The coronavirus diaries: James Santillo

My business surviving the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t worry me, but losing or leaving loved ones does worry me and that’s why we chose to hit the pause button.

On Monday 16 March 2020 my partner, Tara Smyth, and I were sat at my parent’s house, and the outbreak still seemed a bit distant. Living in the wilds of East Anglia can sometimes be a blessing and although the Coronavirus outbreak was the focus of most our conversation it wasn’t our sole focus so we talked normally about normal things, just like the good old days. We missed that day’s government briefing, but it didn’t take long for our phones to start pinging with messages from friends and colleagues about the announcement advising the general public to not visit pubs.

With no information released regarding the aid the government would offer the hospitality sector, we needed a plan of action. The following day we had a crisis meeting, not at a conference table wearing suits. We went to The Duke’s Head, had a pint and talked. By the end of that day we had a plan, we would offer a shop service, ready meals and take-away options. So, with R.E.M on repeat and 24 hours to completely change our business model, we set to work.

Although cancellations were coming in thick and fast the uptake for the new offering was great, having a rural location with not much about probably helped but we also have a very loyal and supportive customer base, the shop was going well and bookings for the take-away options were a well needed lifeline. 

Then Friday night came and it was the middle of a fully booked evening service. By fully booked I mean we had two guests dining in, and 63 take-away orders. But the decision had been made. Pubs had to close that night, and the police came to make sure we knew of the decision, probably more to make sure we knew there was a police presence. After service like every other night we sat in the restaurant and waited for closing time. There were three regulars left in the bar area whose discussions for as long as I can remember have been centred pretty much solely around Brexit with the odd argument over moon landings and the Van Allen Belt. 

But tonight’s was different, more sombre in tone as if it were the passing of an old friend, unprecedented has been a word that’s been used a lot over the past weeks but this was the first time I heard it used to during the pandemic and it was to do with pub closures “even during both world wars the pubs stayed open”. You know it was a ‘special’ kind of night as we even got a round in. Closing time came, we said our farewells, switched off, locked up and left.

We continued the take-away until Sunday and the shop until Tuesday before making the decision to stop altogether. It was no longer about us and our business, it was about the bigger picture, protecting the NHS and saving lives. Although the new offerings were well received and a welcome addition to the village. My diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in 2014 means I am immunosuppressed and therefore on the high-risk list, so in our case the only sensible choice was to close.

We’ve paid our suppliers, team and landlord every penny we owe, we’ve never overstretched ourselves as a business, and paying on time has always been a priority. You pay what you owe, we’ve now had to furlough the team whilst we hibernate and have been as honest as we can. This way I know we will still be here when we are allowed to reopen.

But reopening post Covid-19 pub does worry me, there are too many questions and too many variables. How do you initiate social distancing? ‘That’s easy’, I hear you cry. ‘It’s a two-metre distance between tables.’ Ok, personally we’re lucky we have the space and the capacity to give each table 2 metres, but many don’t.

But how do we control how many households are sitting at that one table and how do we know many people they interact with throughout the day? How do we take guests orders or serve them their meals? How do you control the amount of people that need the toilet at the same time? 

For me personally, how do I safely cook for them? If as chefs, we are told to wear masks, it completely changes the way we have been working for decades. How do you taste the food? Masks are only a successful barrier if you don’t take them off. The same goes for gloves, if we’re not allowed to touch food without gloves on, how often do we change those gloves? or is it a case that restaurants only deal in pre-prepared foods where everything is produced and packaged by machines.  

The answers to those questions leave a vision of a place that isn’t a pub. Where’s the buzz, the atmosphere, the conviviality? Going to a pub and eating out isn’t just about feeding a hunger, it’s about sharing time with friends and family. The food and service are the vehicle that helps you enjoy that time, it just so happens that there tends to be a direct correlation between the better the food and service the better that time is, and pre-packaged food and sterilised service is not going to cut it.

A socially distant pub doesn’t work and I’m worried it can’t safely work until there is a vaccine or at the very least a successful therapeutic treatment.

So, no I’m not worried about surviving the pandemic, but I am worried about existing afterwards. As R.E.M said “It’s the end of the world as we know it” and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.

By James Santillo

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