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Alex Rushmer says Cambridge restaurant Vanderlyle may not reopen this year due to Covid-19 crisis

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Chef Alex Rushmer has said he will not be opening his Cambridge restaurant Vanderlyle for the foreseeable future because it is a “gamble” he cannot take.

He said there had been “zero government guidance” for the hospitality sector so far, warned there was “no support network” and was concerned by challenges around track and trace protocols should a diner test positive for Covid-19.

Lawrence Butler and Alex Rushmer, right, at Vanderlyle in Mill Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lawrence Butler and Alex Rushmer, right, at Vanderlyle in Mill Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

Vanderlyle opened in Mill Road on April 3, 2019. It served its final dishes on March 14, 2020, before Covid-19 lockdown measures meant it could not reopen.

It has, however, been able to operate a takeaway service - #vanderlyletogo.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the government gave the green light for restaurants and pubs to reopen in July 4, with social distancing measures in place.

But Mr Rushmer, a 2010 Masterchef finalist, wrote on his blog: “I make no judgments on those who choose to open at the earliest possible opportunity.

“But our own approach is going to be more cautious. Vanderlyle will not be open for business as usual at the start of July. Currently, I don’t know what the odds are of us being open again before the start of next year.”

The government has said two metre social distancing should be maintained where possible, but is allowing this to reduce to one metre with mitigating measures, such as masks or shields, where that is impossible.

But Mr Rushmer said the “continued prevarication” over the distance “serves only to confuse the issues at hand”.

“Make no mistake: halving the social distancing measures will not halve the difficulties that we will all face when we reopen,” he wrote.

He said he lacked confidence in the government’s ability to negotiate a successful exit from the current crisis.

And noting how the easing of lockdown measures in Florida, Germany and Beijing had led to a rise in infections, he added: “With no guidance about how to reopen safely and no support network if lockdown measures need to be ratcheted up again, reopening a small independent restaurant becomes a gamble I cannot make.”

One big challenge that venues could face is how to handle a confirmed case among its customers.

A diner who displays symptoms or tests positive and informs the restaurant could lead to a further enforced closure.

“This should mean a mandatory two-week shutdown for the restaurant to prevent any further spread,” said Mr Rushmer. “The prospect of taking reservations, stocking a kitchen, preparing a menu, calling staff back from furlough and reopening, only to have to close again at a moment’s notice is truly terrifying.”

Alex Rushmer at Vanderlyle
Alex Rushmer at Vanderlyle

With margins already tight at restaurants, and the inevitable reduced capacity - as well as the potential of reduced demand - Mr Rushmer also predicted significant financial challenges for restaurants.

“Margins have been squeezed to breaking point over the last few years and even at full capacity it can be fearsomely difficult to break-even,” he wrote. “I would be surprised if there was a single restaurateur in the country that has forecast at 30-50 per cent capacity and been anything other than ashen-faced at the outcome. It is not a business model that works.”

He said he understood the eagerness to return to a world in which people can enjoy a relaxing meal with friends at a restaurant, with great food, wine and customer service.

But he asked: “Can all this be done from behind perspex screens, gloved and masked and incessantly worried about finances or whether or not the restaurant will have to close for two weeks because of a single phone call?

“For now - for me - the answer is no, it can’t.”

Post-lockdown, Cambridge will also be without Cotto, the fine dining restaurant at The Gonville Hotel.

Chef Hans Schweitzer, and his partner Ruth Butler, who have run the restaurant for three years, said it was not possible to operate it alongside the hotel’s other dining service amid social distancing and legal restrictions, as the Cambridge Independent has reported.

Read more

Cotto restaurant will not reopen at The Gonville Hotel in Cambridge, putting 36 staff at risk

Pubs, restaurants and hairdressers among those to reopen as Covid-19 lockdown restrictions ease

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