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July 4: Pub bosses, restaurant owners and key hospitality figures reflect on life a year after the first lockdown lifted

·10-min read
Drink on: pubs are back, but still being held back as restrictions remain (Getty Images)
Drink on: pubs are back, but still being held back as restrictions remain (Getty Images)

July 4; Independence Day. What a happy irony it seemed, last year, as restaurants, pubs and bars began to open up. Since then, a year has passed – a year that has felt, often, three or four times its usual length.

Since then, many pub and restaurant groups have done whatever they can to keep their heads above water: some slashed staff, others weighed themselves down with debt, others went on equity drives. And while the easing of lockdown on May 19 of this year offered a little hope for places, even today, many central London "wet-led" drinking pubs remain shut, while table-only service and social distancing measures mean some places are still operating at as little as 10 per cent of their usual capacity.

This comes off the back of 12 months dominated by repeated lockdowns and openings – costly, uncertain things – has ravaged the balance sheets of hospitality at large.

“The low point was definitely November and December when the Government changed policies relating to hospitality about eight times in 10 weeks,” says Jonathan Neame, the CEO of Shepherd Neame, the country’s oldest brewer. “The Government seemed both rudderless and confused at that time, and it caused immense stress and disruption for almost zero benefit.”

Greene King boss Nick Mackenzie agrees: “It’s been tough on our teams – who by their very nature are sociable – having to go back into lockdowns, but their resilience has been incredible. It was also particularly upsetting not being able to welcome our customers at Christmas, knowing how much they were looking forward to being together in the pub with their family and friends.”

There have been highlights, of course; the industry has shown a remarkable malleability, and an ability to transform itself at a moments notice. Few this time last year could have foreseen a third lockdown worse than the first, or the ruinous staffing crisis and the calamitous impact of the track and trace system. Here, as the industry by-and-large calls on the Government to ensure “freedom day” goes ahead on July 19, pub bosses, restaurant owners and key figures in hospitality share their thoughts on one of the hardest 12 months ever for the world of food and drink.

Simon Emeny, CEO, Fuller’s

I’m so proud of our team members – they have really risen to the occasion, supporting their communities, volunteering at vaccination centres and just generally keeping themselves busy. That’s been my standout moment – hearing about their achievements. This has been so tough on our people, especially the closing and reopening that we’ve seen, and the way our teams have come through it is just amazing.

But pubs need to be pubs – we are not restaurants. I just can’t wait to see people standing at bars, or laughing in groups on the pavement outside our West End venues. Pubs need to get back to providing the unique hospitality that only a pub can. That’s my message to Government – stick to your promise and lift all restrictions on July 19. Pubs are about spontaneous decisions to pop in for a quick pint, a chat with a stranger also stood at the bar, or an impromptu get together in the pub garden with your best mates – and July 19 needs to bring all that back.

Hospitality has been overlooked for years and this has been a time for us to find our voice and be heard. We are job and wealth creators, so the inequalities that impact our business need addressing. We need a further business rates relief and the promised overhaul of the entire business rates system. We also need an extension to the VAT reduction – which, of course, has had no benefit during periods of closure. Let us get ourselves back up and running and hospitality will once again be a generator for the UK.

Gordon Kerr, founder, Blacklock

I have loved the selflessness and entrepreneurialism that has been so vibrant in the industry over the last year. Shutdown and fearing for survival everyone came together to think of others in need, supporting the NHS and others on the frontline or in particular need, displaying the genuine care for people that makes our industry so special.

Our people have been bold, confident and inspiring creating Blacklock at Home and Hot Delivery, two things that couldn’t have been further from our plans 18 months ago, and in embracing that so well I’m prouder of them than I ever have been.

Mark Wogan, co-founder, Homeslice

From a business and personal perspective it’s been incredibly challenging. I’ll never forget that feeling of shutting all the restaurants, followed by the months of uncertainty. Reopening and closing a couple of times has put a major burden on every aspect of the business. In many cases the team really stepped up. But many good people have found it too much and have left the industry for good. Finding good people who want to work continues to be a massive issue.

Whilst the government has done many good things, they’ve also crippled the industry with others. At first it all made sense: protect the vulnerable and the NHS. Now like many, because of the mixed messages, it’s hard to see the point. We’ll continue to follow the guidelines as we always have but it’s almost impossible to run a business at anything near capacity under the current circumstances. Furlough needs to end, so people can get back to work and get used to working again.

