In 2017, Filipino-Brazilian chef Laila Bazahm threw caution to the wind and opened her first restaurant in Barcelona. Since then, Hawker 45 has gone from strength to strength, firmly establishing itself as a local favorite on the Barcelona food scene. Earlier this year, Bazahm decided the time had come to expand the Hawker 45 brand. Not one to do things by halves, she agreed to take over the entire food and beverage offering at AxelBeach Ibiza, a popular LGBTQ+ hotel situated on the beachfront in San Antonio Bay on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Then COVID-19 struck.
This is Laila Bazahm’s story of what it’s like to open a new restaurant—despite being in the midst of a pandemic.
Isabelle Kliger: Please describe your new project at AxelBeach Ibiza.
Laila Bazahm: AxelBeach Ibiza is a “heterofriendly” LGBTQ+ hotel comprising 96 apartments. As of this year, I’m responsible for managing all its food and beverage outlets, including a restaurant, a beach bar, a pool bar, breakfast service and room service, along with 12 members of staff. Compared with overseeing a team of five at my restaurant in Barcelona, it’s quite a large operation. We serve everything from Hawker 45’s signature pan-Asian crowd-pleasers like Singaporean Laksa, Thai-style chicken wings and Malaysian Rendang curry, to beach food like burgers, and a full breakfast menu.
Kliger: What was your original plan and to what extent have you been forced to change it?
Bazahm: We had intended to open on April 1, in good time for summer, but then COVID happened. We finally ended up opening on June 24. Some of the things we’d planned were left hanging this year, due to the uncertainty around how the season would play out, and how reduced traffic would affect our revenue. For example, I had a lot of ideas about marketing, social media, brand collaborations and PR that I wasn’t willing to risk committing to. We also held off on investing in design elements like proper lighting and quality signage. And then there were the parties: Ibiza is all about parties, especially at an LGBTQ+ hotel, where people are looking to make new friends. Big, wild parties just aren’t happening here this season.
Kliger: What safety measures have been implemented as a result of the pandemic?
Bazahm: Firstly, we were all required to take a special course related to COVID-19 protocols. Secondly, we had to cut our occupancy by half and ensure five feet of distance between all sun loungers and tables. Staff wear facemasks and gloves and have their temperature checked daily. In addition, we have to observe a “no dancing” policy, which is quite a challenge, since the majority of our guests come to Ibiza to party.
Kliger: Is everyone following the rules?
Bazahm: Unfortunately, some of the clubs on the island are not fully respecting the social distancing rules and have been organizing crowded parties where not everyone is wearing masks. We refuse to do that. Having experienced the lockdown in Barcelona, and with family in the U.S. and the Philippines, we’re acutely aware of the potential consequences of ignoring social distancing guidelines. We don’t want to contribute to another outbreak.
Kliger: What made you decide to go ahead and open despite the pandemic?
Bazahm: This is our first year collaborating with Axel Hotels. They’ve been tremendously supportive, and that made the decision to go ahead considerably easier. The season may be shorter than usual, but we believed people would come, so we wanted to give it a go. And since we’re in it for the long haul, we figured we’d break even, but learn a lot, and come back stronger next year.
I’ll admit I had a lot of doubts and fears but, sometimes, you just have to jump first and build your plane on the way down.
Kliger: What has been the most challenging aspect of opening a restaurant during a pandemic?
Bazahm: Opening a restaurant—or any other venture for that matter—is already insanely stressful. With COVID, it’s completely nerve-wracking! There are so many factors outside our control, and we live with the ever-present threat of another outbreak and shutdown. I worry a lot about the safety of our team, since we’re all susceptible to catching the virus, no matter how careful we are. That really keeps me up at night.
From a practical perspective, hitting our occupancy targets has been challenging. Dealing with suppliers, many of whom have staff in Spain’s temporary worker furlough scheme, has been a nightmare. But we’re also grateful to the people who’ve offered to help us out.
Kliger: What advice would you give other restaurateurs who might be thinking about whether or not to launch a new project in the current circumstances?
Bazahm: Every situation is different and, in this pandemic, there’s no playbook we can rely on. I mean, who gets into a sport where, the longer you play, the more likely you are to die? If you’re in any kind of entrepreneurial business, you are essentially a gladiator. It requires incredible strength and a very particular psychology. But launching a public-facing, entrepreneurial venture during a global pandemic takes a special kind of madness. It’s definitely not for everyone.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Having grown up in Sweden and studied in the U.K., I moved to Barcelona in 2010 and have never looked back. I write about travel, with a particular focus on all things sustainable and local, and pop culture. My ideal day would involve getting lost in a new city, stumbling upon a tiny restaurant, and getting to sample a dish I’ve never had before. If it happens to be served with red wine or gin (or any kind of local spirit—I’m not fussy), even better. My work can be found in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Departures International, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and more. Follow me on Instagram @ikliger.