Thursday, 26 November 2020

Every little doesn’t count

Some people regard supermarket loyalty cards as an invasion of privacy, but I have to say I’m not too bothered about the Tesco Clubcard so long as they don’t start sending me discount vouchers for carrots. I typically spend maybe £15-£20 there each week, and every three months get a coupon for £3 or so off my shop.

Every Christmas for quite a few years, they’ve sent me a batch of coupons offering me one week of £6 off if I spent £40, and then £4 off for each of the two following weeks. Their main objective, I assume, is to encourage me to do my Christmas shopping there rather than with one of their competitors, but it’s a useful discount given that I’m spending more money at that time of year anyway.

However, this year I noticed that, in the small print, alongside the usual exclusions of petrol, tobacco, infant formula milk and the like, they had added alcohol. Now, while my weekly spend isn’t primarily on drink, there’s usually a couple of bottles or cans included, and at Christmas a significant amount of the extra spending is going to be on alcohol, either for myself or as presents. I might treat myself, say, to a nice bottle of malt whisky that I wouldn’t normally do through the year.

With alcohol excluded, I would struggle to get together enough other shopping to reach the £40 threshold on even one occasion, unless there was some particular household or clothing item I wanted, which at present there isn’t. So the upshot is that the coupons end up in the recycling, and a little amount of goodwill has been lost.

I can understand that this may have to apply in Scotland because of their minimum pricing legislation, but in England it just comes across as remarkably lacking in Christmas spirit, in more ways than one. It’s yet another small, niggling turn of the prohibitionist screw.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

A daily reminder of pub life

I was kindly sent a review copy of the 2021 Pub Life Calendar. Its creator Michael describes it as “a fun take on characters I’ve seen in my many years of visiting our great British pubs.” It’s a large format wall calendar, with each month featuring its own humorous character such as the Bandisnoot, the Gobhoblin and the Sipster.

Hopefully by next year we will be allowed back in the pubs, but you might still like a daily reminder on your kitchen wall, or know a friend or relative who might appreciate it as a Christmas gift. It’s available for £9.99 directly from the website at www.publife.co.uk.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

A recipe to save the pub

I have to say I had my doubts when I heard that a TV series on Saving the British Pub was going to be hosted by celebrity chef Tom Kerridge*. What can anyone who boasts about how his pub in affluent Marlow became the first pub in the world to gain two Michelin stars have to say about the vast majority of ordinary boozers? However, I approached it with an open mind, and have to say the first episode on Thursday night was a lot better than I had expected.

Kerridge himself is a surprisingly down-to-earth and affable presenter and, rather than following in the footsteps of Alex Polizzi with a hackneyed “pub doctor” format, the programme mixed case studies of individual pubs with wider consideration of the general pressures affecting the industry. He did say at the beginning that the three important factors in any pub are the drinks, the food and the atmosphere, which obviously doesn’t apply to all those pubs that are primarily or entirely wet-led, but in fact only one of the three pubs he looked at came anywhere near to the expected stereotype of the country dining pub.

This was the White Hart at Chilsworthy, overlooking the Tamar valley in East Cornwall, close to the Devon border. Ian and Amy had sold a four-bedroom house a couple of years ago in order to realise their lifelong dream of running a country pub. They had succeeded in being named CAMRA’s Cornwall Pub of the Year in 2019. However, they weren’t really making any money out of it, and this moved Amy to tears. Amy seemed to do the lion’s share of the work, but to be fair Ian had kept on his day job as a gas engineer and, as Tom politely suggested, Amy possibly found it difficult to delegate.

The bar seemed busy enough with locals, but the dining trade was struggling, and Tom suggested knocking through the wall between dining room and bar to integrate it better with the rest of the pub, and open up the magnificent view. I have to say I’m rarely a fan of knocking walls through, and Ian was sceptical, saying he didn’t want somewhere with grey walls and a sofa in the corner, but they went ahead, the work going on in the early months of 2020 while the bar remained open. They were looking forward a good Spring and Summer with their new look. And then a bombshell struck!

The second pub was the Prince Albert in Stroud, Gloucestershire, a wet-led pub standing high above the town centre with a well-established reputation for live music. One problem Tom immediately identified was a lack of parking, which is a major deterrent to attracting trade beyond the locality, but didn’t make any more of it. The pub seemed to do a healthy trade, but licensees Lottie and Miles, as tenants of pubco Punch Taverns, were making very little money out of it.

The first thing Tom suggested was to review their prices to make sure they were getting a decent margin on all their beers. However, £4.50 a pint for Landlord already didn’t seem particularly cheap, and chasing margin can be a recipe for disaster. Yes, if you increase your prices by 10%, and trade goes down by less, you’re gaining, at least in the short term, but it’s a drug where the dose has to keep being repeated to gain the same effect, and gaining a reputation for high prices is not going to attract new customers even if regulars put up with it.

