As the UK continues through its third lockdown, we spoke with Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In to get an in depth view of what it’s really like in the hospitality industry right now.
Whilst restaurants in England still have their doors closed for usual service, it’s not all doom and gloom for Stockport's fine dining restaurant WTLGI, as they were awarded the new Green Michelin Star, which commends those who contribute to having high ethical and environmental standards, working in sustainable ways through recycling and minimising waste.
James Galton, who has been general manager at WTLGI for over a year, said: “The Michelin Guide is moving with the times and recognising the importance of sustainability. It also takes into account how the restaurant treats their staff, including factors such as a four-day working week and mental health.
Photo credit: @arestaurantwherethelightgetsin the staff before COVID restrictions
“At our restaurant we not only recycle, but cut plastic out of our supply chains, and constantly strive to do more through the long-standing relationships we have with our suppliers. New ways to be sustainable often come about through different treatment of our leftover products. This could be anything from dehydrating fish skins to make seasonings, fermenting or salting last season’s fruit, or even using vegetable peelings to dye fabrics like our napkins. To put it succinctly, zero waste is the target.
“We are also lucky enough to have our own local outdoor growing space which we helped build with MUD (Manchester Urban Diggers) as part of a community project. Although because of the weather at the moment, we just have fennel and some of the hardier herbs growing.”
The restaurant specialises in a prepaid no-choice tasting menu that they can adapt to cater to any and all dietary needs. Since the start of the pandemic last March, this menu now costs less, in a bid to make it more accessible.
James explains: “Our biggest challenge through the pandemic has been finding the balance between staff welfare and morale, keeping the business going and making sure our customers are happy.
“We have changed the length and cost of the menu, it’s shorter and cheaper, now £65 per person, to make it more approachable for people in our local area. Accessibility is so important, but it’s also about us evolving as a team and adapting to the ever-changing situation.”
James also shared how the team have used some of the time whilst the doors have been closed to invest in education. Knowledge of the food they serve, the local community and the suppliers is something that makes a dining experience at WTLGI a learning experience too.
He said: “We spent time once the doors closed educating ourselves about our suppliers even more. Then ten days into the first lockdown we set up The Pickle Factory, where we transformed to offer a multi-course delivery menu. For 21 weeks we made up to 100 meals per week! “It was a lot of fun and hard work, but it enabled us to still support our loyal and long-standing suppliers and our customers.”
After a short period of being able to open last August to November, England returned to another lockdown, and since then restaurants have been completely shut in Greater Manchester which stayed in the toughest tier three, meaning no restaurants or bars could open in the area.
James said: “At the beginning of this lockdown we didn’t jump straight back into The Pickle Factory. Instead, we opened the restaurant as a provisions store where we play on our strengths and use seasonal ingredients to fill your pantry - bread, preserves, cheese, charcuterie and organic veg boxes. Prebatched cocktails and natural wine from our cellar too.
“We have a lot of very creative people around us and we will also showcase their talents in the store. Anything from ceramics, wool felting, photography and candle making.
“The shop proved to be successful, but customers wanted us to be making dishes again. So, we now also provide three course meal kits, which can be preordered from our website and collected from the store.
“Food is a big source of happiness - for us it’s a ceremony and brings people together with so much joy, so we are glad that we can still provide that to people and they are supporting us.”
Some of the restaurant staff have been furloughed through the government scheme to support businesses through the pandemic, meaning that they receive a wage but don’t work for a period of time. WTLGI allowed staff members to decide which they would prefer, as circumstances differ from employee to employee.
James added: “Some people wanted to be furloughed which was fine as we want our staff to be happy especially through this period. However, others, like myself, would go crazy at home so we’ve managed to create a strict rota which allows us to share the tasks and still contribute.
“The chefs all get a chance to cook, they are constantly thinking about reopening, developing new dishes and how we can use local markets. They love being in the kitchen.”
James opened up about how the lack of understanding from the government about the hospitality industry has added fuel to the frustration felt through the pandemic.
He said: “Hospitality contributes so much to the economy but now when we need support to survive, there’s very little. And what little there is, is ill-conceived through lack of understanding about how our businesses operate. We really back what Angela Hartnett has been campaigning about - to appoint someone with actual knowledge of the hospitality industry as a minister to represent us in government. In the name of progress, that is a necessity.”
Whilst the pandemic is still ongoing and it’s too soon to say when their doors may reopen, James said: “We know it can be the same as before, but hopefully even better. Businesses have to adapt and evolve and do something out of their comfort zone to keep going. Everyone should use this opportunity to change it up, be different and diversify.
“When this is over, we will be having a huge celebration with the whole WTLGI team. Definitely a big family meal in the restaurant with some good wine and hopefully a special dinner out as well, so we don’t have to cook!”
All photos credited to Where The Light Gets In Instagram
You can find out more about what the restaurant is up to on their website