Monday 22 June 2020

Sucking out all the joy

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of speculation about whether pubs would actually be allowed to reopen on July 4th and, if so, what kind of restrictions they would have to operate under. The last time I ventured into this territory in discussing the possibility of opening up beer gardens, I was shot down in flames by a negative announcement within a few hours of publishing my blog, so I’ve steered well clear of it since. Remember that, if we were to believe numerous press reports, it would have been possible to have a drink in a beer garden from today onwards.

However, the weight of speculation is now very strongly that pubs will be able to reopen from July 4th, and indeed many brewers have restarted production of cask beer. An official announcement is expected tomorrow. It is likely, though, that they will have to adhere to a variety of onerous restrictions which include, if we are to believe press reports, expecting customers to order and pay via an app, requiring them to book pub visits in advance, and making them sign in and out each time they go to a pub.

As Tandleman points out here, some of these ideas give the impression of having been dreamed up by people who have little idea how pubs actually work and imagine they are something very like table-service restaurants. I asked my Twitter followers in a quick poll whether they would find being expected to order via an app would be a significant deterrent to visiting pubs for a drink. Wjhile a majority thought it was OK, a substantial minority considered that it would be offputting.

Restrictions of this kind may to a greater or lesser degree be workable, although clearly they would be much easier to implement in large chain pubs than small independent ones. Signing in would inevitably lead to a sudden upsurge in pubgoing by Mickey Mouse and Mike Hunt. And they may go completely against some companies’ established business models ;-) Some licensees have expressed concern that, if a single customer ended up testing positive, they may be forced to close their pub for fourteen days, thus putting their reopening plans back to square one. And is it reasonable to expect customers, even if they have an up-to-date smartphone, to download a separate app for each pub they visit? It may be acceptable for regulars, as indeed signing-in would be, but it would reallyput a dampener on chance pub visits.

The whole thing transforms pubgoing into a much more considered and premeditated activity rather than something spontaneous and fun, which is what it should be. During 2019, I visited 207 different pubs, more than half of which were new to me. Many of those visits weren’t even planned an hour ahead, let alone days. In plenty of cases it was just a case of coming across a likely-looking pub in an unfamiliar town. And I do not see why I should be required to identify myself or explain my purpose if I just wander into a pub at random.

During the lockdown we have had to endure numerous unpalatable restrictions, such as queuing for shops, keeping well apart from each other and being strongly urged not to pay in cash. We have gritted our teeth and put up with it, because those were things that we needed to do. But going to the pub for a drink is a discretionary leisure activity. Nobody actually has to do it. And if it is reduced to such a joyless, regimented process it is highly likely that many people will simply conclude that it’s not worth bothering with.

Edit: it seems that Telegraph cartoonist Matt has spotted the potential pitfalls of customer registration:

Tuesday 9 June 2020

A breath of fresh air?

There have been a number of reports that the government is planning to give the go-ahead for pubs to open outside drinking areas from 22 June, which is less than two weeks away. This has been backed up by several breweries such as Black Sheep and Palmer’s announcing that they were restarting brewing cask beer. This has to be seen as good news, and a significant step on the long road back to normality. It was always likely that outside areas would be allowed to open first. However, it’s important not to get carried away.

The first potential problem is obviously the notoriously fickle British weather. While we’ve all been in lockdown, we’ve enjoyed about the driest and sunniest Spring in living memory. But what’s the betting that, as soon as outside drinking is permitted, the heavens will open for weeks on end? And, even if it’s dry, outdoor drinking isn’t that much fun if it’s a bit chilly with a stiff breeze. Plus, unless the social distancing rule is relaxed from 6’6” to 3’3”, the drinkers in the beer garden are going to be pretty thin on the ground.

While some pubs have large outdoor areas, realistically most don’t, particularly in urban areas. So it’s only a very partial benefit for the pub trade. The suggestion has been made that streets could be converted into temporary pubs with seating spilling out on to the road. However, in reality the locations where that could work are pretty limited. Many town-centre streets with pubs on them have already been pedestrianised anyway. Roads fulfil an essential economic function and, with shops reopening next week, are going to be not far off normal levels of traffic. Even if this could be achieved, it would require expensive and time-consuming traffic diversions. Maybe pubs could put a few tables out on the pavement, but is that really going to generate a worthwhile return on an urban street?

Shoppers might not appreciate having to run the gauntlet of boisterous pub regulars who are generally safely confined inside. And, even if you could get hold of it, would it really be worth investing in a stock of outdoor seating for what was likely to be only a few weeks’ trade?

Whether you like it or not, TV football is one of the biggest draws in pubs, and the Premier League is scheduled to restart next week on 17 June. But, even if you could, there’s not much point in showing the football for which you’ve paid an arm and a leg to all and sundry in the street. A large chunk of your normal trade won’t come back until they can go indoors to watch the telly.

So, by all means welcome it and take advantage if you get the opportunity. But don’t imagine for a minute that outdoor drinking alone is going to be the salvation of the pub trade. We won’t be able to say we’ve truly returned to normality until we can huddle together with our friends with a few drinks inside a pub.

Friday 5 June 2020

Beer lines

Over the past eleven weeks of the lockdown, queuing, especially to get into supermarkets, has become an unwelcome fact of life for most of us. While nothing has yet been definitely announced, it is looking as though, even if pubs are allowed to reopen next month, it will be under some kind of social distancing rules that will limit capacity. This creates the possibility of having to queue to get into pubs and other hospitality venues. So I created a couple of polls on Twitter to see what people thought of the idea of queueing for pubs and restaurants.

As you can see, the general reaction was not enthusiastic. The results were fairly similar between pubs and restaurants, although in theory you might expect people to be more willing to do it for restaurants as eating is a necessity, while having a drink isn’t. Indeed there were more people prepared to do it for as long as it takes for pubs than for restaurants.

I can quite understand this reaction, as I detest being forced to queue for anything, and have been known to walk out of pubs if I have to wait too long to be served. There is also a conceptual difference from queuing for a supermarket or drive-thru fast food outlet, as in those situations the is a steady throughput of customers, so you can expect to make steady progress, whereas with a pub the customers already inside the building might be settled in for a long session, especially given that pub-crawling will become impossible.

However, even before the lockdown, people were prepared to queue for a long time to gain access to venues like beer festivals or nightclubs where there was a one-out, one situation. And, in recent weeks, we have become inured to queuing in a variety of situations where we never expected to. So the enthusiasm for queuing to get into Wetherspoon’s might well turn out to be greater than the polls suggested. And, when the “non-essential” shops reopen a week on Monday, I would expect to see some very long queues outside the likes of Next and Primark.

I’m not going to comment on the realities of the socially distanced pub until we have a clearer view of what to expect, and when we can expect it.