The Delaunay restaurant in London’s Aldwych was buzzing when my family pushed opened its solid doors to celebrate Martinstag on 11 November with a dinner of goose, dumplings and red cabbage. We were immediately hit with the welcoming vibrancy of the room and atmospheric (beauty-enhancing) lighting, helped by the traditional St Martin lanterns adorning the tables.
If we’d have taken our time over dinner, we could have almost seamlessly gone straight on to breakfast, because this restaurant, along with sister sites The Wolseley in the West End and newcomer Wolseley City, which opened its doors for the first time last month, are unusual in their all-encompassing trading hours. They are pretty much open from very early breakfast right the way through to lunch, and on to afternoon tea and then dinner. They are based on the chameleon-like Viennese coffee houses that have traditionally traded all hours in Austria.
Being open all hours, trading all the various day parts, has pretty much been the holy grail for hospitality businesses, with everybody from Pret A Manger, Starbucks and Greggs over the years looking to broaden their hours beyond their recognised core trading periods. It’s the route through which to sweat those expensive real estate assets. But things are changing, and a new approach is being taken up by a growing number of operators. They are being much more selective about their opening times, which does not leave their employees sweating quite so much.
Trading times very much came under the microscope during covid-19, when even the likes of Le Gavroche decided to curtail lunch service as filling staff vacancies became a much bigger challenge, and there was an unwillingness by Michel Roux Jr to overwork the existing team. The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated the situation, as managing the outgoings when trading levels are under pressure has become vitally important and a crucial aspect of survival for many businesses.
There is also the factor of the working week changing and reduced commuting activity in favour of working-from-home, which is resulting in more hospitality operators choosing to open later in the morning, and maybe bringing the shutters down earlier in the evening. According to UKHospitality, as many as 37% of its members are reducing their opening hours, and 22% have cut back on the days they open.
This is reflective of the evolution of high streets in general as retailers are also cutting their opening hours, according to the Local Data Company, which found banks and supermarkets at the forefront of this having reduced their hours by the most, by an average of 8% between 2020 and 2023.
Lucy Stainton, commercial director at the LDC, says: “As the cost-of-living crisis hit, the reality for many businesses is that it’s more cost effective to trade for fewer hours, especially high energy businesses such as pubs.” It is now some years since it was pretty much a guarantee that pubs would be open from 11am. There was something reassuring about this, but in reality, today it’s a largely pointless and very expensive exercise. Many pubs, even in the suburbs of London, don’t open their doors until into the afternoon.
This is very much the case with the micro-pubs that have sprung up around the country over the last decade or so. The owners have often been the sole employee, so opening hours have tended to be focused purely on their peak periods. These compact pubs have also often been run as lifestyle businesses.
I can recall speaking with the original licensee of The Conqueror Alehouse in Kent, who set himself the modest target of earning twice what he would receive if he was on unemployment benefit (and to also keep things below the VAT level) when he opened his 25 square-metre pub in Ramsgate, with seating for a mere 15 people. At the time, he told me: “It has easily exceeded that, but you’ll never be a millionaire. However, it’s a very nice, pleasant life, as it is just like having your mates around for a beer.”
From the likes of the tiny Conqueror pub, with its maximum capacity of 23, to the vast Delaunay dining room, which can do 350 covers for dinner, there is an evaluation taking place over the opening hours required for optimum effectiveness. The days of only aspiring towards rigid open-all-hours approaches are gone, and instead, businesses need to better tailor their trading times to new customer behaviours, underlying market economics, and the work-life balance of both owners and employees.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.