Jim Parker: People like resilient Mitch Tonks deserve support

Torbay MP Kevin Foster (right) raises a glass to re-opening with Babbacombe Inn boss Martyn Strange

Torbay MP Kevin Foster (right) raises a glass to re-opening with Babbacombe Inn boss Martyn Strange - Credit: Archant

Resilient Rockfish boss Mitch Tonks plans a phased re-opening of his restaurant chain but admits it won't be easy

Well, it certainly wasn't the 'Super Saturday' some were predicting.

July 4 Independence Day was the day the Bay's tourism and hospitality industry had been waiting for – time to re-open their doors after more than three months of Lockdown which has cost the sector and the English Riviera millions of pounds.

Holidaymakers and locals were asked to take on board the 'Responsible Riviera' message sent out by the sector and its partners especially considering that just a week before we were all treated to the shocking scenes in Bournemouth where thousands of some of the most inconsiderate you-know-whats in the land packed themselves on beaches like sardines – a giant net should have been uses to scoop them all up and treat them to a night in police custody.

Extra police and street marshals were lined up locally to stop a repeat happening at the resort's hotspots. But trouble was it never got hot. In fact, it was all a bit of a damp squib.

I drove along Torquay seafront, on to the harbour and up to Babbacombe and was amazed how quiet it was.

But let's not get too despondent. You have to take your hats off to the accommodation providers and food and drink people who did open. It was the first time they had done so in months and you have to start from somewhere.

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English Riviera BID Company chief executive Carolyn Custerson has been quick to praise the resilience of the sector whenever she can in this unprecedented crisis and rightly so. She is confident they will bounce back.

Take Mitch Tonks, boss of the Rockfish restaurant chain, who was busy expanding his empire when the virus struck and he was forced to close overnight.

He re-opened the Rockfish in Plymouth last weekend. The Seahorse Restaurant in Dartmouth was due to reopen this weekend. It is hoped the other Rockfish businesses at Exeter, Exmouth, Poole, Brixham, Weymouth and Torquay will follow suit before then and August 1 although nothing has been set in stone.

Mitch says: 'We opened in Plymouth on Saturday. We are opening the Seahorse in Dartmouth at the weekend.

'Between July 20th and August 1 we will hopefully be opening others. It will be a phased re-opening. Each restaurant has different challenges. Our aim is to learn from Plymouth and open properly.'

He admits that Lockdown was hard at first. 'I think it was a bit disorientating during the first week or two. We didn't know what help we were going to get from the government,' said Mitch.

But then that resilience to which Carolyn Custerson was referring and for which this lovely man from Brixham is famous came shining through.

He says: 'Then we looked at things in an opportunistic way, how we could do things better and what could we re-design, what could we fix about the business, to make it a better place for our staff to work and for our customers. We want to move forward.'

He adds: 'I am very optimistic about the future.'

But he says: 'I think the troubles are about to begin for restaurants. It is going to take time for our customer numbers to return and we are having to carry out extra health and safety work which is costly.

'You are trading 50 per cent below what you are normally. We sailed from Plymouth into Salcombe on Monday and it was like a Monday in March.

'There is still a lot of people staying away. Everybody is recognising that life has not yet returned to normal.'

Yep, people are still nervous about venturing out especially to bars and restaurants. But businesses and people like Mitch Tonks need and deserve our support.

What this mighty mess does show is that people like Mitch and hundreds if not thousands of others like him have taken an absolute hammering. Not only do they need our help, the government also needs to recognise that seaside resorts like Torbay are a special case and warrant extra-special help.