Having been a Landlord of two successful real ale pubs, I have been watching with keen interest how my former fellow publicans in our city have endured the effects of lockdown since they were forced to close their doors at midnight on 20 March 2020.
I recall leaving one of my favourite micro pubs early evening that night flippantly saying cheerio to friends with the rejoinder ‘see you in three months’.
Well, 3 ½ months later on Saturday 4 July, pubs in England did indeed open again, to the fanfare of what the MSM had dubbed “Super Saturday”.
Except of course not all of them did. As the Government had chosen a Saturday to allow licenced premises to open again, rather than introduce the measure on a Monday in line seemingly with every other measure, many had chosen to stay shut.
The British Beer and Pub Association said it hoped 80% of England’s 28,000 pubs could open, but in reality it seemed that maybe up to 50% had decided to delay their opening for a softer launch this week.
Whilst it was good news for the majority of the country, for one city the lockdown persists. Due to a large spike in Pillar Two tests, the 500,000 people of Leicester and its immediate environs have been told their pubs and restaurants cannot yet open and rules will be reviewed come 18th July 2020.
I have spoken to a number of my former colleagues to gauge their thoughts and understand how they had managed to cope through the lockdown, and how they reacted to this latest blow.
Kieran Lyons, part-owner of the hugely successful Blue Boar and Ale Stone micro pubs, took a little time to consider what it meant for his businesses, and then launched into a beer delivery service from ‘the Boar’. A few weeks later he had converted the Ale Stone into a bottle shop. Both new ventures were busy, but they don’t replace the lost revenue of the pub.
Kieran had initially thought it may be impossible to have opened his establishments until October at the earliest, but now thinks with the reduction in distancing that the end of July might be possible. It will be a while yet though until Tigers and City fans will be able to stand cheek to jowl in the limited space available, and that will make it difficult to turn a profit even for this multi-award winning pub.
Across the City another micro run by a former teacher Steve Tabbernor was looking forward to opening their small beer garden behind the pub, after a two-year planning battle when Covid hit. Steve has a very loyal clientele drawn from the many chimney pots in his area. He quickly adapted to the situation by furloughing his staff and obtaining his locally available grants. He runs take outs from the door of his pub for a few hours, four days a week and due to low overheads he says he is under no pressure or desire to rush back.
Both entrepreneurs are examples of how the pub trade has evolved over the last decade as some operators move from high rent/rate sheds to smaller low cost units, that in many cases can be operated by a couple on limited hours that reflect when people are about to drink.
It has been estimated that as many as 15,000 pubs and restaurants could shut their doors as a result of the effects of Covid19, with enforced distancing measures and a reluctance of a public to go out as often as they previously might, having an effect on already tight margins.
It is certainly noticeable that the number of calls for advice from distressed hospitality businesses has risen dramatically. The extra enforced lock down experienced in Leicester is unlikely on its own to cause any additional losses, and indeed with some establishments already having decided to ‘wait and see how it panned out’, more lessons may be learned.
It was encouraging as well to see how pubs had adapted to their new norm and how customers to a vast degree had embraced the changes and worked with their hosts to ensure a safe environment for staff and customer alike. The press I believe had wanted to write their stories of chaos and mayhem, but were limited in the end to focusing on pinch points on the streets of Soho. As the weeks roll on into the Summer I hope and expect that the industry will settle into a flow and that confidence will return. If we get an enhanced sunny spell as we did in April and May, the newly envisaged ‘continental style” appearance of many of our town and city streets will provide welcome additional opportunity to cater for more customers safely.
My view is that the sector will bounce back, there will be casualties and some may not survive, but for an industry which has come through the smoking ban and adapted, this will provide another moment for re-invigoration, renewal and re-immergence.
Steve Thatcher is a non-practising solicitor of 25 years’ experience, as well as an ex-publican and personal licence holder. he currently practices as a business rescue and insolvency professional with F A Simms & Partners.