Anyone who follows me on social media will probably have seen how I haven’t exactly been in a rush to get back to the pub. However, over time this is beginning to change, and I’m tentatively starting to enjoy time in pubs and restaurants again, which has given me the chance to observe how safely establishments are operating during the coronavirus pandemic.
As I discussed in part one, I’m a creature that loves pubs and draught beer, and before the world changed I would do most of my drinking within them. In part three I’m going to talk about my personal pub experiences and how I found my “pub legs” again. For now, however, I want to get the view of those on the other side of the bar; the hospitality owners and operators (and their hard-working staff) who are doing everything possible to keep you safe, while we get back out to the pub again.
I had my first meal in a restaurant in six months a few weeks ago, at the excellent Kiln in Soho. I had no idea what to expect, and admit that my heart was palpitating a little as I strolled down Brewer Street clad in one of my growing collection of facemasks. Things were going to be different—this I expected—but I was pleasantly surprised how well the staff took it in their stride.
We arrived on-time for our booking, were asked to sanitise our hands and write down our names and telephone numbers for contact tracing, before being ushered to our seats at the long, wide bar in front of the open kitchen. Between each party of two, a plate was placed on a stool to ensure each group remained socially distant. Within a few moments of the first sip of my beer, I was at ease, and overjoyed to be back in a restaurant again.
“We’ve done what we’ve needed to do [in terms of] government guidance; we’ve removed tables and chairs and track and trace everyone who comes in.” Scott Collins is the managing director of restaurant chain MEATLiquor, which specialises in classic American fare such as cheeseburgers and wings—and, most importantly, a great selection of beer supplied by the team at Euroboozer. For Scott, the supplied government guidance was largely unhelpful, but he tells me how existing processes at his restaurants helped them adapt quickly.
“It was a bit like a game of chicken, some went all out and spent thousands on barriers which I don’t think really made any difference—no one really knows about the disease,” he says. “What I’ve found is that when you go into pubs who are doing table service for the first time you’ve got untrained staff, so it’s very forced. Because we’ve always ran tabs and done table service it feels very normal, so we settled in very quickly.”
While the sites were closed during lockdown Scott says that this gave his small group the opportunity to “drill down” and work on everything from efficiencies to getting the menu ship shape. “Trying to change things with 11 sites is quite difficult but we’ve nailed our operations, they’re much slicker, and the food is tasting better than ever.”
He also chats openly about a noticeable shift in consumer behavior following reopening after the easing of restrictions on July 4th. Previously MEATLiquor’s bustling Oxford Circus site was its busiest, but following lockdown that title went to its Brighton branch, as consumers escaped the capital looking for a bit of sea air. It’s a trend that has continued while offices remain empty and high street footfall is still in recovery. Scott also had some positives to report, but things are still a long way from returning to normal.
“Eat Out to Help Out was astonishing,” he says. “But now it’s back to earth with a bump.” Despite the scheme being over, I still look forward to the next time I can pop in for a Dead Hippie Hamburger and some wings. Restaurants are as in need of our patronage right now, just as our pubs.
During lockdown I wrote a piece for food newsletter Vittles about the loss of pub communities during this time. The focus of the piece was not on customers, but the people who work behind the bar, how they were dealing with uncertainty while furloughed whilst longing to be back behind the pumps serving fresh pints of beer. The more I think about it, the happier I am to see pubs open again. Not just for the sake of the beer pouring, but this community being able to safely rebuild. It’s important not to only think of pubs as busy, city centre bars, but as essential social spaces that form a cornerstone of many peoples lives.
At The Bohemia in Finchley, North London—also the home of London Brewing Company—owner Senan Sexton is pleased to see things getting back to some semblance of normality, but didn’t rest on his laurels during lockdown. The Bohemia is something of a cornerstone for the North Finchley community, something that was felt during lockdown as people lost such a valuable social space.
“We did a fundraiser in Lockdown and raised about £10,000 that we donated to causes in the Finchley area,” Senan tells me. “One of our regulars is a designer and did some designs to help with social distancing, I didn’t want the standard biohazard signs.”
The signage was taken from London Brewing Company’s own artwork, in an effort to give returning customers a sense of reassurance through familiarity. Senan was also keen that customers were also still able to order from the bar (at a safe distance) should they wish, but an app based table ordering system has also been put in place for those who would rather have a little more space.
“We’ve eased back in nicely and delicately: there’s a one way system, and we’re making sure the person at the door is warm and friendly. Yes things have changed but they’re not terrible,” Senan adds. “We’ve had good feedback from our regulars who’ve said it still feels safe and relaxed, despite the restrictions.”
He also tells me that business hasn’t quite been as down as expected since reopening in July, although peak times at busy weekends have seen the biggest dip. And like with MEATLiquour, Eat Out to Help Out gave The Bohemia a much needed boost. “People have eaten a lot more steak! Hopefully we’re on the journey of convincing them that things are going ok,” Senan adds.
What’s clear from speaking to Senan, Scott, and others on my own visits back to pubs and restaurants is how hard many of them are working to provide a safe, relaxed environment for their customers. Midway through writing this piece, however, a curveball was thrown at the hospitality industry, as new regulations, including a 10pm curfew and mandatory masks for staff and table service were brought in by the government. It’s added an extra degree of uncertainty to an already challenging period for our pubs bars and restaurants.
“It’s pretty painful—it’s gonna decimate our central London sites. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve though,” MEATLiquor’s Scott Collins says. “It’s now a case of predicting people’s habits as they will probably dine out earlier. Every day is going to be a new challenge.”
“The government’s decision to close pubs at 10pm—meaning last drinks at 9:30pm—goes beyond the loss of trade for the last few hours of the evening,” The Bohemia’s Senan Sexton adds. “We have all worked hard to claw back the goodwill of our customers with the hope of breaking even until a vaccine is found and things return to the new normal. This decision could drive many of us into an unsustainable loss.”
Thus begins a period of even deeper uncertainty for the hospitality industry. The good news is, however, that despite the restrictions they remain open for now. Let’s try and (safely) enjoy some time there, as and when, we can.