Last month saw the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, an event which brings thousands of visitors to the historic city. We look at the restaurants in the city and the strengths and challenges of being in the centre of an event of this magnitude.
The Highlight of the Year
Edinburgh Fringe is a legendary festival, not only in the UK but across the globe. In fact it is the largest event of its kind in the world; an open access arts festival, this means that anyone who can find a venue to perform in can put on a show as part of the month-long Fringe. This year’s event has produced 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues and with an estimated 2,696,884 tickets issued across Scotland’s capital!
The historic city of Edinburgh acts as a backdrop for this festival and the millions of visitors who come to attend. The majority of venues are located within easy walking distance of each other. Needless to say the amount of visitors that this festival yields means big business and busy times for local restaurants. The festival is a month long, and the pressure is on to ensure good service, great food and quick turnarounds – pre-theatre-style dining is the name of the game!
A City of Choice
Irish comedian Danny O’Brien has taken part in EdFringe for seven years now and was back again in 2017 with a brand new show ‘RaconTour’ for audiences in The Underbelly Cowgate to lap up. “Edinburgh is an incredibly beautiful city, but when artists come from every corner of the globe and the streets are absolutely buzzing with performers, every conceivable space becomes part of the Fringe – it’s quite simply an incredible place to be,” said O’Brien, who is a self-confessed food obsessor. He definitely loves trying new places each year, but he also has his favourites.
“There are a few places that I have been going to at the Fringe for years that keep me alive during the madness of the festival! 10 to 10 in Dehli (Nicolson Street) is an absolute gem – super cheap and a really cool, cozy place to chill between gigs. Mosque Kitchen (Nicolson Square) is great value – you can get a decent feed of a homemade dahl or curry, with a fresh baked naan bread for a fiver! Lian Pu (Marshall Street) does amazing authentic, real-deal Chinese food. Wings (Old Fishmarket Close), does just that! Serious amount of options – it’s a bit hipster and too cool for school, but if you love chicken wings, it’s a must! Ox184 (Cowgate) offers a great selection of food and beers too. For something a bit more upmarket, down a Harry Potter-style laneway is The Devils Advocate (Advocate’s Close), which has a ridiculous whiskey selection – I think 300 different ones. And finally, Tuk Tuk (Leven Street) is incredible – amazing Indian street food, tapas-style small plates – everything I have eaten there is incredible!”
Keeping Up With The Pace
Edinburgh’s cityscape of restaurants has all styles, cuisines and budgets. During Fringe they are all busy thanks to the hordes of visitors, so management is key – of staff, of bookings, of ordering. It all becomes a little more chaotic!
“It can be very hectic (especially at the weekend), however there is always a such a great vibe about the bar and restaurant,” explained Eilidh Kerr, Restaurant & Bar Manager of Twenty Princes Street & Juniper Cocktail Bar. “At times it can be very challenging as the population of the city does double and we see that in the volume of guests that are coming to us. However it is a great chance to show off, not only our exceptional food and cocktail menu, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to meet a new range of guests that you don’t usually get to meet during the rest of the year.”
“We do find that bookings become more varied however,” said Kerr. “As a team, we do try and make sure that we are calling guests prior to their arrival to confirm their bookings so we do not have too many cancellations. We do also see a higher number of walk-in guests, which is brilliant for the restaurant and bar.”
Walk-ins are of course always welcome in a restaurant, but cannot always be accommodated, especially in the middle of a festival. Michal Markowski, Restaurant and Events Manager at Cucina (George IV Bridge) has definitely noticed that if walk-ins have to wait they won’t stay. “We are always busy, but business during Fringe is hard to predict, so sometimes you are not 100% ready for this demand and because our restaurant is not the biggest, we struggle to get tables for everyone coming. Lots of people are rushing for shows and not willing to wait for a table,” said Markowski.
“You definitely have more bookings, but also lots of cancellations and no shows, which is very frustrating as sometimes you are not able to recover a last minute booking loss.”
In popular restaurant Forage and Chatter (Alva Street), Owner Cameron McNeil has a simple no walk-ins policy. “Fringe is busy, specifically with people who don’t book and walk in. We don’t take walk-ins as we are already booked in advance so you can see a sense of disappointment on people’s faces, but at the same time you wonder why people don’t book for a popular restaurant during the busiest time of the year!” McNeil stated. “We do have a lot more cancellations and no shows during the festival, specifically on the day, even up to 25% on evenings, which is obviously frustrating.”
Plan, Plan, PLAN!
While restaurants like Forage and Chatter are used to dealing with the crowds, for newcomers Spatch (Hunter Square, The Royal Mile), it was their first experience of the festival. “We’ve taken our name from the Spatchcock chicken (the backbone is cut out and chicken flattened), which is what our restaurant revolves around – there is a big rotisserie in the middle of the restaurant that is visible to all customers. We spatchcock chicken so it cooks faster and it means the meat is even juicier when it comes off the rotisserie” explained Jade Falconer, Deputy General Manager.
“We are independently owned by Jim Tullis, who also owns a couple of other restaurants including Burgers and Beers Grillhouse (The Royal Mile). All of the management who worked up there came to Spatch, knowing almost what to expect from Fringe, but to everyone else it was a brand new experience,” said Jade.
“For entire month of August, Edinburgh is like visiting a different city, even your trip to work increases by 20 minutes because you are pushing through so many people. We are smack bang in the middle of it on the corner of the Royal Mile, next to the Tron Kirk. On Hunter Square itself, the performers have created a small stage, so there is always a street performance right outside our restaurant. We have an outside seating area and in fact we have requests from people to book this area specifically because they can sit and watch the street show from the restaurant.”
Ensure Staff Are Properly Prepared
“Another thing we did for Fringe is increased our opening hours so that we are open into the early hours of the morning. Normally we close at 11pm, but for the festival we could be open until 1am. All our staff have been brilliant” says Jade. “We obviously hired a team in June when we opened and everyone is still here, so they know what they are doing. They in turn were training a few new people to give us an extra hand for Fringe. We had an idea of what we were up against as management – we knew we would need more waiting staff and extra guys in the kitchen prepping for the morning because otherwise we will be chasing our tails all day. Instead of working longer hours, we decided to hire more staff and put them on more in the morning rather than evening, so we can be more prepared.”
“We also didn’t change or shorten the menu because we wanted people to experience the same food as they would normally. Hopefully what this means is when they come back after Fringe they won’t be disappointed as they can get the same food that they loved the first time.”
“We did do some extra marketing in the form of a guy with a big branded board out where all the main pedestrian traffic is and also handing out fliers. It worked really well. A lot of restaurants will take reservations during Fringe because it’s so busy they can’t accommodate walk-ins or the numbers, but that means you have tables reserved and out of use in the lead up to the time. It’s harder to manage. We did manage to do this for the festival which was great, there were only a few instances of people rushing because they were running late for a show, but it wasn’t a huge deal as we were able to help them out via texts, etc. I think this really helped us get more customers as people wanted the assurance of a table in time before seeing a show, whereas a lot of restaurants weren’t taking reservations,” Jade concluded.
Photo credit for all Edinburgh Festival photos – © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society