They say when entering the world of business the only thing to expect is the unexpected. Aaron Bryans, the owner of Plant Hustlers, a vegan restaurant in Bournemouth knows this all too well. With just a year of trading under his belt before the pandemic hit the North London native has had to fight hard to ensure his venue doesn’t crumble.
“You can either go into hibernation mode or risk losing a bit of money and still have a presence”, says Bryans and it is clear from his recent decision to turn his restaurant into a temporary dark kitchen he has chosen the latter.
Catering Today sits down with Bryans to find out more
What is a dark kitchen?
Dark kitchens or ghost kitchens are catering venues which solely facilitate delivery orders. The concept has really grown because it is about trying to maximise the amount of revenue you can create from one space. For example, if you have got loads of seating in your restaurant you have actually got wasted area space because you could be running more kitchens there. That is because restaurants are currently fulfilling more delivery services than they are in person dining.
So I originally created Hoke Poke as an Asian-inspired food truck – but then I moved that into my restaurant and it now runs in the bar area. We did this because it is a very simple concept and it does not require much effort to set up. That is what is great about the idea because you can create multiple incomes in a small space.
Why a vegan restaurant?
I went vegan to improve my health so I always missed eating meat. If I am being honest I don’t even like using the word vegan because it has got a stigma attached to it – when you mention it to people they assume you are boring and preachy. Today it’s not looked upon as just a food option but almost like a religion as well.
Anyway, I launched the restaurant because I was not generally impressed with the options out there for vegans. All I wanted to do was take what I believed was the best of plant based alternatives and promote them through my restaurant. We had only been trading for a year before the pandemic hit but things had been going well considering I had opened up in Boscombe one of the most deprived areas in the South West of England.
Not many businesses flourished there, however mine has done exceptionally well. Obviously this year has been a really big challenge, but up until last year we were doing really good. Last March we celebrated our first birthday with a free burger giveaway and had queues of people 100 metres down the road.
What does a typical day as a restaurant owner during the pandemic look like?
It is very difficult because you are getting hit from multiple angles. For one your sales have been severely impacted because no one is coming to your restaurant or they don’t want to because they can’t mix with family or friends. Also suppliers are only giving out limited stock because in their eyes there is no point getting a large supply in – if only one or two restaurants are open.
I am just keeping my head above water. I have also taken on opening up a Plant Hustler deli which is two doors down from the restaurant. The concept is a plant based butchers and deli and I have always had a dream of doing it. I continued to stay committed to it when Covid hit – because in my eyes it reaffirms the restaurant’s position and will promote the restaurant because people can go in there to buy our goods.
When do you think the hospitality sector will be back to normal?
I think it will be July or August before things in the hospitality sector go back to normal. There is a huge fear factor going on with people at the moment. When the second lockdown got lifted last winter I found that people were still hesitant to dine in at our restaurant. I put up a survey on Instagram asking customers why that may be and the majority voted that they are scared to dine out in case they contract coronavirus.
Usually with Veganuary business would be booming but now even if I put up promotional offers it still doesn’t even pull sales in. That is because people don’t know whether to spend or not. Right now I can’t even put a pattern on the business. For example one Friday I might be heaving with customers and not have enough chefs in to keep up with the demand – but then the following week we could be totally empty and over-staffed.
What would your advice be to anyone who wants to enter the restaurant space in 2021?
For me I am all about promoting dark brands. Forget about having a high street presence – the highstreet is done for the moment.
Since lockdown people are in a different habit mode. They say it takes two months to create a habit and people have been locked down in their houses for more than that time. So you are going to have to look at ways to facilitate that. I would recommend trying to set up home cooking kits for consumers or getting partnerships with Just Eat or Deliveroo so you can maximise your revenue.