In a new series, The Fence hears from young industry leaders as to how their business is bearing up under the Coronavirus. First up is Daniel Willis, co-founder of The Clove Club, Luca and Two Lights.

We closed on Tuesday 17th March. It’s a date I’ll never forget. Not being able to be there, to reassure any of the team, or even to talk to them in person, was one of the most upsetting moments I can remember. It was up there with the last few days of my Stepmum’s life in the hospice.

The run up to the corona-apocalypse was particularly crazy for me. That week included: a trip to Copenhagen to give a speech for Mad Symposium, a dinner at Noma, our Luca and Quo Vadis collaboration dinner, then a double DJ gig: The Laughing Heart on Friday, Brilliant Corners on Saturday. It was an amazing week. Retrospectively, it was almost as if the iCalendar Gods had a hand in it.

It was the next Monday that it really began. We realised that we had to close all three restaurants. A further source of exasperation was that I was ill. With a temperature of 38’, a cough, subsequent night sweats and the worst muscle ache I had ever experienced. I may well have had the coronavirus myself.

I cannot emphasise how gut-wrenching it was to shutter all our businesses. The killer was that I was not able to be with my business partners Issac and Johnny to explain the whys and wherefores to our staff in person.

As soon as we made the decision, we went straight into disaster planning: how many jobs could we save, how much could we pay people and for how long? Simultaneously, WhatsApp groups were formed across the industry. Jonathan Downey was at the forefront; providing advice to all, and everyone came together to explore our options to keep our respective businesses alive.

Many of our peers immediately let go their entire teams, as they simply didn’t have the cash flow to pay anyone. Larger restaurant groups suffered the same fate, with hundreds of employees made redundant. These were people that had given them their life’s work. They weren’t the only ones. The current prediction is that a million jobs from the hospitality sector have been lost.

Had we just opened a restaurant we would have been in the same boat. Fortunately, we are in a pretty solid place financially, but we simply couldn’t afford to pay all our staff. Without help, we were going to have to make 100 of our 120 employees redundant. Our first priority was our team. We called them daily to see how we could help them. We even contacted their landlords to see if they would give them a rent holiday.

That email to the staff was the one that broke me. Reciting it to my wife, it dawned on me what a mess we were in and I burst into tears.

Over the coming days like everyone else we watched the clock until 5pm, waiting with whisky-in-hand, palms sweating, hoping and praying for good news. The first major announcement from Rishi Sunak was alright. Business interest and rates holidays and the promise of a grant – all positives – but nothing gave us any reassurance for how we could save jobs.

Then the next day came the Job Retention Scheme. Now we didn’t have to make the phone calls that we’d been dreading.

But since then it’s been hard. We considered doing a delivery service, but it wasn’t going to generate enough revenue. So, we’ve all been trying to keep busy, working on some long-distance learning. We call it the ‘University of The Clove Club’. Chefs are being given tasks: the research of whole-animal butchery, so to better them at their craft. Front of house are improving their knowledge on the history of British food.

I’ve discussed – on many occasions – the similarities between hospitality and hospitals. Doctors and waiters have so much more in common than you might think. Both roles centre around emotional labour; using your empathy to take care of people. While our core goals may be different, we look to send people away from the restaurant with memories to last a lifetime, while doctors and nurses try and keep people alive. But we are both motivated by trying to take care of people, and each other.

That’s one of the things I’ve missed the most: my restaurant family. Walking through the doors, to be greeted by smiles from colleagues, is the thing that I know I’m going to miss the most throughout social distancing.

‘What times are we living in?’

‘I can’t wait to wake up.’

‘I feel like I’m in a film I don’t want to be in.’

‘It’s just so crazy.’

‘I’ll see you on the other side.’

These are clichés, but we have all said at least one of these sentences over the last four weeks. Some of us have said every one of them on a daily basis.

It’s a scary time for all of us, but I fear particularly for restaurants. Social distancing measures could carry on for a year, maybe even two. What happens to restaurants during this time? They are places for us to be together, to share moments and celebrate life and give everyone millions of people a purpose in life. What do we do without them?