"This is the toughest time I have experienced in my career" – Burnley restaurants prep for much-anticipated return
Burnley restaurants will be serving up a small slice of normality when they fire up their kitchens for the first time in seven months on Monday.
For many owners, the past year has been the most turbulent of their culinary careers with never-ending restrictions and severe financial uncertainty compounded by months spent seeing their prized restaurants empty.
Usha head chef Ibby Ali whose restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary in February said this had been by far his toughest ever period.
"Every day it went from worse to worse. Now I don't even think about what happened last year, I'm just concentrating on May 17th when we can open up and just forget the last year.
"I just want to scratch it off to be honest. It's just been so frustrating. Monday we will open up and take it from there. We are ready and raring to go. We just need our customers back in and enjoying themselves."
Ibby, who spent part of lockdown delivering meals free of charge to vulnerable people across the town, said it had been the support of his regulars that had kept him going through lockdown.
"I look forward to the weekend rush which we don't have anymore. I've been sitting at a table working on dishes for when we re-open.
"Every time we have put a post up saying we are going to open up, everybody has been so positive saying they are looking forward to coming in.
"All the customers we deliver to have been telling us they can't wait to come back as well.
"These are the things that make us keep on going. May 17th...we will be open. Usha reloaded!"
Burnley's longest-serving restaurateur, Aroma's Abdul Majeed, said he had never experienced anything like this in his four decades across the industry.
"This is the toughest time I have experienced in my career," he said. "It's been tough for everybody. It's been very hard.
"This is not what we were expecting. It was something weird, something very unusual. The takeaway service and the delivery collection has kept us gong. People have been very supportive and I've managed to survive through it which has been the main objective for everybody.
"My regulars have been very supportive, very helpful. My customers are what have kept me going all these four decades. I enjoy it when people come in and say, 'Hello.' I always try my best to personally greet them, and welcome them.
"We are like a large family and that is what I enjoy most. A lot of people ask me, 'When are you going to retire?' I tell them, 'No, until my health allows, I am going to keep going.'
"We open on May 17th and the bookings are already pouring in. I'm looking forward to opening my door and welcoming everybody back. It's so exciting. It's a great feeling."
Palazzo's Pino Cafasso is choosing to focus on their four "incredible" years before Covid, hoping it won't be long before his restaurant is back to how it was.
"We've had some fantastic nights in Burnley, and the people have been so supportive. It's been a beautiful experience at the most beautiful venue we have ever seen. It had gone from strength to strength until Covid. And hopefully this will happen again.
"Burnley has a brilliant public and I can't wait to get them back...and hug them all again."
Pino said, for him, the second wave and subsequent lockdown had definitely been the hardest part.
"It's hit us a lot harder. The first one was unknown, but the second was, 'How long is this going to last, and is it going to keep happening?' Hopefully this is going to be the last one, and this all going to be a bad memory.
"I miss having this restaurant noisy with people enjoying themselves. From the younger generation, all the way through to adults, we've had so many emails, so many texts saying they can't wait to come back.
"The bookings are coming in strong. It's all very positive. It's very exciting this time, probably more than ever. I've opened a few restaurants, but this time I don't know what it is ..maybe it's because every restaurant is re-opening, the energy is just unreal. Let's just hope it's going to stay that way this time."
Sicilian-born Antonio Vetrano will fulfil a lifelong dream when he opens the doors to Vetrano on Monday.Undeterred by lockdowns, the award-winning chef has spent the last six months hard at work in Padiham's former Mamma Mia building, transforming the interior.
"I came for Mamma Mia because I have lived in Padiham for 14/15 years and I love this place," said Antonio, who moved to England 22 years ago.
"The main reason she gave it to me is because she believed in my passion and what I am cooking. I really appreciated that. Trust is everything
"I've been working on the building since May last year. I've built up the place. Tiling plastering, making it stylish, doing the kitchen, painting.
"Monday is the big opening for everybody. My big opening is Sunday 23rd; for family because I wanted to say, 'Thank you very much.' For me, it's very important. I can relax with them, close the restaurant and say, 'Thank you.'
"The expectation for my restaurant is good food first, traditional, new version, old version; it's going to be all my 28 years' experience put in here.
"I'm very excited. This is like my baby."