allowed to trade.  We know that we are safe, too.  3 months of evidence from 10,000 people tell us that.  We know that our guests are far more at risk on the bus or train coming into town and sitting with people not wearing facemasks, or going into the supermarket opposite, where they still do not enforce the face-mask rule.  Yet they are still open and trading without any restrictions. We are constantly evolving and adapting (we now do frozen meals and cook-at-home tapas packs delivered all over the UK, our online deli has been hugely enhanced and we now do hot take away tapas and paella (all new innovations for us – what small businesses do best) and it seems to be working in generating additional revenue – but it comes nowhere near what we are losing in revenue with additional restrictions.

To preserve jobs, our industry needs a non-contributory job support scheme, especially for when we are partially open and trying all of these innovations that you are encouraging or if the restaurant is fully closed (which is looking more likely and necessary), as we will still be trying to do something which is permitted and providing charitable meals.

  • We have supported and wholeheartedly implemented every government restriction, whether we thought they were right, or irrespective of the financial damage they would cause our business
  • We have always willingly and proudly paid every penny of tax due from our business. We know only too well the importance of taxation to ensure the public services we need and the fair society we believe in
  • We have done everything to protect jobs, including taking financial risks that were unimaginable a year ago – personally, our jobs are not on the line, our whole lives are
  • We know we cannot go on like this, the current support for all hospitality businesses (and all of those in the supply chain) are not fit for purpose
    • £3000 grant a month if we close to cover monthly fixed costs (ie. they’re there whether we are open or not) of over £80,000, come on, respectfully, who are you kidding?
    • A Job Support Scheme that is both inadequate in terms of financially what it offers and so inflexible in terms of how it offers that it penalises us if we try and innovate and partially open for the likes of take-aways and online business. In our industry, where Tronc (tips) is excluded from earnings calculations), it is not 67% of normal wages that our staff would get under the new scheme but under 50%. We are responsible and caring employers, but we cannot bridge that gap when our trading is only 25% of what it normally is.
    • No support whatsoever to help commercial tenants and landlords.  We have not paid any rent since March (we need to pay that back).  Tens of thousands of hospitality and retail businesses are in the same position.  High streets can be thriving again, but not without the support.  Businesses will be gone and property will be repossessed eventually.  This is a glaring hole from day one of the government’s strategy.
    • The borrowing that we had when we entered the first lockdown has left us vulnerable.  Some lenders have been fantastic in their support to name a few, Bibby, Grenke, Kingsway Asset Management.  Others have been utter sharks, terminating our whole agreement, demanding payment, imposing penalties (around 30%) and threatening activating personal guaranties) – in fact there is only one, Nucleus Commercial Finance.  Astonishingly, they have been approved for your government backed CBIL loans – is this how you want your approved lenders to behave when they cannot pay because of government restrictions – we had perfect payment records until COVID. The £250K limit for personal security on CBILs is far too low now restriction have been in place for 7 months.  It might have worked to cover the last lockdown, it is nowhere near enough now.

But here is some clear and simple help that you could put in place to enable us to pay another £8M (or more if need be) tax in the next 10 years (that is what we have paid over the last 10 years) to help the country recover:

  • A non-contributory Job Support Scheme targeted at industries that are either closed or their trading is close to it
  • A rent furlough scheme – we have not paid rent since March to either of our landlords.  They are good helpful landlords, but they cannot cope with out this income.  The debt has not been written off, and we may have to pay it back (we’re negotiating that right now); but our trading in the next few years is unlikely to generate the revenues to be able to do that. Our landlords are funds that probably many people’s pension funds are invested in, so everyone is a victim in this situation.  Government support that contributes to rent during restrictions, plus sharing the pain between tenant and landlord seems like a fair and reasonable way forward, and one which will save businesses, jobs and potential runs on banks when landlords default on borrowing
  • Targeting support at businesses that do not avoid tax.  If you have an off-shore account, you don’t get financial support.  There’s only one reason you have an off-shore account and that is to avoid tax
  • Targeting support at businesses that have not enriched shareholders with dividends in recent years, or currently.  If dividends have been paid, let those businesses ask their shareholders to contribute first, before public help.  That will enable support to be targeted at small independent businesses that don’t have recourse to other funds
  • Ensure that Insurance companies do the right thing. We had pandemic and business cover – they are refusing to pay out

Back in March and April, we believed everything that you said.  That you’d be there for us, that you’d do everything it takes.  We had to as there was no alternative.  We know that the government has done a lot.  We wouldn’t be here without the help. Now is the time to intensify and target that support. The hospitality industry has become a vital cog in the country’s prosperity.  In Liverpool, in particular, I believe that we are the region’s biggest employer.  Without Lunya and other restaurants, people will come less into city centres to shop, leisure pursuits, work or visit.  The knock-on of hospitality failure is huge.

So please  do more for small businesses in particular and act quickly, especially make sure support matches the current reality of restrictions and get in place for when restrictions apply.  The time lag of support after restrictions are in place cause untold anxiety and some businesses to go under. Otherwise, it is death by attrition for our industry.  It was hard enough to close our restaurant in Manchester, we really hope that our other restaurants don’t become other victims to COVID. 60 people’s livelihoods depend on it. If Lunya goes under, not only do we lose our business, but we lose our house and will become bankrupt.  We don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest.

Lastly, other ways you can help.

Peter & Elaine Kinsella

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