I AM the general manager of a busy pub/restaurant in a good location near a big town. We do a bit more food than drink, 60/40-ish, but in terms of the brand I work for I have a very big wet trade compared with most.
While I completely appreciate that Covid-19 has affected everyone in the country, I cannot help but feel that the hospitality industry has been completely shafted since the very start of this manufactured crisis.
If we rewind to early in the year (hard to remember a time before it controlled our lives, I know) there were rumours of a virus from China because a man ate a bat, and we all laughed and thought ‘there’s no way that will ever affect us’.
When we realised that it was spreading, the public were told not to go out and to keep a distance from other people. Naturally, the first places they stopped visiting were pubs and restaurants. But instead of forcing us to close, which would have given us access to furlough funds, we were allowed to stay open with no one coming through the door. You can imagine the anguished phone call when I had to tell my area manager that we’d spent £800 on labour to make only £500 through the tills. A business cannot function like this. The Thursday before we were forced to close, I worked completely alone with one chef and sent the other five team members home as I simply couldn’t afford to keep them on.
The timing couldn’t have been worse as well – we were told we were closing two days before Mother’s Day. We were expecting 400 people that Sunday, our biggest volume day of the whole year. We are a fresh food business so we had fridges packed with stock, including from memory about 200 fillets of seabass, 200 chicken breasts, and 150 steaks, in all worth about £7,000. We sold off as much as we could in a hasty market stall effort, but despite our best efforts, the loss was staggering.
We all know what happened in the months of April to June. I will say that the furlough scheme was a lifesaver for anyone who was able to use it.
On to July 4, the day we were allowed to reopen. If anyone thinks that pubs can just reopen whenever they’re told to, this is a complete misconception. The amount of preparation and time that went into reopening the business was astonishing; far more than I thought it would be. Ordering fresh stock was the least of my worries; there was also moving all the furniture two metres apart, putting ‘keep your distance’ stickers all over the floor, disposing of about 300 gallons of out-of-date beer and cleaning all the lines, interviewing all my team separately to make sure they were okay to come back to work plus many more things I think my brain has chosen to forget.
We did everything we were told to do. We told people they couldn’t stand and talk to their friends on different tables as they needed to be seated at all times. We got told to F*** off when we told middle-aged men that they could no longer approach the bar and needed to be sitting down to order a drink. The main thing I realised while taking the brunt of this abuse is this: people come to the pub for a little bit of time when they aren’t told what to do. They come in to relax with their friends or family in an environment that’s not their own home. Now, they come in and we tell them to sanitise their hands, we tell them to complete the track & trace form, then we walk them to their table and deliver a five-minute speech about the one-way system, the disposable menus, and instruct them that they may move only to go to the toilet and that they must come straight back. Oh, and they can’t go to the bar.
We didn’t enjoy being Covid police. I took no pleasure in telling someone that they couldn’t move the furniture or that chair to make the table a 5 rather than a 4. Honestly, when I told someone that they couldn’t move a chair as it was only a table for a maximum of 4 he looked at me as if I’d asked for his mum’s last tenner.
Not long after reopening we were handed Eat Out To Help Out throughout the whole of August. I’m sure you all remember the carnage but I’ll remind you just in case: 50 per cent off food and soft drinks up to a maximum of £10 per person every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. From what I recall we were given about a fortnight’s warning. Before EOTHO on a Monday-Wednesday we might have 30-50 covers booked in on average for the day. EOTHO meant we had 300. We worked all day every day. Monday-Wednesday is when you normally have your days off in the industry as they are the quietest days, so any rest went out of the window.
Then we come to what was in my opinion the most frustrating decision made throughout the whole thing: mandatory face masks for all hospitality staff. I am not qualified to offer an opinion on the effectiveness of masks but I know a lot about how unbearably uncomfortable they are to wear for long periods. No doubt nearly everyone reading this has worn one by now but I can assure you that there is a big difference between wearing a mask for a few minutes in a shop and wearing one nonstop for a 12-hour shift while trying to talk to people. You get hot and you get a splitting headache. The worst bit is that in a fairly noisy environment no one can hear you so you end up having to shout. Not to mention the mask spots or ‘maskne’ which affected my younger female team members’ faces more than anyone else. Having these poor girls turning up to work crying about how they looked definitely didn’t make the job any easier.
In September the 10pm curfew was introduced. Quite why the government thought it would make a shred of difference to the infection rates is beyond me. Whatever time you kick people out, whether it’s 10pm, 11pm or 2am, there will be a crowd of people outside a venue. This is unavoidable. My pub lost about £6k a week in sales due to the fact that we had to move last orders to 21:15 so that everyone could order, pay and leave by 10pm. I did hear of a venue being shut down because someone was on the premises at 22:04. Ridiculous.
We had long since started to plan for Christmas – surely after one lockdown we wouldn’t be put through another one. If you have a big food trade, as we do, Christmas requires a huge amount of planning. Bookings start in August, where you speak to each guest individually and collect a deposit. After all, if they’re paying £70+ a head for Christmas Day lunch they want to feel they’ve been able to discuss the day in the finest detail.
When preparations were fully under way, people aware of the deadline for when they needed to submit their menu choices and make a full payment, rotas all done for Christmas with everyone given their preferred key date off work, we entered another lockdown.
So we were back in the same desperate position we had found ourselves in seven months previously. This time we had four days’ warning. We moved all the stock we couldn’t sell off into the cellar and locked it up. But since Boris Johnson was adamant that the country would reopen on December 2, we placed stock orders for that date and kept our booking system open. Sure enough, the bookings flooded in for December 2 onwards and for Christmas week as people clearly wanted something to look forward to after the lockdown.
About a week before reopening day came the news of the tiers. We had the pub decorated for Christmas. We had rotas done. We had orders placed. Then we were told that we couldn’t open as we had been dumped into Tier 3. It’s hard to describe the feeling of complete hopelessness when there is yet another setback and once again you have to try to reassure your team that their jobs are safe when it’s hard to believe it yourself.
So that brings me to now, early December, waiting to see if the cases in my area will drop enough to bring us down a tier and mean we can reopen. If we can, it will be on December 19, just before Christmas, the busiest time of year, with a whole new set of rules and guidelines to adhere to, when everyone just wants to come to the pub to see their friends.
Covid-19 is not being spread because of hospitality businesses, which have put measures in place to keep people safe. I have visited many other pubs and have witnessed managers and staff spending their days directing their customers like cattle, ensuring all the guidelines are adhered to. My team and I have worked tirelessly and adapted without complaint to every single new guideline and instruction handed to us.
The last nine months have been without a doubt the hardest of my ten-year hospitality career and it will have been the same for everyone else involved in the business.
If you live in a Tier 2 area, please please please go and support your local pub or restaurant. The situation really is desperate so even if you have to have a meal and you don’t want to, just suck it up because the pressure these managers and landlords are feeling is immense. This is especially important for independent businesses. I work for a big company and while that has its downsides I have felt as secure as I possibly could throughout this awful year. I doubt if I could say the same for the independents.
If you live in a Tier 3 area, check which places are offering takeaway. Not McDonald’s or KFC. I walked past a McDonald’s drive-thru last Friday evening and the queue must have been 20 cars long. See if that little restaurant you like is doing takeaway and order from there instead.