This predictably moved on to taking aim at the pubcos in general. While there is plenty of criticise about the actions of pubcos, they are really a symptom of the decline of the industry rather than a cause, and this needs to be traced back to the disastrous Beer Orders of thirty years ago. It is all too easy to portray pubcos as pantomime villains, but their critics can never come up with any other realistic business model for the industry, and they, like every commercial business, are surely entitled to try to make a profit. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for a pubco to want to set the rent under a Market Rent Only option to recover the profits lost through no longer being able to sell beer to the tenant. In next week’s episode, Tom is going to put these criticisms to the MD of Punch Taverns, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

The third pub was the Golden Anchor, a monumental street-corner pub in South London that for many years had been popular with the local Afro-Caribbean community. But the business was now struggling, and again Lana, the licensee of over twenty years, was moved to tears. One problem was that a substantial section of the clientele was elderly West Indian gentlemen who came in to play dominoes but put very little money across the bar during the course of an evening.

This was an example of where the “pub doctor” approach was more appropriate. An area previously only used as a concert room was opened up for general use, and the domino players were politely shifted to a less prominent location. To attract a wider cross-section of customers, Tom suggested that Lana put on a selection of real ales and craft beers, which the pub hadn’t offered before. An open evening was arranged to promote the new offering, and this seemed to be successful in bringing in a more diverse crowd, so on the face of it this seemed the most successful intervention.

An inherent problem with this kind of exercise is that the reasons for the success or failure of specific pubs are very different from those behind the overall decline of the pub trade. For most struggling pubs, it is possible to identify some concrete actions they can take to increase their custom and profitability. But most of this will just mean attracting customers from other pubs, not people who didn’t go to the pub at all.

Over the past three decades, the pub trade has been affected by a raft of changes in legislation and social attitudes that overall have greatly reduced the range of occasions when people will contemplate a visit to a pub. People still like the idea of pubs in theory, but in practice they visit them less and less. Of course it is still possible to do well in a declining market, but that should not be allowed to obscure the wider picture. By and large, the reason so many pubs have closed is not because they haven’t been run as well as they could have been.

And it was disappointing, if not entirely surprising, that an entire hour discussing the decline of the pub trade passed by without a single mention of the legendary Elephant in the Room...

* One of the few things I remember about Tom Kerridge, not being a connoisseur of the work of celebrity chefs, is that a few years ago he made the news for losing no less than 150 lb in weight. He doesn’t drink alcohol now, which may be connected.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Junking business

No chance of being able to advertise these tempting artisan cakes

Still deep in the Covid crisis, and with the end of the Brexit transition period fast approaching, you might imagine that the government had its hands pretty full. But they have still found time to launch a consultation on a total ban on Internet advertising of so-called “HFSS” (High in Fat, Salt or Sugar) food products.

The ostensible aim is to combat childhood obesity, but it seems to stem from the “something must be done” school of policymaking. The thought process seems to be that, if children spend a lot of time on the Internet, banning advertising there will reduce their exposure to it and thus their consumption of such foods. However, the government’s own estimates assume that average calorie consumption will be reduced by a mere 2.8 calories a day, and that itself is an increase from an initial estimate of just 0.3 calories. It is also very poorly targeted, with many items included that have little or no appeal to children. How many, for example, go out shopping for cooking sauces?

As I reported last year, the definition of HFSS foods includes many items that are generally perceived as wholesome and natural, such as orange juice, butter, full-fat cheese and milk, and many meat products including bacon. The lazy assumption is that it just applies to crisps and burgers, but many companies who perceive themselves as being in the health food market are taken aback to find themselves in the fiiring line too. Small artisanal producers are affected just as much as the big boys, and may indeed find the impact even more severe.

As Christopher Snowdon points out, the proposed scope of the restrictions is quite breathtaking. Not only does it include anything with added sugar, such as biscuits, jams, ice cream and yoghurts, but also a long list of savoury items as shown in the graphic below.

It’s hard to think of many food items involving any processing whatsoever that will be excluded. These aren’t just a small subset of particularly harmful products, but a huge swathe of what most ordinary people actually eat and enjoy as part of their normal everyday diets.

The Internet is no longer just a fancy little add-on for companies, but the principal channel of advertising and promotion. Deprived of that, it is much harder to do business. As I have pointed out before in the context of tobacco and alcohol, advertising bans have little effect on underlying demand, but what they do do is to ossify the market. It becomes difficult or impossible to launch new products, let alone for entirely new competitors to enter. This will especially affect small start-up companies wishing to challenge the dominance of existing players. It will be a kick in the teeth for thousands of small businesses. It seems redundant to express surprise at such a policy being floated by a Conservative government when they have spent most of the past year being just as authoritarian and anti-business as anyone else.

The government have been generous enough to still permit factual listings of product details on company websites, so it won’t stop online sales, either direct or through supermarkets, or takeaway ordering. But will it even be acceptable to show a photo of the product concerned? And you certainly won’t be permitted to advertise the fact that you offer these products anywhere else. How, for example, will a wedding cake maker be able to inform anyone that they provide that particular service?

The government spends a lot of time promoting distinctive British food products around the world, but it would be ironic if they were extolling the virtues of Lancashire hotpot, Wensleydale cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies while at the same time preventing them from being advertised in their country of origin. And, if you imagine that none of this is going to be applied to alcohol over the next few years, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Singled out

Yesterday, Boris Johnson announced a new national lockdown lasting four weeks until the end of November. Not surprisingly, as before, hospitality bore the brunt of the restrictions, with pubs, restaurants, cafés and coffee shops unable to serve customers on the premises in any way. This is despite official government figures showing the hospitality sector as responsible for an utterly trivial source of infections outside the home – a mere 2% according to the chart below.

