Wahaca owner warns two million jobs will be lost without a lifeline for restaurants

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Rescue plan: MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers is joining in calls for Government help


MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers is spinning a lot of plates. Between running her Wahaca restaurant chain in lockdown and fighting off a mild case of coronavirus, she’s become a figurehead of her industry’s last-ditch attempt to save itself from a bloodbath that could wipe out two million jobs. 

Tomorrow, Miers and 12 fellow chief executives from high street brands including Burger King, pub chain Fuller’s and TGI Fridays will make a final plea for Government aid in a letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak. 

The hospitality industry supports 4.5 million jobs and contributes £130 billion to the British economy each year – more than the aviation, car and pharmaceutical sectors combined. 

Rescue plan: MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers is joining in calls for Government help

If the plea to the Government falls on deaf ears, the campaigners say around half of Britain’s hospitality businesses, which are scrabbling to pay rents with no income while all restaurants are closed, could go bust. 

‘Our industry has been hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, and it will be the last to recover,’ says Miers, who has closed her 28 Wahaca and DF Mexico restaurants across the UK and furloughed 1,000 staff.

‘If nothing is done, we are talking about 50 per cent of these businesses going under, and two million jobs will be lost. The impact of all those millions of people losing their jobs would be catastrophic for human lives, and equally catastrophic for the economy.’ 

Carluccio’s, Chiquito and the Mark Hix restaurant chain are the biggest Covid-19 casualties in the industry so far. Insiders say dozens more brands are ‘dead men walking’, and are clinging on until they hear whether the Government throws them a lifeline. 

Under the new rescue plans, drawn up by entrepreneur Jonathan Downey in consultation with commercial landlords, businesses forced to close by social distancing rules would receive a nine-month rent-free period until January. 

In return, landlords would be exempt from the repayments on their bank loans for the same period. Unlike bailouts from other sectors, the proposals – called A National Time Out – wouldn’t cost the taxpayer any more money. 

Downey calls the plan, which Miers is supporting, ‘business sorting things out for itself’. It just needs the Government to enact the legislation to allow it. The scheme is unlikely to be warmly received by the most hard-line commercial landlords, who have hired lawyers to keep rents rolling in during lockdown. 

But Miers says if landlords don’t share the pain now, they won’t have any tenants left to fill their premises in nine months’ time. Just two of her firm’s landlords – Shaftesbury and Derwent, both in Central London – have so far agreed to a rent holiday. 

‘Landlords have to accept they are going to lose something in line with their tenants,’ she says. 

‘We need to come together to work out a solution that doesn’t create a bloodbath in the hospitality sector.’ 

Because industry margins were already threadbare before the crisis, she also believes it would be ‘disastrous’ for chains to reopen until they know they can trade profitably. 

‘None of us feel we will be back to normal in six months’ time,’ she says.

‘A nine-month rent-free window would give businesses a chance to work out how they can get back up and running safely and successfully, and assess how the vaccine situation develops.’ 

Taste in TV: Thomasina's Netflix favourites include Sex Education (pictured)

Taste in TV: Thomasina’s Netflix favourites include Sex Education (pictured)

LOCKDOWN FOR THOMASINA, 44 

Family: Married to Mark, a fund manager at Liontrust, with three children aged nine, seven and three. 

Lives: West London. 

Lockdown routine: ‘I’ve been doing a lot of cooking, such as baking sourdough bread, and if I’m feeling tense I go for a walk or a run. We do our park visit with the children after lunch, or go for a family cycle ride through the streets, which are blissfully quiet. The lockdown has turned me into a 1950s housewife. I’ve tidied the larder, it’s now immaculate.’ 

Lockdown streaming: Watching streamed opera, or the Netflix series Sex Education.

Lockdown reading: Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World, by Carolyn Steel. 

Miers co-founded Wahaca, a Mexican street food chain, 14 years ago after winning the first series of Masterchef and has already weathered ‘horrendous business rates’, ‘rocketing rents’ and increases to the Living Wage. 

Coronavirus, though, is the toughest test yet. The social distancing imposed to tackle the spread of the disease kills the ‘conviviality’ of restaurants and bars, she says. How can a waiter pour wine from two metres away, she wonders – or customers enjoy a pint served from behind a Perspex screen?

Miers initially considered keeping her sites open for takeaway and delivery when the lockdown was enforced last month but decided it wasn’t safe. ‘In terms of maintaining social distancing and looking after our staff, we got nervous and decided as a business to shut it all down,’ she says. 

A link-up with Deliveroo, launched five months ago, has also been put on hold. This week, some furloughed Wahaca staff will start cooking for NHS workers in ten ICU units in London, through the volunteer Cook-19 scheme backed by chef Angela Hartnett. 

‘I’ve got all these empty kitchens and chefs who really want to help, saying ‘Who can we cook for?’,’ Miers says. 

Miers is a fierce champion of healthy eating and backs a charity that provides nutritious food for key workers and children on free school meals. She calls the poor quality of food in hospitals, schools and prisons a ‘modern scandal’. 

She adds: ‘It is a national disgrace that we value food and health so badly that even NHS staff can’t get access to proper meals. I would really love that to be addressed when we come out of this crisis.’ 

When Miers came down with suspected coronavirus a few weeks ago, she lost her sense of smell and taste – ‘that was really awful for a chef’ – but recovered after a few days in bed with exhaustion and a headache. 

She believes healthy eating helped her fight the virus and hopes the pandemic will inspire people to think more about where their food comes from. 

She says: ‘This is a chance to think more about how much we are prepared to pay for our food, because it costs a lot to grow – particularly if you are looking after the soil and the environment. We have to value our farmers more, and we have to pay them a proper wage, a fair living, because they are feeding us.’ 

Once the pandemic is over, it is uncertain how long social distancing restrictions will remain in place, or how a heavy blow to the economy this year will lead to fewer people eating out. 

Miers is adamant, though, that the Government cannot allow the ‘unsung heroes’ of the economy to fail. ‘We are an industry that matters,’ she says. ‘We are brilliant in getting people on a ladder of work. To make two million people unemployed would be a tragedy.’

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