Restaurant Christmas bookings ‘completely empty’ as bosses wonder if they’ll make it to Easter

Torri Donley

Restaurants in Wales say their Christmas bookings are “completely empty”, with one boss saying she wakes up feeling sick and questioning whether they’ll make it to Easter. The well-regarded Cardiff city centre restaurant Bar 44 said it usually expects around 400 covers a day when the Christmas season is in […]

Restaurants in Wales say their Christmas bookings are “completely empty”, with one boss saying she wakes up feeling sick and questioning whether they’ll make it to Easter.

The well-regarded Cardiff city centre restaurant Bar 44 said it usually expects around 400 covers a day when the Christmas season is in full swing but this year it has taken no bookings at all.

The hospitality industry has taken a hammering through 2020 and is still waiting to see if businesses will again be forced to shut if the Welsh Government follows Scotland’s lead in insisting that pubs and restaurants reduce hours or close altogether.

Existing restrictions already mean the numbers of people able to visit restaurants and pubs are already severely curtailed, with rules making it impossible to visit a restaurant or pub indoors with anyone who doesn’t live with you.

Bar 44 director Natalie Isaac said the December diary would by now be packed with office gatherings, friends’ outings and big groups.

“All the key dates would normally be full by now but they are completely empty,” she said, adding that she wakes up each day feeling sick about what they’ll have to cope with next.

“We’ve had enquiries for large groups but we’re obviously not able to take those bookings, or deposits. Christmas pays for us to trade in January and February when there’s not much trade. So if you don’t have a bumper Christmas there’s that question whether anyone in the industry will make it through to Easter.”

She added that even if the one household rule was revoked and local lockdowns lifted, this still wouldn’t help during party season.

“When we were first allowed to reopen we were allowed up to tables of six with an extended household of four,” she said.

“Now we’re allowed tables of up to six people with one household. Either one of those is a problem because you don’t go to Christmas parties with your household. You go with your friends or work colleagues.”

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Natalie said that the restaurant group’s Cardiff trade – which covers Bar 44 on Westgate Street and Asador 44 on nearby Quay St – has dropped by about 90% as the city centre has been ‘decimated’. The group, which was having a ‘great’ year before March and had grown each year since their creation 18 years ago, is now ‘hamstrung’ by debt for the first time ever, she saids.

“The phrase ‘viable businesses’ keeps coming up and it is soul destroying because we were really viable. I wake up, I feel sick every morning,” said Natalie, who is a member of the Welsh Independent Restaurant Collective which has been in discussions with the Welsh Government on hospitality issues.

“Days are full of fighting fires and trying to make sense of what to do next. With the curfew announcement and the local lockdowns, no one could have anticipated what that meant. And what it meant was a 90% drop in our trade, which makes us not really able to cover our fixed costs.”

Asador 44 and Bar 44’s staff’s hours were slashed and Natalie added that she had to lay off the cleaning company to ensure staff had work to do.

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For the party venues that are usually packed out at Christmas, social distancing and lockdowns are not the only problem, with companies are tightening their belts too.

“A lot of companies that funded Christmas parties are going through tough times themselves. All unnecessary expenditure is cancelled,” said Natalie who added that the group are looking at different ways to make their offerings available to customers at Christmas via online shopping and deliveries.

“So it’s not just about the social distancing. Nobody’s wanting to go on public transport, offices aren’t going back. We’ve been asked by some offices to do virtual parties, those who have always had parties with us before but the budgets are probably about one-twentieth of what they were before.”



a group of people standing in a room: The Philharmonic in Cardiff is another popular venue for Christmas parties


© WalesOnline/Rob Browne
The Philharmonic in Cardiff is another popular venue for Christmas parties

Nearby, Nick Newman at The Philharmonic bar is also worried, though they do have provisional bookings in place.

“Believe it or not we do have bookings but they are provisional, people who come year after year,” said Nick.

“At the moment it doesn’t look like they are going to be able to come in with the different households not allowed.”

Nick said the pub has had enquiries about Christmas dinners and buffets and though they are pencilled in the diary, no deposits have been taken.

“Should things change we’ll go back to them to make further arrangements,” he said.

“I’m worried about all the businesses in the city centre. You have to take it one day at a time. You get your doors open, put your best face on and you greet every customer who comes in with a smile. I am personally thanking every customer who comes in at the moment – that’s the ball park we’re in.”

Nick added that they usually have up to 70% of Christmas bookings in the diary by the end of July but this year it’s more like 10%.

“I’ve been pulling together some percentage decline figures for a meeting and there are businesses that are 50-70% down on the year to date,” said Nick, adding that Christmas trade makes up a huge bulk of annual sales for the hospitality industry. 

“There are businesses closed, ones with reduced hours and there looks like there are several more on the way.”

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Nick added that the industry is held to high standards and they should expect the same from those who create and implement the rules.

“The Welsh Government, the police and everybody else, they demand of us accuracy in what we do – by way of distancing, test and trace and everything else – and we are entitled to demand the same of them,” he said.

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