Given this, it is hard to see that this particular part of the restrictions will have any significant effect in curbing the number of cases. It seems that, yet again, hospitality is being unfairly scapegoated as it forms an easy target. Indeed, the whole package comes across as an ill-considered example of the “Something Must be Done!” school of policymaking.

To add insult to injury, looking at the small print of the regulations reveals that licensed premises are even going to be banned from selling alcoholic drinks for takeaway. For plenty of pubs this was a lifeline during the first lockdown and allowed drinkers to continue enjoying cask ale. To prohibit it now seems completely unreasonable given that supermarkets and specialist off-licences can continue selling alcohol. You have to wonder whether the anti-drink lobby have managed to sneak it in under the radar.

However, it has not gone unnoticed by industry groups such as UK Hospitality and SIBA, and hopefully pressure can be brought to bear to get this reversed before the lockdown comes into effect next Thursday. Johnson said that this lockdown wasn’t like the first one, but on this evidence it seems to be even stricter!

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Table disservice

My local pub was built in 1939 and its fabric remains little altered since then. Around the walls of the lounge are a series of little push-buttons that once were used to summon waiter service. They have not been operational since I first started going in there 35 years ago, but show that this is something once commonplace in pubs. It had pretty much entirely died out by the time I started drinking, although I believe it lingered on into the 1980s in a few pubs. Presumably, increasing labour costs were the reasons for phasing it out. To some extent, the provision of waiter service justified the charging of higher prices in the lounge, something else that has pretty much entirely disappeared.

Since the middle of September, all pubs in England have been required to operate table service for drinks. I’ve mentioned on several occasions how this is proving problematic, but I thought it was worth its own post to explain why it just doesn’t work.

Of course table service is the norm in restaurants, but there is a significant difference there in that the customer experience follows a predictable pattern. They come in, are given a menu, place their order, are served with starter, then main course, then are given the opportunity to order a dessert and coffee, and eventually are presented with a bill which they proceed to pay. As long as the staff keep an eye on where diners are up to, it shouldn’t be too difficult to move them smoothly on from one stage to the next. It should be a touchstone of good service that the customer is always approached before they actually feel the need to summon a waiter.

Despite this, over the years I’ve had numerous experiences of utterly execrable service in restaurants and dining pubs, either forgetting the order entirely or being totally ignored once a particular stage had been completed. This cannot be blamed on simply being busy, as often it has happened when the place is virtually empty. If I had infinite reserves of both time and patience, I’m sure I could have qualified for quite a few free or discounted meals – indeed I have received one or two.

The main responsibility must lie with the restaurants themselves, in failing to recruit, train and motivate their staff properly. However, it has to be said that some of the staff come across as lackadaisical and unobservant. I’ve never worked as a waiter, and to be honest wouldn’t be cut out for it, but I’m sure I would understand the basic requirements of the job, especially keeping an eye on where the various tables you are looking after are up to.

However, the situation for drinks service is very different, in that the predictability is lost. The waiter does not know how long a group will be staying, how fast they will be drinking, or when they will want refills. Hence they are much more likely to need to call for service, which is why pubs used to be fitted with service bells. To be reliant on hailing a passing waiter introduces an element of stress and uncertainty into the simple process of getting another drink.

This isn’t, at present, the pubs’ fault, as they have been placed against their wishes in a very difficult situation at the same time as being put against the wall financially. In a small pub where all the seats can be viewed from the bar, it may not cause too much of a problem, especially considering the reduced customer numbers. However, in a large venue, with various nooks and crannies and remote areas, being able to summon service could become quite a challenge. My limited experience of using table service in Wetherspoon’s without using the app suggests that ordering a second drink can be something of a hopeless quest. One solution would be to actually ring the pub up on their public number, but that might not go down too well! If the only way to obtain service is to accost a passing member of staff who is in the middle of doing something else, then the system has failed.

Using an app for ordering alleviates this problem to some extent but, as I have discussed, it creates issues of social and digital exclusion, and still does not deal with the question of how to summon staff if you don’t actually want to order anything, such as my problem with a cloudy pint.

It appears that the current restrictions are going to be with us for some time, and so pubs, assuming they are allowed to remain open at all, will no doubt learn and adapt to cope with the situation better. But there is no getting away from the fact that table service is much more labour-intensive than bar service, and this is only covered up at present by the limits on customer numbers. If revenues have been slashed, pubs are in no position to pay for the extra staff they need.

It’s often said that bar work should be valued more highly, but the only way to reflect that value is to charge higher prices. In Continental countries where table service is the norm, bar prices for alcoholic drinks are often markedly higher than in this country despite the lower rates of alcohol duty that apply. It is a completely different model of operation that British pubs are ill-placed to adapt to in the middle of an existential crisis. As Glynn Davis says in this article:

I’d argue they are very much geared up to this in terms of service and also their customers are used to this method of operation. Also the economic model has been built around it. At my local pub, sales levels had rather healthily increased by 50% quickly after lock-down but I understand staff numbers had doubled in order to deal with the extra effort of table service. This suggests a lot more work for the same levels of profitability.
And, for drinks service, unless your venue is absolutely teeming with staff, it is going to require one or both of a modern equivalent of a service bell, or some other means of calling someone to your table.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Death of the swift pint

When the new restrictions on how pubs could operate were imposed in the middle of September, many people expressed the view that their combined effect would largely destroy the spontaneous pleasure of just popping into the pub.

