‘Struggling to keep our dream alive’: Madrid’s expat restaurant owners in a battle to survive

'Struggling to keep our dream alive': Madrid's expat restaurant owners in a battle to survive
Maria Maisey and Fabio Peral the British couple behind Amicis. Photos: Amicis
It’s lunchtime and on a sunny plaza in downtown Madrid a few locals are settling down for a menu del diá in one of the few establishments that is still open for business.

A year ago it wouldn’t be easy to find an empty table at Amicis on Plaza del Conde de Miranda, a restaurant run by British couple Maria Maisey and Fabio Peral in Madrid’s historical centre, just a stone’s throw from the Plaza Mayor and the popular Cava Baja.   


In pre-covid times people would line up outside Amicis to wait for a free table. 

 

In good times, the restaurant which opened three years ago had queues of people lining up to wait for a free table and became number 1 on trip advisor within weeks of opening.

It had a staff of 18 people and hosted private parties in its bodega, an atmospheric cellar space beneath the main restaurant. 


The Amicis team before most of the staff were furloughed. 

Now it is one of the few establishments in the area still opening its kitchen.

“We are now more focused on lunchtimes as the new restrictions mean customers are not allowed to order dinner after 10pm and in Madrid, who goes out for dinner before 10pm?” explained Maisey, 42 and originally from Bath.

The couple bemoan the chaos that has been caused in Madrid with political squabbling leaving Madrileños unsure about restrictions in a city that has one of the highest infection rates in Europe.

“With the latest restrictions and partial lockdowns meaning we must now close at 10pm – the time most Spaniards go out to eat – it doesn’t seem much like anyone in authority is on our side,” she said referring to new lockdown measures grudgingly adopted by Madrid’s regional leaders under pressure from Spain’s central government.

Political infighting between the conservative run regional government of Madrid and the Socialist coalition central government have seen a stand-off that has led to a state of emergency being imposed on the capital.

The first weekend of Madrid’s new lockdown saw an estimated 75,000 reservations cancelled, leading to €8 million in losses, according to a business association.


Empty tables at the restaurant now struggling to survive in the coronavirus crisis. 

While it is estimated that some 90,000 bars and restaurants could permanently close by the end of the year across Spain representing job losses of 400,000 according to a recent Marcas de Restauración report.

Amici’s benefited from the footfall of the San Miguel market, in normal times a huge bustling tourist trap full of little bars and food stalls but with virtually no visitors to the capital and with new restrictions in place, the market finally closed its doors on October 2nd.

“The market brought us so much traffic as thousands of tourists would flock there every day…..but now, with it being shut, the centre is emptier than ever, and we are struggling to keep our dream alive,” says Maisey.

Where the restaurant once relied on around 75 -80 percent tourist trade, the focus is now very much back on local residents but that meant adapting the menu from a Mediterranean fusion style to the more traditional.


Fresh local ingredients and great service are winning over locals. 

 

“Spanish diners are pretty unadventurous and they like to see the classics on a menu,” admits Peral.  

“They want to stop off for a caña and croquetas  or a menu del dia. So we are focusing on simple good recipes, done really well with local produce and great service and that’s winning people over,” he said.

 “We have a skeletal staff of three, basically a chef, one waiter and me,” said Peral who explains that keeping the restaurant open means “losing slightly less than keeping it closed”.

Economic measures introduced by the government to help businesses hit hard in the coronavirus lockdown may have seemed life-saving at first but have now become a dead weight.

“With most of our staff in ERTE (the furlough scheme in Spain) we are paying €4,500 a month on social security contributions to basically keep a work force at home. If we bring one back, we have to bring them all and then you can’t lay anyone off for six months. That’s just not how things work in the hospitality industry.”

But Fabio remains upbeat. “Call me an optimist but I’m looking at this as an opportunity, as a way to introduce our restaurant to a whole new clientele. If we manage to survive this, we will come out stronger.”

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