By Emma Bricknell, restaurant owner
The welcome re-opening of hospitality after long, depressing months is something everyone in the sector has been longing for but the government needs to back us after such a tough time.
I have had to take seriously the impact on my business, and will be changing the brand of all my Made in Belfast restaurants, starting in Hill Street with the rebrand of my steakhouse grill restaurant into Prawnagraphic offering fresh, fun, seafood.
Some of the aid from Stormont is indeed welcomed as financially some of the packages were good. But the fact that it has just been a case of that you can get on a plane in close proximity to others, there’s a tent in Cathedral Quarter with a film crew drinking and eating but yet we still have to socially distance. The rules and regulations are simply not consistent.
I think, unfortunately, hospitality is one of the industries that has been hardest hit by the inconsistencies of regulations.
However, there are some relatively simple steps that the Executive Office can take by way of support and everyone in the hospitality sector would happily work with ministers in partnership.
We need better licensing laws, cheaper licensing, longer hours, better Sunday trading hours, access to outside street spaces, pedestrianisation of streets and much more.
These, collectively, would make a difference right away as we look to the long term recovery from the pandemic.
In addition we need more clarity on Brexit so we have access to goods and items that we need to sell.
We need more people to come into this country and work here because we have such a shortage in staff. We had no choice but to restructure the business. Many staff didn’t tell us they were moving on until the last minute leaving us with three restaurants and not enough staff to open. I had to make a hard decision, which of the restaurants would open and how.
There’s no chefs right now, we are 600,000 short in hospitality across the UK and the government should be taking action on that. We are struggling with chefs. But we also intend to turn it round for our new brands.
Hospitality is a massive part of our tourism industry and if they don’t help us it will have an effect on the whole economy of the country.
With the fantastic job being done by the health and social care teams in delivering the vaccination programme we should be looking at our road map to reviving Northern Ireland.
Yes, there are many priorities such as reducing hospital waiting lists, but what I am suggesting will not have a major economic cost to the government. Indeed, the rates and taxes that it generates when we return to normal trading will benefit the government in the long run.
With my new restaurant Prawnagraphic, the ethos is short, sweet and fun and out quickly. I would like ministers to adopt that approach with the sector, short not lengthy decision-making, sweet rather than confrontational, fun for all involved collaborating, and the results out quickly to make an impact.
No longer should we see apparently arbitrary rules like having food huts that can do coffee but not soup. No longer should we see the ridiculous decision that allows live music in churches but not in pubs and restaurants.
We are willing to do our bit in the recovery of Northern Ireland, the question is, are our politicians willing to work with us?