This theme has been echoed in an excellent article in Retail Insider by Glynn Davis entitled Extra restrictions kill the swift pint option…

Many times over the past couple of weeks at the end of the day I’ve thought about popping out to the pub for a quick pint while I read the paper. But I’ve then changed my mind and instead cracked open a can of beer or poured a glass of wine at home. Once lock-down ended, I reckon I was more excited than the majority of people at the ability to again simply go for a drink in a convivial atmosphere that wasn’t my own garden or house. But what has transpired has not been particularly appealing because of the growing number of steps you have to go through before you get to the point of having a glass in your hand...

...But when you then throw in the 10pm curfew, the situation becomes dire for businesses and customers. After its introduction, like-for-like sales fell 21.2% compared with the week before it was brought in. With this, food fell 19.1% while drinks declined 23.2%, according to S4labour. I’m clearly not alone in finding the creep of extra restrictions limiting the appetite for socialising. According to a CGA Consumer Pulse Survey conducted on 22 September, two in five (40%) of people stated they would go out less often as a result of the measures. This compares with a much more modest 14% who intend to go out more often.

I had said the same a few days before that, while the pubs are mostly still open, the experience just isn’t the same. I’ve always found the fact that nobody questions what you’re doing in a pub, or really cares, to be a major attraction. And another Twitter commenter said much the same in response to Glynn Davis’ article. It’s not one single thing, but the cumulative effect of the several different measures put together. As Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s said, customers “find it too much of a faff.” Previously, it didn’t seem too onerous to give your name and phone number to a member of staff, or write them on a slip of paper, but expecting people to check in using the NHS app adds another layer of formality, and anyone unable to use it is marked out as a little odd. Plus, many people seem to have difficulty connecting with it, leading to queues developing on entry.

The queues are exacerbated by table service, which means that everybody has to be allocated to a table before taking a seat. And then there can be a long wait to actually get someone to serve you. A ten or fifteen minute wait makes that swift pint not so swift, and as for asking for a refill...

While many people have become inured to wearing masks, it still seems a ludicrous charade to be expected to put one on for a minute or two when entering a pub or going to the toilet, and this must represent a significant psychological deterrent. And, if you have a medical exemption, you will need to steel yourself for a potential confrontation with officious door staff, and run the risk of barracking from other customers when going to the toilet.

While I’m not personally too concerned about the 10 pm curfew, I know for many people a couple of sociable pints towards the end of the evening is their favoured regular routine.

The pubs themselves are not to blame for this, as it’s something that has been imposed on them from above, although it has to be said that some don’t exactly help themselves in their approach to implementing the regulations. If people have a compelling reason to go to the pub, then they may still be willing to jump through the hoops, although of course now across large swathes of the country you can’t even meet up with anyone outside your own household. But that swift pint on spec – forget it. Plus the arbitrary restrictions over and above the official regulations which I referred to in the post linked above make going to any pubs beyond your regular haunts a complete lottery as you have no idea what kind of welcome you will receive.

It’s all very well saying that people should support pubs, but if the experience has been turned from something pleasurable to a grim rigmarole it becomes increasingly hard to see the attraction. And most ordinary people go to pubs because they enjoy it, not out of a sense of duty.

I recognise that not everyone will see things in the same way, but it’s a common fallacy to believe that your own perceptions are representative of the whole, and from what I’ve seen on social media there are plenty of previously regular pubgoers whose reaction has been the same.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Supping with a long spoon

Last Sunday I tweeted the following from one of my local Wetherspoon’s, which was met with a surprisingly vituperative response. The most frequent charge was “Why aren’t you in a proper pub?” But my explanation for that was pretty clear. I’m certainly not an unequivocal Spoons fanboy, and over the years I’ve often criticised their venues’ lack of atmosphere and deliberately unpubby layout. But it can’t be denied that they’re a very successful company who have seized opportunities that were available, but which others didn’t take. They attract people into pubs who otherwise probably wouldn’t be there at all, and Spoons often has a wider social mix of customers than anywhere else.

In many places such as smaller non-tourist towns or city suburbs, they can offer by far the best (or even the only halfway decent) selection of food and drink. In an urban area on a Sunday, there may well be nowhere else to eat in a pub apart from a family dining outlet, or a gastropub with its inevitable high prices and snobby atmosphere. The idea that there’s a whole stratum of independent places serving quality, locally-produced lunchtime pub food at reasonable prices is pie in the sky.

If I just wanted a drink, then I certainly wouldn’t be in Spoons. But there are only three proper pubs in my particular corner of Stockport, and all of those have piped music and TV football which, to their credit, Spoons don’t. We might benefit from a Sam’s pub, although there are a couple in the town centre and another just over the Manchester border.

