It’s been an extremely tough year for the UK’s restaurant scene, with recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggesting that hospitality has been the worst hit industry across the country.
As an industry filled with problem solvers, many restaurant owners have been finding creative ways to reach hungry punters at home, but for small and family-owned businesses in particular, the pandemic poses a threat to their very existence.
It was the struggles of these smaller businesses that inspired photographer Sam Wright to shine a light on the capital’s usually thriving independent food scene, in new series Local London. “Local-run businesses are part of what make our towns and cities unique, so I wanted to hero a few of London’s best eateries that have been hit hard by months of closure,” he says.
“I wanted to remind people of the importance of our independent high streets and how vital it is to support them, so we can hopefully avoid high streets dominated by large corporate chains once we’re out of the pandemic.”
Originally from Sheffield, Wright first discovered a passion for portrait photography when he started taking his camera to punk gigs in pub basements in and around his hometown. Whether shooting a personal series or a commercial project, he has developed a knack for capturing honest moments in staged settings.
Recently featured by art and culture journal The Gourmand, the series was shot during the small window of Tier 2 restrictions in the UK capital before Christmas, and focuses on independent eateries that bring something unique to the city and its local communities.
“Sweetings is one of the oldest fish restaurants [in London], which has withstood two world wars and is still in business. Paradise Fish Bar is an independent chip shop in east London that provides all walks of life with a reasonably priced top quality meal. Regency Café is possibly the coolest place I’ve eaten a fry up. [And] The India Club is one of the oldest Indian restaurants in London, and still one of the best,” says Wright.
“All these attributes added to how I chose each place and why they would be missed if they didn’t survive the pandemic. Thankfully, they were all very happy to be involved with the project.”
To illustrate the unique character of each restaurant, Wright and his team cast and styled models to represent what you might imagine its archetypal customer to look like, resulting in slightly heightened versions of comfortingly familiar scenes.
“I wanted to capture the essence and atmosphere of each place through portraits, giving the viewer the chance to create their own narrative for each location, something they could believe,” he says.
“As many people understand the difficulty restaurants are facing, there is a feeling of melancholy throughout the series, but hopefully people can see the positive side that we will be able to visit these places in the not too distant future.”
With the UK government’s announcement of a tentative roadmap back to normality providing a glimmer of hope for both restaurant owners and goers, Wright is optimistic that the series will have a life beyond lockdown.
“The dream would be to exhibit the images in one of the restaurants once the pandemic has eased. Not only showing the work but giving people the opportunity to experience what makes the places so special,” he says. “Lets keep our fingers crossed and see what happens over the next few months!”