I always said that the day I woke up and was no longer excited to get into the kitchen was the day I would retire. That moment came last December after a pleasant day drinking – sorry, ‘tasting’ – Champagne in London.
My wife Sue had wanted to retire for some time. Fair enough, given she only originally agreed to help out with the restaurant temporarily, and ended up doing 21 years hard labour. Once I informed her, by text (it was a long lunch) that it was all over (the restaurant, I quickly added, not our marriage) we started planning for life in retirement.
We told our family on Christmas Eve, and our staff immediately after Christmas, to give them three months’ notice. Then, as soon as we announced it on social media in January, the bookings went mad – 4,000 in the first few days. We decided to stay open a bit longer, and also on Sundays, to try and accommodate everyone before we finally closed our doors.
In those few weeks, The Harrow was the busiest it has ever been. Diners were raiding our cellars for those special wines that had always been on their wish list. Turnover doubled, and we were working 16-hour days, seven days a week. It was surreal to say goodbye for the last time to so many customers, some of whom had been coming to us for 20 years.
Then, just like that, everything changed – but not in the way I’d imagined. When COVID-19 hit, it soon became clear that having a full restaurant was putting people at risk. Having increased our numbers of covers to 40 to meet demand, we had to reduce capacity down to 18 before finally closing completely – and for good – on Friday 20 March, disappointing 350 customers who had booked in for our final days.
We paid all our staff fully until the end of March, along with their redundancy packages, and happily all of them managed to secure new employment. Our longest-serving employee, John Brown, had been with us for over 20 years, starting as a kitchen porter aged 17 and ending up as our Head Chef. He always said that when The Harrow shut he would change direction; he’s now working in landscaping, at English wine producer Coates & Seeley in Hampshire.
It wasn’t quite how I had wanted to finish. And when we saw what was happening in the world, I started wondering what we could do to help. We still had plenty of stock in the kitchens, so we started making free, ready-to-heat meals for the vulnerable in our community who couldn’t afford – or get to – the local Waitrose. This we will continue until at least August, working with local medics and taxi services to identify and deliver to those who need it most.
There had to be parameters, of course. I drew the line at the woman in a local mansion who, it transpired, merely wanted to lay on a dinner party but couldn’t be bothered to cook. Mind you, she wasn’t alone in wanting to eat well in lockdown. We were inundated with requests for (paid) takeaway dishes but I was conscious we’d be taking custom from local pubs and restaurants, so we reluctantly declined. Instead, after having a conversation with my lobster supplier and my prime day-boat, line-caught fish guy, I had another idea.
It was evident these guys were struggling – my lobster man, isolated on the West Wales coast with the restaurant trade dead, literally had no customers. So I decided to set up a Friday fish service. I started off offering whole sea bass, turbot and dover sole, but then I started getting more and more lavish requests, notably for prepared shellfish. So we introduced dressed crab (which I buy live, then cook and pick myself) and dressed lobster; this week we put Lobster Thermidor on the menu, which sounded crazy. We took orders for 90 halves, requiring another 6am start and 10pm finish to prepare them; we ended up doing more business than we had on a typical Friday night in the restaurant.
My plan in retirement was to do some work – not for the money, but to keep busy and pursue new ideas. I had become a contributor to The-Buyer.net, was judging at the IWSC and other wine competitions, and had set myself up as a marketing consultant, advising organisations such as Vins d’Alsace on why promoting Grand Cru Muscat with foie gras and saucisson doesn’t really work in the UK.
My son is staying with us during lockdown, and he’s a professional video producer, so he suggested now was a good time to try some filming. He came up with a plan for some quick and easy cookery videos for Instagram (@rogerjoneslittlebedwyn) and on the Harrow at Little Bedwyn’s old Facebook account. They’re three-minute clips that take around three hours of filming. It’s paid off though – we had a call from a friend who runs a global recruitment company and wanted to keep his clients engaged in lockdown. He suggested a live Zoom cookery-and-wine-chat show; the first one went live to the US and UK, and we’ve now rolled it out as a package to other companies.
I’m discovering a lot in lockdown. Those of you who know The Harrow will know we had an extensive wine list – over 1,000 bins with many verticals. We also had plenty of stock left, so I decided to do a little experiment. One Sunday night, I put our collection of Felton Road up for sale on social media; by midday on the Monday we’d sold over £8,000 worth.
Social media is going to be huge in the recovery of the drinks industry. My little Tweet on Felton Road showed me its power. I’m now looking at working with a major auction house to sell my collections of Viña Tondonia (going back to 1910) and Krug at one of their online auctions.
So retirement hasn’t really kicked in yet. As for Sue, her days are now spent as chief kitchen porter, dealing with all the book-keeping and making scrubs for local NHS workers. The dedication of National Health Service staff is incredible. Nurses and doctors have one thing in mind – the care of their client. Out of every disaster come learnings, and those of us in the hospitality industry need to adopt the same principal and look at ways to rebuild and help each other rather than ignoring the issues and feeling sorry for ourselves. There are no rules anymore – we’re all trying to learn, and things are moving quickly. It’s not so much survival of the fittest but the survival of humankind.