The question was also asked “why are you using the app?” Now, I’m certainly no great fan of either apps or cashless payments, but I’m not a total technological Luddite. I’ve got it on my phone and often use it to order food in Spoons because it makes the process quicker and easier and means there’s no risk of someone else nicking my table while I’m up at the bar. Mandatory table service also seems to have made them grasp the nettle of getting their current guest ales reliably listed. Plus, from my experience of using table service and paying cash in another branch earlier in the week, it would take an age to actually place my order.

The issue with the cloudy pint exposes another drawback of app ordering – what do you do if you want to summon a member of staff but not actually order anything? Fortunately in this case the beer arrived before the food, so I was able to send it back when the food appeared, but if they had come at the same time I would have been waiting for an indefinite length of time to accost a passing server and had nothing to wash my meal down with. Perhaps I could have marched angrily up to the bar, but you’re not supposed to do that, are you?

Maybe they’re hoping that when this area gets moved into Tier 3 that a pint of soupy beer will qualify as a “substantial meal”.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Soaking up the virus

On Monday, the government set out a system of tiers of lockdown restrictions to standardise the various local rules in place across England. Licensees in Greater Manchester breathed a sigh of relief that pubs in the area were not to be closed, as had been widely feared. However, further down the Mersey, the “Liverpool City Region”, which includes Halton unitary authority as well as the former county of Merseyside, became the only area of the country to be placed into Tier 3, the highest tier.

Somewhat to many people’s surprise, this does not require the complete closure of pubs, but allows them to stay open and serve alcoholic drinks so long as every customer consumes a “substantial meal”. On the face of it, this seems to represent unfair and arbitrary discrimination against wet-led pubs, many of which have bent over backwards to comply with the ever-changing restrictions. It also reflects a long-standing official prejudice against drinking in pubs as such, and seems to assume that, without a filling meal, they all become scenes of riotous debauchery.

However, without justifying it for a minute, I think the decision was arrived at from the opposite direction. To close all restaurants, as applied throughout April, May and June, would effectively prevent anyone having a sit-down meal outside their own home and would represent a massive restriction on economic activity. However, if table-service restaurants are allowed to remain open, then it would be grossly inconsistent to require food-serving pubs to close, especially given that many are effectively restaurants in functional terms anyway. Yes, it is unfair to wet-led pubs, but to close all pubs while keeping restaurants open would be unfair to food-led pubs.

A rule such as this, though, clearly requires definition. It wouldn’t be seen as acceptable for a packet of scratchings to legitimise a lengthy drinking session. In Ireland it was defined as a food item costing a minimum of €9, which is £8 at the current exchange rate, although more like £6 at purchasing power parity. This, however, is a very arbitrary rule given the wide variations in food prices between different pubs. In some high-end gastropubs, it wouldn’t even buy you a starter, whereas the £3.95 meals spotted by Martin Taylor in the Colliers’ Arms at Cheslyn Hay in Staffordshire, shown below, look pretty substantial to me.

Ireland also had a maximum visit duration of 90 minutes to prevent a meal turning into a lengthy drinking session. Frankly I’ve been in restaurants in this country where you would struggle to get your meal ordered, eaten and paid for within that time-frame.

If you are not going to have an objective yardstick such as price, then you will need to resort to a more subjective definition. Government minister Robert Jenrick* tied himself up in knots by saying that a Cornish pasty on its own wasn’t a substantial meal, but put it on a plate and add chips or salad and it magically becomes one. Few would dispute that a burger and chips would qualify, and the health-conscious should surely be allowed to substitute a salad for the chips. If a burger, then surely also a steak ciabatta, which is in principle the same kind of thing. And a cheese or hummus one for the vegetarians. Before too long, you have a cheese toastie with a couple of lettuce leaves qualifying.

Some might dismiss this as nit-picking, as you know a substantial meal when you see one. In the majority of cases, this is true, but if any regulation is to be enforced by law then it requires a watertight definition. We will see how this evolves over the next few days. But I would imagine under these rules, however interpreted, that most food-led pubs, including Wetherspoon’s, will consider it worth their while remaining open.

(Wetherspoon’s do not yet appear to have update their app for their Liverpool pubs to reflect any reductions in menu)

* When contesting the Newark by-election in 2014, Jenrick was nicknamed “Robert Generic” as he seemed to perfectly fit the stereotype of the identikit, principle-free, careerist politician. And he succeeded in rising without trace to become a member of the Cabinet in just five years.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Putting your wares on the table

The bar counter is a key element in a pub. It allows it to showcase the products that are available and highlight any new launches or lines being promoted. The customer can scan the rows of handpumps and taps, peer at the contents of fridges, cast their eye along the spirit bottles on the top shelf or even peruse the display cards of snacks. In many cases, product names and logos are created to make an impression in a bar service environment. Deprived of that shop window by the introduction of mandatory table service, pubs have to find other ways of selling their products.

The easiest option is to do nothing. Most customers tend to drink the same thing, or simply order a generic product, and they know what is on offer. The occasional question as to what lagers or white wines they have can be easily answered. Even if they can’t see the bar from where they are sitting, customers are likely to pass it on their way in, or to the toilet, and get a general impression of the range. The risk with this approach is that it will lead to a concentration on familiar, best-selling products, and anything more niche or marginal will be sidelined. It also makes it very difficult to introduce anything new.

