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Coronavirus: How takeaway pints and virtual quizzes could help save UK pubs

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Angel & Crown landlady Mel Keogh with barman Robert Brown. (Liva Puce)

“We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub,” said UK prime minister Boris Johnson last month. “And I can understand how people feel about that.”

Tens of thousands of pubs shut up shop after the prime minister’s announcement, and the owners of many pubs and their brewery suppliers fear for their survival.

But the government did not force pubs to shut their doors entirely — and a growing number are finding creative ways to keep them ajar.

The rise of the takeaway pint

“You get people saying it’s so nice to be in a pub again, even if it’s not for long,” said Mel Keogh, landlady of the Angel & Crown, near Bethnal Green in east London.

The pub’s chairs may be gathering dust, but it is now open to drinkers popping in for a pint — as long as they take it away. Punters bring their own bottles and queue up two metres apart to take home fresh draught beer. Some even bring plastic milk bottles to stock up.

Keogh expected to mainly draw in regulars for whom the pub on Roman Road is a “second home.” But she was surprised to see many new faces. “We’re getting lots of young people out shopping, on jobs or wandering further on their daily walk who haven’t visited before.”

READ MORE: UK alcohol sales in supermarkets jump during lockdown

The pub even had to expand its craft beer range to meet demand, and has started home deliveries too. Czech lager at £2.60 ($3.20) a pint and Indian pale ale (IPA) on tap for under a fiver are proving popular with locals bored of lockdown life.

The takeaway pint is clearly a wider phenomenon, with the collapse in trade forcing the industry to innovate to stay afloat. More than 2,000 pubs, breweries and cideries are now offering collection and delivery services, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which compiled its own list. Some pubs are even partnering with Deliveroo.

For Keogh, the boom shows how “ingrained pubs are in our culture.” She said many customers were passionate about supporting their local. Some tell her they’re stocking up for birthday Zoom calls, and making friends envious by sipping draught beer on the couch.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Takeaway drinks are not the only way pubs are trying to stay trading, or at least stay at the forefront of regulars’ minds.

Ben Wilkinson, national director of CAMRA, told Yahoo Finance UK one pub he knew was doing a “roaring trade” after reinventing itself as a fish-and-chip shop. Others are holding online events and quizzes.

Virtual pub quizzes have soared in popularity under the lockdown, and some hope it will boost attendance at real ones in future. “People who don’t normally go to pub quizzes are doing them,” noted Ben Wilkinson, national director of Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

It even caught the attention of the Washington Post, with the US newspaper running the headline: “The pubs are closed, but Brits won’t give up their quizzes.”

Wilkinson also hopes absence could make the heart grow fonder, boosting pub visits nationally after the lockdown. “Camra’s been banging on for years about pubs closing — now people are seeing what life’s like without them. They don’t like it very much.”

Pubs and breweries on the brink

Takeaway pints at the Angel & Crown. (Mel Keogh)

Yet the short-term outlook for many pubs remains bleak. For some, takeaway and delivery services are not even an option.

Many lack a licence to sell drinks for consumption off site. The government has resisted calls to waive the requirement, despite encouraging restaurants to become takeaways, relaxing other business rules and bowing to pressure to keep off-licences open.

Such new initiatives also won’t plug the gap on most pubs’ balance sheets. “Clearly it’s a really difficult time if you’ve got no income but still have outgoings,” said Wilkinson.

The lockdown is particularly agonising for the Angel & Crown’s landlady, who only opened the pub in mid-December. Keogh, 33, had spent her life savings transforming the pub and its past unsavoury reputation, after tiring of office work as a finance analyst.

READ MORE: JD Wetherspoon ‘plans June reopening’

Most staff have been furloughed as the pub’s income has tumbled. Many of Keogh’s elderly regulars are not even leaving their homes, and she has also slashed takeaway prices to keep them affordable for those who do.

Even major pub chains are struggling. Wetherspoon’s financial statements make plain its sales have been “zero” since the government’s order on 20 March, with its pubs in “hibernation.”

The woes of pubs, restaurants, and bars are hurting breweries and other suppliers too.

Beer industry leaders say higher supermarket and off-licence sales cannot compensate for pub revenue losses. The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) has warned many members with no supermarket links may not survive, with their beer sales down 82%.

Suppliers’ troubles can then hamper pubs in turn. “Every day we face a new challenge, said Keogh, who is now struggling to get hold of cellar gas essential for beer and soft drinks. “My supplier seems to have shut up shop, and others won’t take on new accounts.”

Support not reaching all firms

Wetherspoon sales are 'zero,' with pubs in 'hibernation.' (PA)

The peacetime lockdown has come alongside unprecedented government support for firms, including pubs. But it is not reaching all of them, and not likely to compensate for all the damage.

The Angel & Crown benefited from a grant scheme, but firms have to navigate application systems and wait for cash. Keogh faced several “hurdles” including a rejection of her initial application. She said it was accepted after she resubmitted it, unchanged.

Around 10,000 pubs are not even eligible for the grant, and many others have not applied. British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) research found just a quarter of eligible pubs had received them in some parts of Britain.

As for the government’s more high-profile business loan scheme, only around half of hospitality firms have applied, with many fearful over debt burdens. 57% of those who have were rejected, according to a UKHospitality trade body survey.

Meanwhile other calls for help have fallen on deaf ears. Empty pubs were expected to pay beer duty as normal in April. Many landlords expect full rent eventually, with many only delaying collection. Insurance schemes are providing little help either, with just 1% of UKHospitality members receiving payouts.

‘Things aren’t going back to normal’

Job losses have mounted since the crisis began, but the government’s job retention scheme may have prevented millions more redundancies, including at pubs.

Almost 99% of JD Wetherspoon (JDW.L) staff are among those furloughed. Some 43,000 of its workers are on leave receiving 80% of their wages through the government, capped at £2,500 a month.

The scheme means many pubs can retain staff for now. Wetherspoons hopes to reopen in June, but many firms fear there will be no swift return to business as usual and furlough support could be slashed too soon.

READ MORE: $10bn hotel startup asks high earners to take pay cut as staff furloughed

“Things aren’t going back to normal for a long time even if pubs are allowed to open,” said Wilkinson. “It’ll be phased, and lots of people will still be understandably nervous about getting coronavirus.”

The BBPA’s chief executive Emma McClarkin warned last week opening pubs with social distancing restrictions would be “extremely difficult” for staff and customers alike. She warned trade could be half of pre-crisis levels, but staff wage costs will suddenly leap back to normal once the furlough scheme ends.

UKHospitality fears a million job losses if the scheme is not extended, and also want the rules relaxed as furloughed staff currently cannot work.

A report by think tank Reform this week argued firms should be allowed to reintroduce staff part-time as the lockdown eases while still topping up wages through the scheme, preventing a financial “cliff edge.” The Treasury says it will “take into account” the lockdown and recovery when deciding on how and when the scheme ends.

Some drinkers may flock back to pubs, but others may also simply lose the habit as well as worry over the virus, according to Wilkinson.

For the CAMRA director, such fears make many pubs’ recent “reinvention” as takeaway outlets even more vital. “The ones that can do something different are the ones that’ll survive.”

The takeaway pint could even outlive the crisis. “It’s better people get their home beer from a pub than Tesco. It’d almost be going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, when pubs had off-sales windows and there were fewer off-licences and supermarkets,” he noted.

For now, Keogh remains positive: “The pub is a labour of love, but I wanted to give something back to the community. This is even more motivation to keep it going now.”