The coronavirus diaries: Aaron Wilson, The Bow Bells 

At The Bow Bells, we felt the effects of Coronavirus before the lockdown began. Around two-to-three weeks before we had to close, we saw a massive reduction in trade – around a 70/80% drop. We knew immediately that this was going to be serious, so we began bringing in our own voluntary measures to keep our staff and our customers as safe as possible. We quickly introduced hand sanitising stations and, to try and minimise any cross-contamination, we stopped taking cash around three weeks before closure. 

Switching to cashless was a scary move initially as we did risk alienating some people. Luckily for us, these changes were received incredibly well by our local community and those who continued to come and support us during those last few weeks of trading. We did everything we could to try and operate, but for the last two weeks we felt the impact and had to start taking drastic measures to stay afloat, such as cutting staff hours – something no publican wants to have to do. 

Almost overnight we were told we had to shut on the 20th March. The local community, however, remained fantastic and the last Friday of trading was one of our busiest for weeks. The pub was bustling, people were full of good cheer and well wishes and it was a party-like atmosphere. No-one knew when we would be able to open back up again, but it was nice to know we had the support of everyone around us. 

During lockdown we decided the best and safest thing for us was to stay shut. We were conscious of being able to maintain social distancing – both for our team and for customers coming to collect food and drinks. We worried about queues, people congregating for takeaway pints and blocking the road, so we decided it was our responsibility to stop this happening and the only way we could do that was to remain shut. If we were located near a park, it may have been a different story of course. 

We wanted to remain an active part of the community, so we got involved in other ways. We worked with the local church-run food bank and helped serve food to around 250 per week. We helped put together food parcels for struggling families and volunteered with the local synagogue. Nobody knew how the pandemic would affect them in the long-term, but it was great to see people coming together to support and help others in any way they could. 

When the Government announced we would be able to re-open on the 4th July, it was all hands-on deck to ensure we could operate a safe environment to welcome people back to. We had already gone cashless pre-lockdown, but we wanted to take it one step further. We wanted a solution that was practical, easy-to-use for both us and our customers, without bank-breaking commission. We looked at a selection of different apps on the market, and initially we decided to go with the Heineken app which was offered to us free-of-charge. But it failed to launch on time and just days before opening we were left without a solution. 

Then we met with the team at Dines and incredibly with just two days’ notice, they were able to bring us on board. They acted quickly, professionally, and were straight to the point – getting all the information they needed from us and making sure our platform hosted by them was live the day before re-opening. It was just what we needed and using Dines has worked really well for us. It’s simple to use, and what our customers really like is that you can download an app if you want, but you can also just use it as a mobile platform to avoid clogging up your phone.  

It’s a tricky thing to change habits and to get people out of the mindset of being able to go up to the bar and order, but people have adapted to the ‘new normal’ very quickly. We’ve actually found that since switching to Dines, spend on spirits and high-value items has actually increased. What’s more, on sporting event days – like the FA Cup Final – we took much more revenue than we ever did pre-lockdown as customers didn’t feel the need to wait until half time to get another drink; they could stay at their table, order, and pay quickly and easily. Plus, it enabled them to stay with their friends rather than someone having to be the tribute to queue.

From our point of view, the switch to table service means we can serve maximum people with minimum staff – we’re saving on about one-to-two staff members per shift and at the moment every penny saved really does count. We’re also lucky we have a lot of space to use – we have a seating capacity of up-to 55 and an upstairs area which we launched as an art gallery pre-lockdown, but which can now be used for additional seating. 

One of the biggest challenges for us coming out of lockdown is group bookings which the trade has relied heavily on in the past. They are very hard to regulate, especially in London, but we are taking proactive measures like asking for IDs as proof of household addresses. However, a lot of people still have their parents’ address, for example, on their drivers’ licenses, etc. Most of the time you can tell when people are being sincere, although we have had a couple of incidences where people have tried to book a table for lots of people for football matches. It’s not something we want to try and bend the rules.

We don’t know what is next. We predict that the Autumn is going to be a difficult time for the trade, and we don’t see how it will begin to improve until the New Year. Getting the balance right between keeping everyone safe, comfortable, and enjoying themselves, whilst not treating them like a biohazard, is a tricky balance. We’re continuing to learn along the way, and we hope we can continue to be part of such a fantastic community for many more years to come.”

By Aaron Wilson of the Bow Bells in Bow, London

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