The obvious solution is to produce a printed drinks menu, although for hygiene reasons this may need to be a disposable paper item. Yes, you can also put it on a website or app, but that won’t be available to everyone, and a sheet or paper is more visible and in-your-face. Wetherspoon’s have been doing this for years. This will force you to analyse your drinks range and possibly rationalise it – maybe you really don’t want to list that bottle of Sheep Dip whisky that’s been sitting around behind the bar for years. It could possibly make it more likely that people will choose some of the more obscure bottled beers or spirits that ordinarily they wouldn’t notice, and if pubs are so inclined they could even add tasting notes.

But what a fixed list will do is militate against having a rotating beer range, which supplies the bread-and-butter business for many small breweries. Many customers will scan the row of handpumps or keg taps for something unusual that takes their fancy. Of course a pub can produce an update of its drinks list each day, or print out an additional guest beers supplement, and in smaller bars and pubs a beer board may be visible to most customers without much difficulty. But there can be little doubt that, overall, the introduction of table service will lead to reduced opportunities for guest beers, especially in the more mainstream pubs where the pumpclip on the bar is what sells them.

Some people have said that the introduction of table service creates an opportunity to train bar staff to become more knowledgeable about the products on offer. However, at present, when pubs have their backs against the wall financially, this comes across as a pious aspiration. It also always seems to be very beer-centric – why shouldn’t they also know more about the range of wines or whiskies? It’s something that might be reasonable to expect in a specialist beer bar, but it’s not realistic to imagine that a server in a sports boozer will be able to explain the difference in flavour profile between Stella and San Miguel.

In Sweden, to buy any alcoholic drinks in the off-trade beyond weak beers, you need to visit a state-run Systembolaget store, where in the past you had to order your drinks from a printed list and have them brought to the counter from a store-room, Argos-style. Nothing was on display. Maybe having table service in pubs could be seen as a dress rehearsal for a future alcohol display ban in this country, in the same way as already applies to tobacco products.

As I’ve said before, there is nothing inherently unfeasible about table service in pubs, but it can’t be denied that it is much more labour-intensive than bar service, which is something that pubs will struggle to achieve in the current climate, and which in the longer term will inevitably push up costs and prices. Cooking Lager has some interesting things to say on the subject here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Barriers to entry

The official NHS test and trace app was launched last Thursday, and has reportedly already been downloaded more than 10 million times. It is now mandatory for pubs and other hospitality venues to display the poster featuring the QR code and to accept usage of the app as a customer sign-in. However, a problem is that the app only works on relatively new smartphones, so anyone with an older phone will be unable to download or use it, let alone anyone without a smartphone, or who doesn’t use a mobile phone at all. The government guidelines make it clear that pubs should continue to operate a manual sign-in system for people unable to use the app.

In England, you do not have to request details from people who check in with the official NHS QR poster, and venues should not ask them to do both. Venues must not make the specific use of the NHS QR code a precondition of entry (as the individual has the right to choose to provide their contact details if they prefer). Should someone choose to check in with the official NHS QR poster, a venue should check their phone screen to ensure they have successfully checked in.
However, I’ve seen a number of reports of venues including pubs refusing entry if the app isn’t used. The phrase “MUST NOT” is an indicator of illegality in the Highway Code; I’m not sure that it quite is here, but it’s certainly strongly deprecating that behaviour.

I struggle to understand why any establishment should choose to do this, given that they’re excluding a substantial proportion of the population. I can only conclude it’s rather like refusing to accept cash, that it’s a sign of how modern and progressive they are, and that they don’t want the custom of the old, the poor, the thrifty and the nonconformist.

There have also been numerous reports of pubs and restaurants insisting on customers downloading an app to order, which raises exactly the same issues of social exclusion. A further problem that has been reported is a pub insisting that customers who sign in manually provide ID to back up their details.

I’ve also seen a report of a pub asking a customer with a medical mask exemption to specify the nature of their condition, which is unquestionably illegal. And surely it won’t be too long before a pub refuses entry point-blank to a mask-exempt person.

We are being exhorted to support pubs in these difficult times, but it has to be questioned whether some are really deserving of support. Obviously people will establish what the restrictions are in places they regularly use, and make their own decision as to whether they find them welcoming, but it makes visiting less familiar pubs a complete lottery.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Time is called

I’m conscious that this blog has turned into a running commentary on the government’s Covid policy, but given the way it has dominated the news agenda and the profound effect it has had on the pub trade it is impossible to avoid or downplay the subject. Back in July, there were hopes that things would start to slowly improve and return to normal but, especially following yesterday’s announcement of draconian new restrictions, we now seem to be descending ever deeper into a dystopian nightmare.

Some people in the industry have tried to put a brave face on the new measures, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that they will lead to severe damage. The 10 pm curfew is the time by which all customers must leave, not last orders, meaning that even a pub nominally closing at 11 will lose 90 minutes’ trade, one closing at midnight or later considerably more. Some have talked about it increasing speed drinking, but I suspect the reality is that many customers simply won’t bother coming out at all. People can’t simply come out earlier if they have other things to do first.

For many restaurants, it won’t be just a case of losing a hour’s trade, but of losing one of two sittings during the evening, and thus half their entire business. And one well-known Manchester pub has already announced that they don’t see that it will be worth trading at all while the curfew is in force. From a personal point of view, it will scarcely affect me, as I’m very rarely in pubs in the late evening, but I recognise that for many pubs, especially urban wet-led locals, that’s when they do a major part of their business.

