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Hope on the horizon for Chatham Dockside despite Dining Street Limited closing several restaurants

Like a vast ship, lost and adrift in slack water, the UK's restaurant industry bobs helplessly in the poisoned seas of the pandemic - waiting patiently for a fair breeze and a sight of land.

Or something like that. No amount of metaphoric waffling will help the situation of course, but at Chatham Dockside the maritime analogy hits home more keenly than it might elsewhere.

How long will it be before diners can gather round a table at Pier Five again?
How long will it be before diners can gather round a table at Pier Five again?

This of course the site of the former Chatham Dockyard, where 400 years of a proud shipbuilding industry sank into the waves of history when the dockyard closed in 1984.

Since then regeneration has seen the dockside area, at the heart of Chatham Maritime, flourish once again into a 300-acre site of leisure and restaurant facilities alongside such attractions as the Chatham Historic Dockyard, the Copper Rivet Distillery and Chatham Marina.

But the scars of a lost industry don't heal that easily, and the much-missed dockyard remains a constant reminder that the foundations of industry won't last forever.

A walk around Dockside is a fair reminder of that too - with the once bustling hub turned into a ghost town, or ghost-ship, to keep the maritime analogy afloat.

Last week it was confirmed Italian restaurant Villagio and American diner Friendly Phil's were set to close for good, along with The Broadwick restaurants at Dockside and Hempstead Valley, after the company which runs them, Dining Street Limited, went into administration.

Villagio, Chatham Maritime.Picture: Barry Goodwin
Villagio, Chatham Maritime.Picture: Barry Goodwin

And the statement from Will Wright, partner at KPMG and joint administrator made for grim reading.

“The current plight of the UK’s hospitality sector cannot be underestimated," he said. "Despite the breadth of support packages available, the reality is the latest lockdown measures have proven to be a hammer blow for many businesses which, like the Dining Street group of companies, continue to accrue creditor liabilities while seeing little to no revenues coming in."

But they're by no means the first casualties of the pandemic at Dockside, with Australian-themed restaurant Boomers announcing it was to close for good in July last year, having been at the site since 2003.

Meanwhile other venues in the fleet of restaurants that made Dockside such a popular destination for diners, remain closed, left in a state of suspended animation with staff at home on furlough.

The upshot is the pickings for diners here are worse than on a ship lost in South Seas with not a lemon left in store to keep the scurvy at bay, nor a shot of rum to help us forget our woes.

Friendly Phil's, Chatham Maritime.Picture: Barry Goodwin
Friendly Phil's, Chatham Maritime.Picture: Barry Goodwin

Forget a cocktail at Pier Five, the nearest you'll get to that is a snowball in the street outside - but the chances of that melted when the snow went this week.

Oh Covid, you are a cruel sailing companion, and an even worse date.

So, how long before we can ditch this damned disease in the drink and move onto new waters?

Well perhaps those at the helm of Dockside's flagship pub, the Ship & Trades, have a clearer outlook... namely Jonathan Neame of owners Shepherd Neame.

Speaking to KentOnline, Mr Neame said he hoped the Ship & Trades, along with the company's 320 other pubs and hotels, could open for Easter in early April, following the success of the vaccine roll-out.

Was this effectively the first cry of "land-ho!" for the stricken fleet? Well it was either that or a ill-judged call for mutiny, depending on your point of view.

Jonathan Neame at the Ship & Trades in 2016
Jonathan Neame at the Ship & Trades in 2016

But Jonathan at least sounded like a man determined to steer a straight course, stating: “It’s difficult to set a precise date at the moment but all the indications are that by the end of March all those at most risk will have been vaccinated and the programme will be well into those in their 60s, which is a remarkable achievement in itself.

“Covid will, in a matter of weeks, cease to put pressure on the NHS and cease to be the major source of mortality that it has been.

“The industry needs an exit strategy with perhaps a short period of transition with some restrictions in place but no different from last summer and short-lived.

"We have to move away from this whole population control where somebody somewhere says this is the way we should operate.

“There are clearly people who would like to see fundamental societal change coming out of this and some dark anti-alcohol forces in the country who are trying to arguably use alcohol as a Trojan horse to impact the sector.

Ship and Trades pub/restaurant, Maritime Way, Chatham Maritme.Official re-opening.Picture: Steve Crispe FM4395267 (44396691)
Ship and Trades pub/restaurant, Maritime Way, Chatham Maritme.Official re-opening.Picture: Steve Crispe FM4395267 (44396691)

“But in my view that is fundamentally unacceptable and a gross breach of democractic and libertarian principles.”

