Waterside Inn: Reopening in the New Normal (July 2020)

The Waterisde Inn, Three Michelin Stars, Bray, Berkshire

During WWII, growing up in a room above their grandfather’s charcuterie, brothers Michel and Albert Roux were to embark on a culinary journey that would revolutionize the top end dining scene in Britain.  Having travelled on separate paths in the early stages of their careers, the brothers were to reunite to open Le Gavroche in 1967 and five years later launch The Waterside Inn, the latter on the site of a former pub on the idyllic banks of the Thames in affluent Bray, Berkshire. 

Both of these restaurants were to become gastronomic institutions, each climbing to three Michelin Stars. In the mid 1980s the pair were to separate the businesses with Albert continuing to focus on Le Gavroche and Michel take The Waterside Inn.  Today, Michel Roux Jnr has succeeded his father Albert at Le Gavroche while Michel’s son Alain is chef patron of The Waterside Inn.

Chef Patron Alain Roux

Since 2002, Alain Roux progressively took over from his father and is proud that The Waterside Inn has retained that ultimate Michelin accolade for 35 years, a feat unmatched by any restaurant outside of France. One of only five in Great Britain and Ireland, the current other holders are Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.  The Waterside Inn is the first of these to open and offer their brand of top end dining in the ‘new normal’.

Aged 78, Michel Roux Snr passed away in March 2020, a matter of weeks before lockdown, from an illness unrelated to the pandemic. Alain reflects, “he lived an amazing life and he would have found the experience of the pandemic over the last few months really difficult. In particular, the implications for the hospitality industry that he loved so dearly, would have hurt him deeply.”

From the start of lockdown there was a pause when nobody could predict the future.  Staff were furloughed (except for a few in back office and maintenance). “It was ‘if’ we would reopen rather than ‘when’ or ‘how,’” says Waterside Inn Head Chef Fabrice Uhryn.  Gradually contacts in other countries like France were able to shed some light on expectations of guidelines and their implications. Kitchen and front of house staff were kept in touch via phone or Zoom.

Waterside Inn GM, Frederic Poulette, was participating on forums of restaurant GMs which met each Wednesday – the objective was to share knowledge on how to apply their individual needs to the potential and existing guidelines.  “We had to have a plan A and a plan B, one for 2m distancing and one for 1m+; we also had a Plan B minus which thankfully we have not yet needed,” explains Frederic. “I had never done a risk assessment before and for the sum of all the parts of the business it was a daunting undertaking,” he adds.

Fast forward to July and what does the experience look like to a guest in the ‘new normal’?

Waterside Inn, Dining Room

When guests arrive by car, they are met by Olivier, for decades the valet, who instead of taking the keys and parking the cars, directs the drivers to designated spaces. Having read the post booking email instructions, the guests will have left their coats in their cars. In the event of inclement weather, Olivier assists with an umbrella to the door.  Entering the building, the greeting and welcome are by a maître’ d’. Depending upon whether checking-in to stay or dining, the guests are respectively guided to reception or to a waiter.  There is a short walk to the dining room past the bar area, which is no longer used as a bar, due to both lack of space and the unmanageable number of touch points. Once seated, each guest is presented with their own paper menu booklet of the à la carte dishes; the booklet may be retained as a keepsake.  There is no QR code at the table, nor one at the entrance to facilitate track and trace. In fact, there are no apps for your phone at all, although as Alain Roux points out “all these things were carefully considered, as we felt a paper menu per person and a digital wine list struck the right balance.”  The wine list is presented from an iPad as an app, replacing the large paper tome.

All the front of house staff are wearing face masks. Of the decision, Frederic says: “The masks are important for two reasons, first to make the guests feel safe and relaxed, and second, to allow the staff to interact with the same relaxed formality that represents the style of the house.” The premise that you can see a smile in the eyes has been supported by the first week of guest feedback, indicating that for some, the mask becomes forgotten.

Waterside Inn, Dining Room

The restaurant dining room has four less tables to facilitate 1m+ distancing, the number of guests is capped to four per table and the private dining room reduced from twelve to six.  In effect, a comfortably 80 covers restaurant is reduced to 55 covers, which has a significant impact on revenues.  Costs are substantially higher due to the demands of the guidelines for re-opening in the ‘new normal.’ Although compromises in the front of house to customer ratio are not apparent, as Alain points out, “just monitoring the use of the cloakrooms through lunch and dinner service takes the cost of one full time staff member.” The role is needed as it ensures the correct number of guests are using the facilities at any given time and manages the waiting area so that customers feel properly attended to and comfortable. This also requires a compromise on use of space as pre-lockdown this waiting area was a pre-dinner drinks lounge.  A second lounge has been similarly reallocated to a waiting area for guests checking-in to the rooms side of the business.

Waterside Inn, Head Chef, Fabrice Uhryn

In the kitchen, the staffing implications are more obvious – clear Perspex screens shield stations from one another as well as between the pass and the front of house. There are visibly fewer bodies in the kitchen with around 13 compared to 26 at peak times pre-lockdown.  The chefs come in at different times, from 9am for preparation, from 12pm for service, then some change-overs for dinner service. Fabrice points out: “This allows 1m+ spacing in the kitchen; the fact that this is anywhere near possible is due to the kitchen redesign a decade ago.”  This process saw the whole order of work restructured with a clockwise flow round the kitchen.  An innovative change at the time, it replaced what looked like organised chaos in spite of a regimented structure to the classically hierarchical brigade.

“The cold room is one of the trickiest areas and requires additional processes to ensure overcrowding is avoided,” points out Fabrice. Washing down in the kitchen, front of house and housekeeping for bedrooms is taken to another level with extra attention given to high touch point areas.  Suppliers can no longer enter the kitchen and interactions are managed outside the building.

As Alain says, “The restaurant will not compromise on the quality and consistency on a plate to the customer,” so something has to give and that is the scope of the menus.  Gone for the moment is the set lunch menu ‘Le Menu Gastronomique’, the tasting menu ‘Le Menu Exceptionnel’ and the specials of the day. Kitchen tours for customers are no longer possible.  The changes are clearly explained on the website and indicated in booking emails.  This helps to set the expectations of the guests and therefore manage satisfaction.

Waterside Inn, Sample Dishes since July 8th 2020

The Waterside Inn has a significant proportion of regular returning guests who they have known and nurtured for a number of years, as Chef Roux notes, “rather than dine at The Waterside, they have a relationship with The Waterside.”  In the ‘new normal’ he is adamant that they will not dilute the warmth of welcome and hospitality that are in the family DNA. The definition of regular at these lofty heights may stretch from twice a year to once a quarter or more often but nevertheless the point is well made. From the first week of operation it would appear that the loyalty of these regulars has served them well, with over 400 covers through the door.

“For the opening service for lunch on 8th July, there was almost a celebratory atmosphere among the staff and guests,” enthuses Alain.  Over time the revenue to cost ratio must improve significantly, with the opportunity to do so determined by the relaxation of guidelines, but he adds “we took the government rules and industry guidelines and blended them to make our own sauce – it has been a great start and all the staff have embraced the challenge as an opportunity to come back stronger and do many things even better than before.  We’re delighted to be back! The new normal tastes better already!”

from Fine Dining Guide