Then there is the requirement for pub customers to wear masks at all times except when seated. I have already discussed this in depth in the context of Scotland, so I don’t propose to go over all of that again. But I have made the point before that what people may grudgingly put up with when doing something essential like grocery shopping may not be so welcome when taking part in what is supposed to be a relaxing leisure activity. This is certainly the experience of one pub landlady.

It is also the case that pubs are likely to be expected to enforce the mask rule, even though in practice it is impossible to do. In general, shops have not made any attempt to do this, taking the view that it is not their job to enforce. Under the 2010 Equalities Act, it is illegal to inquire as to the nature of someone’s disability or medical condition or to refuse them service on those grounds. As someone who works in the retail trade says “Where I work, we're told not to confront people who come into the shop without a mask. We have to assume they have a hidden disability, which we can't ask about either.”

But there will be a public expectation for pubs to do it, even though it is a legal minefield. “Look at that pub letting all those people in without masks”. And, to be honest, some people with no valid grounds for exemption will inevitably try it on. If someone states they are exempt, there is nothing a pub can do. This may well lead to an unwelcoming atmosphere for people who do have genuine exemptions, and the possibility of harassment from other customers.

It’s also going to be well-nigh impossible for pubs to make customers don masks to go to the toilet or outside for a smoke, especially once they’ve had a few drinks. But pubs will inevitably be blamed if they don’t. The whole thing is going to cause huge difficulties and put licensees in a very awkward situation.

A further problem is the restriction of all licensed premises to table service only. Yes, some have pointed out that this is general practice on the Continent, and that some bars are successfully doing it already, both of which are true. However, British pubs are simply not set up to operate this way, either in their layout or their working procedures, and it will take some time to adjust, retrain staff and devise new ways of operating. It seems to have been dreamed up by people who never visit pubs and have no idea how they actually function.

It is also by definition more labour-intensive, as multiple trips to the service point now have to be done by staff rather than customers. This is why, on the Continent, the gap between bar and off-trade prices is generally much higher than in this country, despite the lower rates of duty. Yet financially hard-pressed pubs will be in no position to take on additional staff, although in practice the sheer lack of customers may mean this isn’t a problem.

It will also raise the perennial issue of how to actually attract the attention of waiting staff if you want a refill. In the past, many pubs had waiter service on the lounge side, and push-button bells around the walls to summon a server, but these have largely disappeared now, and even where they still exist they are no longer functional. I have written several times before on here of the often lamentable standard of restaurant service in this country, and I wouldn’t hold out much hope of it being any better in pubs with limited numbers of poorly trained staff. If you’re in a location distant from the bar, or in a beer garden, you may have a long wait to attract anyone’s attention.

I wrote last week about how winter is coming for the pub trade, and following this announcement it sadly looks as though it may well turn out to be a nuclear winter.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Winter is coming

To listen to some in the media, you would think that the pub trade is out of the woods now. Drinkers have flocked back since they reopened on July 4th, customers have been queuing out of the door to take advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and they are currently enjoying the beer gardens in this spell of Indian summer weather. However, looking forward, as the nights grow in and the temperature drops, their prospects don’t look anything like so rosy.

Social distancing rules mean that their capacity is still severely limited, and some small or cramped pubs haven’t been able to reopen at all. However, they’re often nowhere near attracting even the reduced numbers they’re permitted. City centre commuting remains way below the level before the lockdown, and many activities that generate footfall for pubs such as spectator sports events and live music concerts have still not restarted. Domestic tourism is greatly reduced, and international visitors have virtually disappeared.

Added to this, many celebrations such as birthdays, christenings, weddings and wakes that produce a lot of business for pubs can only take place in very limited form, and the “Rule of 6” introduced by the government last week further restricts gatherings of this kind.

In view of this, it’s hardly surprising that a wave of closures and redundancies is forecast, with North-West brewer and pub operator Thwaites being one of the first to make a formal announcement. Inevitably, with the furlough scheme winding down by the end of October, there are calls for further financial assistance, and certainly if businesses are unable to function at all the case for support is compelling. But the question has to be asked where the money is going to come from, given that we have already mortgaged our children’s and grandchildren’s future to pay for the first lockdown. And no government can keep businesses on life support indefinitely if there is no realistic prospect of reopening.

At least pubs can open to a limited extent, but that isn’t true of nightclubs, which remain firmly shut, with no prospect of that changing any day soon. Some may dismiss them as an inessential frippery, but like many other inessential fripperies they provide a lot of jobs and economic activity. The Morning Advertiser reports that three in five venues face closure without government support, and the Deltic Group have fired the starting gun by declaring 400 redundancies. Many operators are likely to reach the conclusion that, with no expectation of reopening until well into next year, they might as well put up the shutters and go into liquidation.

Another organisation that has effectively been brought to a standstill is CAMRA. All of its normal everyday activities – branch meetings, socials, presentations, pub crawls and brewery trips – are now impossible. A few half-baked virtual events are no substitute for face-to-face engagement.