But one man's libertarian is another man's mutineer, and there are those that argue we need everyone to obey the rules, sit tight and row in the same direction if we're to get out of this malaise.

Which of course means not opening the pubs and restaurant for a few months yet.

Nevertheless, Mr Neame's optimism will be music to the ears of restaurant and pub-goers, along with the 47 staff members employed at the Ship and Trades and 21 employees at Pier Five, and of course to the fellow business owners at Dockside.

Hopefully many of them will be left still afloat when they're allowed to trade again, and Mr Neame won't be left alone at the helm of The Ship & Trades, like the Flying Dutchman of legend, doomed to sail alone through haunted seas.

Medway Labour leader Vince Maple hoped the restaurant industry would remain at Dockside, but said it was unlikely to look the same as it did before the pandemic.

"When it first opened for some time the restaurants were just the ones immediately next to the cinema - Nandos, Pizza Hut, Subway, Dickens World, a burger place and an all-you-can-eat Chinese.

"There have been some other regional chains there since. I went to Friendly Phil's a while back and I'm probably saddest about that closing, and Broadwick, because I think it's over 100 staff affected including the one at Hempstead Valley.

"There's been some churn in that industry - it's been an unstable sector for a while and that's very concerning, both for individuals who work in it and the community in general.

"Lots of those restaurants took advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme but regrettably it hasn't helped enough. This is a specific challenge for those out of town centres like Dockside and Cuxton.

Cllr Vince Maple, Labour, Medway Council. Picture supplied by Medway Council (43833124)
Cllr Vince Maple, Labour, Medway Council. Picture supplied by Medway Council (43833124)

"I think the government haven't had enough focus on their furlough schemes - other European countries have taken a more sector-by-sector approach.

"Some sectors like the construction industry have been able to work through lockdown but the hospitality industry hasn't functioned properly since March, and they've lost out on Christmas.

"I think when we look back over the last 12 months the government weren't focussed enough and that has left certain industries not supported at all."

While that made for a bleak outlook, Cllr Maple said there was some hope a new-look post-pandemic Dockside. But he envisaged a period of transition.

"One of the challenges is the broken window syndrome," he said. "People don't want to go to places with empty buildings. The high street has been affected by that - it's not just bad economically, it's bad for perception.

"But I hope we'll see renaissance in small traders and that can include the hospitality sector. I think we'll need to see support programmes for the post-Covid renaissance. Local government is almost out of cash so there's got to be the response from government.

"It won't be exactly the same afterwards but we've got to give the tools to those that want to be innovative and entrepreneurial.

Medway Council leader Alan Jarrett (43688382)
Medway Council leader Alan Jarrett (43688382)

"People will be desperate to enjoy nights out and the challenge at the moment is those nights will not be there as the businesses will not be able to survive Covid. It's not straightforward.

"It will need support, it will need investment and it will need people to feel safe. Post Covid won't be the same as pre-Covid."

All of which might sound pretty bleak, but for every person suffering from post-pandemic nerves, surely there'll be enough hungry crews looking for a drink and a meal as they return to more sociable shores.

Meanwhile, Cllr Maple's opposite number - Medway Council leader Cllr Alan Jarrett is more bullish, saying that away from the stated hospitality woes, there are reasons to be optimistic.

He said: “We understand the challenges businesses are currently facing and are committed to doing all we can to support them. We have helped distribute more than £82 million of government funding.

Pier Five at Chatham Dockside
Pier Five at Chatham Dockside

“We are continuing to invest in our town centres to help our high streets thrive. We were successful in a multi-million pound bid to further transform Chatham city centre.

“Our own housing company, Medway Development Company, is continuing with plans for two town centre developments, the Chatham Waterfront Development will provide 175 new homes as well as commercial space on the ground floor for businesses such as cafes and restaurants.

"An unused car park in Whiffens Avenue will also be transformed into 115 one and two-bedroom apartments in a superb location, which include nine units of shared ownership aimed at key workers.

"We are also bringing forward a multi-million pound development at Britton Farm Mall in Gillingham High Street.”

Mayor of Medway and River ward councillor Habib Tejan was also remaining optimistic, predicting businesses would strive to bounce back when restrictions are lifted.

"Business closure is never a good news," he said. "Business closures always have a negative impact on real people. It affects families and jobs. It affects the local and wider economy. However, as we bounce back from the pandemic, I am confident that there will always be a need for restaurants in our communities.

"I predict that this need will present opportunities for thriving businesses to emerge."

Anyway, whether the tide will turn come April, or much later, we'll have to wait and observe.

Whenever it does, if you're looking for a safe harbour after a year out at sea, perhaps Chatham Dockside could be your first port of call.

Read more: all the latest news from Medway.

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