The mental health situation with the nation’s workforce concerns me. It seems a lot of people are still scared and either no longer feel capable, or have got used to not having to work. Lockdown has removed a sense of purpose for a huge amount of people. What are we without purpose? Maybe I’m wrong and will regret saying this but: can we just get on with life?!

Patrick Dardis, CEO, Young’s

The old normal is what we all deserve. We need a forward looking approach to getting our lives back - kids back in school, people back in every office. Let’s get the country off its knees, together.

Make the VAT reduction permanent for UK hospitality and abolish business rates, so that all that money can be redirected to a higher minimum wage in the sector.This would help the economic bounce back enormously, and put more spending money in the pockets of the youngest staff.

David Moore, owner, Pied à Terre

There are a few things I will always remember from 2020. The many conversations we had with our landlords, the wacky exercise classes we attempted from the living room, and learning to play the guitar. The ‘lowlight’, however, was closing the restaurant having never done so before, and not knowing when we’d be able to reopen. It was a dark time and the lack of warning really added to the stress of it all. We hit a turning point when we put our heads together and launched the vegan feast delivery service. It kept us focused and busy. Mentally, it was really our saving grace, and the revenue was also much appreciated.

My message for the Government right now is please help us out with the Brexit and COVID-induced staff shortages. We need short term visas for young people as the sponsorship system does lend itself well to the hospitality industry. Potential employees tend to come in for a trial shift as you need to see people in action. You can rarely hire someone from abroad having never met them. This is an immediate crisis but also one that needs to be addressed in the long term.

The discounted business rates for this year are much needed but they need fixing going forward. The system is broken and not fit for purpose.

Oisin Rogers, landlord, the Guinea Grill

I want to say that our landlord was kind to us, and magically passed me the keys of the empty Pizza Express before Christmas, leading to a rabbit hole of magic and fun. That included having staff who’d had their fingers frozen off and got sunburn on the same day, carrying plates out into the street, which had the same atmosphere as a blast chiller. Golfing umbrellas held defiantly over white linen tables in the pouring rain.

In February, I was sitting in the dark bar while it slept in the cold months, having checked the cellars on the very day of the Guinness going out of date. I remember the hiss of the last pint drowning out the distant rumble of the Victoria line in the darkness below, where I’d never heard that before.

I loved the hedonism of the last days before all of the lockdowns, where people just went: “f*** it, I’m spending my money.”

If I could speak to the Government, I’d tell them: “I wish you could just let us get on with it, we’re in the business of putting smiles on people’s faces and making them healthy and comfortable and feeling well looked after.”

Easy for me to say, I suppose. I really would not like to be the one making these momentous decisions for our society and for our businesses.

Anneka Brooks, general manager, Davies and Brook, Claridge’s

It has been a challenging entry into the London dining scene, but our team came together and showed such resilience. For the first time we were introduced to the joys of take away - who knew that our best lockdown seller would be our Claridge’s Fried Chicken! To see queues of people standing outside Claridge’s to collect their CFC, it was unexpected and warmed our hearts. And of course, the icing on the cake was to win a Michelin star along the way. I couldn’t be more proud of the team.

Nick Mackenzie, CEO, Greene King

I think the last year has brought about some incredible acts of kindness and care of each other. Our pub teams have been amazing in supporting their local communities – where some people only have the pub as a connection to others. I’m particularly proud of some of the support we’ve been able to provide through the crisis, including donating £800,000 of unused food to distribution charities and food banks, and raising more than £1.5m for Macmillan Cancer Support.

But, we’ve been particularly concerned about inner-city trade, especially in London. We could open very few of our pubs for outdoor trading in April as the majority are wet-led, and without workers and tourists returning to the city, it remains a challenge.

The hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit throughout the pandemic, and we know the future will continue to be financially challenging. The business rates holiday ended on June 30, dramatically increasing our outgoing costs by £250,000 a day at a time when we are still losing millions in trade due to capacity constraints.

The industry is also facing unprecedented challenges of staffing due to Track and Trace and delivery issues. The sector has been crippled during the last 15 months, and we look to the government to consider further support, especially in these areas, to allow us to get back on our feet once and start trading profitably once again.

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