Since the beginning of the year, the headline membership figure has fallen by almost 10,000. This isn’t due to people resigning in disgust, but to natural attrition. The main source of recruiting new members is beer festivals, which have been impossible to hold for the past six months. And festivals are also the second largest source of revenue after membership subs.

So, given that, frankly, there’s little prospect of much improvement in the situation until well into 2021, CAMRA is going to have to take a long hard look at its activities and its organisation. It’s no longer a case of just riding out the storm for a few months.

In the short term, further financial assistance may help tide pubs over, but only for a limited period. Eventually, their prospects are entirely dependent on the general health of the economy. The government needs to take the lead in restoring confidence, but unfortunately their announcements last week have only served to intensify the climate of fear, and further restrictions such as curfews are being actively discussed. So there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of any improvement for months, and the pub trade has a very bleak winter to look forward to.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

I’m Spartacus

In a further blow to the embattled pub trade, the Scottish government have decreed that, from Monday, customers in hospitality venues will be required to wear face masks at all times except when seated and actually eating or drinking. Bear in mind that in Scotland bars are now supposed to be table service only, so the question of going to the bar doesn’t arise, but even so it is likely to prove significantly offputting to many pubgoers. Going to the pub is, after all, a discretionary leisure activity, not something you have to do like shopping for food.
Given that you are already expected to be seated at all times, it is table service only, there is no piped music, the TV volume has to be muted, there should be no raised voices and definitely no singing, the atmosphere in Scottish pubs is already pretty grim and joyless.

This raises an obvious issue as to how the masks are actually used. The government guidelines say that you should “avoid taking it off and putting it back on a lot in quick succession”, which is precisely what you’re going to be doing in a pub situation. Plus they recommend washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds both before putting on the mask and before removing it. It’s hard to see that being adhered to when Jimmy’s on his fifth toilet visit of the evening. (These are the guidelines for England, but I can’t see those for Scotand being much different).

It’s also extremely problematical how it is going to be enforced, and it carries huge potential for creating flashpoints between staff and customers. The government have acknowledged that some people may have genuine reasons for not wearing a mask, but there is no official scheme of confirming or proving exemption.

In settings where face coverings are required in England, there are some circumstances where people may not be able to wear a face covering. Please be mindful and respectful of such circumstances, noting that some people are less able to wear face coverings, and that the reasons for this may not be visible to others.

These include:

• people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability, and
• where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress

The government have avoided stating which medical conditions may entitle someone to an exemption, but lists have been widely circulated which include, for example, Asperger syndrome, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, depression, emphysema and hearing difficulties. Most of the customers of the “Clansman” from “Still Game” would no doubt qualify on multiple counts.

I see many frail-looking, elderly people struggling around the supermarket in a mask who must surely have good cause to claim exemption but, just as with the reluctance to claim means-tested benefits, they probably just don’t want to make a fuss.

It is possible to buy a card stating that you are exempt to provide some visible evidence, but there is no check on anyone’s eligibility. And the guidelines go on to say:

Those who have an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering should not be routinely asked to give any written evidence of this, this includes exemption cards. No person needs to seek advice or request a letter from a medical professional about their reason for not wearing a face covering.
Indeed the Equalities Act 2010 makes it clear that businesses have no right to enquire as to the nature of someone’s disability or medical condition, and no right to exclude customers on the grounds of disability. So pubs have no legal ability to enforce the rule. If all their customers turn up and declare that they are exempt, there is nothing they can do about it. “You don’t look very disabled to me” is an incredibly insensitive thing to say to someone with a disability that isn’t immediately obvious. It will also create tension between customers when some object to others being unmasked even if they have an entirely legitimate reason for exemption.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Bolted shut

I was working on a general post about how the pub trade was still nowhere near out of the woods, when the unexpected announcement came that the government had ordered the closure of all pubs and other hospitality venues in Bolton due to a rise in local coronavirus cases. Some of the reporting of this was a touch disingenuous, just saying they would be limited to takeaways, which is rather like saying you can go to a theme park but just buy candyfloss.

Predictably, the headlines were all about pubs, and it seems that this is yet another example of the finger of blame being pointed in their direction, when it’s widely considered that transmission between households meeting in private homes is just as important a factor, if not more.

And it’s not just pubs, either, it’s the whole of the hospitality sector – hotels, restaurants, cafés and coffee shops too. It’s basically putting Bolton back into the dark days of the height of the lockdown. If it’s impossible to sit down and eat a meal outside your own house, or stay anywhere else overnight, it becomes a huge drag on economic activity in general. If applied nationwide, this would cause huge economic destruction.

An increase in reported cases is an inevitable result of more testing. But there’s little sign of it translating into an increase in hospitalisations, let alone deaths. It’s reported that there is a substantial number of false positives, and many positive results come from traces of the infection still being detected in people who recovered from it months ago. It comes across as a panicky over-reaction from blustering tin-pot dictator Matt Hancock. It is quite disproportionate to the actual level of risk.

No time limit has been set for the restrictions, or criteria stated as to when they might be lifted. And the question has to be asked whether affected businesses will be entitled to the resumption of furlough and business interruption payments.

If operators across the country fear they may be subject to arbitrary local lockdowns at the drop of a hat, it will seriously erode confidence in the hospitality trade on both sides of the bar. And any exhortations from the government for people to return to work will just come across as weasel words.