Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Making a meal of it

From today, while the pubs remain firmly shut in over 40% of England, including my local area, in just over half the country they will be allowed to reopen under “Tier 2” provided that they serve all customers with “substantial meals”. This obviously raises a question of definition, as I discussed here, and government ministers have been tying themselves up in knots over whether Cornish pasties and Scotch eggs qualify. It’s easy to say “you know one when you see one”, but if pubs run the risk of substantial fines for non-compliance, it’s important that they know exactly where they stand.

For what it’s worth, in the couple of weeks at the end of October when this rule applied in Greater Manchester under the then “Tier 3”, Wetherspoon’s were happy to continue serving ciabattas without any accompaniment of chips or salad, although to be fair they are quite substantial. They come within the “includes a drink” meal deals, so if you choose one of the more expensive drink options such as premium draught or bottled lagers, the effective cost of the food is reduced to little more than a quid.

Given this, inevitably some pubs within Tier 2 that do not normally serve meals will be considering whether it’s worth putting on some kind of food offer to allow them to open. However, it’s important to think this through properly. They need to remember, which may not be immediately obvious, that it’s not enough simply to make the food available; every single customer will need to order and eat a meal. While it is permissible to contract for meals to be provided by an external caterer, they still need to be ordered and paid for through the pub: it isn’t sufficient just to put a kebab van on the car park.

It they aren’t already, pubs will need to register with their local authority as a food business. And they will need to be very careful to ensure that their food offer is genuine, and not something simply provided as a front to allow customers to drink. Any thoughts of just handing around a few stale sandwiches that are then passed on to the next customer – as once occurred under some strange Scottish regulations in the past – need to be put aside. Inevitably, the occasional customer will order a meal and then not fancy eating it, but if nobody is eating it appears suspicious, and the licensing authorities are likely to take a very dim view.

If you run a wet-only pub, by definition your customers are not coming in for meals, so to expect every visitor to eat is a massive change in behaviour. People might be happy to do it one night a week, but they’re unlikely to want to do so on a regular basis even if they really like the pub. And there will be little attraction to the person who just drops in for a pint or two, possibly before or after eating at home. Therefore, while it may well be legally possible to reopen, requiring every customer to eat a meal may not attract much business or make financial sense. I would expect that, in practice, very few previously wet-only pubs will take advantage of the “substantial meal” rule to reopen in Tier 2.

Clearly any dining pub that previously did the vast majority of its business from serving meals anyway will be able to reopen and see little reduction in trade, and they also won’t find the table service requirement too much of a problem. And every Wetherspoon’s in Tier 2 areas will certainly open. But many other pubs that do a mixture of drink and food trade may well look at the numbers and decide it isn’t worth it. I know a couple near me that offer extensive menus, but also attract a lot of local drinkers in the evenings, decided not to open under the old pre-lockdown Tier 3, and I read yesterday that a popular village pub in Cheshire that does attract a significant destination food trade had concluded it wouldn’t be worth it either.

It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion, as argued in this article, that the decision to allow people to eat meals in pubs, but not to just go for a drink, is motivated a strong element of snobbery as opposed to any kind of rational analysis.

Public schoolboys, middle-class professionals and most university academics will never understand on a personal level the critical importance of a pub to the community. They drink expensive wine at home and would never think to step inside a regular hostelry unless it had re-invented itself as some kind of ‘gastro pub’, complete with chef and pretentious menu...

...This is where the deeply divisive ‘substantial meal’ condition for Tier 2 comes from. It reveals a high degree of snobbery and outright condescension for anyone who might want to drop in to a pub for just a drink. Quite possibly that is because so many ordinary people simply cannot afford a ‘substantial meal’ out on a regular basis. But they are, like myself on occasion, often quite desperate for some friendly company in comfortable surroundings.


  1. There’s no rationale at all for the substantial meal stipulation, other than, as you say, this snobbish disdain for pub goers. I imagine most of the out of touch political class would behave like once a year Christmas pub customers if they ever actually went in real pubs.

  2. Substantial meal is only very loosely defined. Doubt if you'd incur a fine as "Well m'Lud, it was substantial to me" would likely pass the test of reasonableness in most situations.

    1. I doubt whether that bit of it will be enforced to any extent provided people are sitting down with *something* on a plate that isn't a dessert.

      However, I suspect the authorities might take a different view of a previously wet-only pub that decided to start serving cheese toasties and claiming they were substantial meals, as opposed to a food-led pub that offered them as part of a lengthy menu.

  3. Three pubs in my town that I use in Tier 2. 2xCamra pubs that always did food. One is not reopening, as it cannot make a profit. The other has reinvented itself as a cafe and dropped the real ales down from 4 to 1. Not a bad idea, with the reduction in trade, but they have kept the blandest and lowest ABV.

    More interesting is the 3rd, previously wet led Black Country Ales pub. They are now offering substantial meals. God knows how, as I never knew they had a kitchen. They are offering Chicken Jalfrezi, rice an naan for £3.50. 50p less than the czech lager I usually drink in there.

    If the 'rona don't get me, obesity might.

    1. The Stafford Mudgie2 December 2020 at 10:48

      I suspect that rather than a proper meal the Chicken Jalfrezi, rice and naan is a freezer to microwave 'ready meal', not that there's much wrong with that if it keeps the pub open.
      Two miles from me is the Bird in Hand, a large four roomed Black Country Ales pub that unusually does a lot of food business with Angus's agreement and the licensee being a very good cook.

    2. The BCA in Bewdley is offering substantial meals of cobs with crisps. Same as they always have.

      Suspect you are correct about the curry. When I go in, I'm having the £2.50 cheese and biscuits :-)

  4. My mother eats like a bird, she would struggle with a half a scotch egg let alone a full one. Perhaps the government is trying to solve the housing problem with all the future empty pub properties.

  5. I think the logic (using the term loosely) was simply

    "OK, we'll close the pubs. And bars. Booze joints in general. Write that down."
    - Any venue dispensing alcohol? Isn't that going to kill the restaurant trade?
    "OK, not restaurants. Pubs, not restaurants - how hard can that be?"
    - Have you been to a Wetherspoons' lately?
    "No, but why do you... oh, I see. OK, pubs that serve food can stay open, but only if they operate as restaurants."
    - So, what, everyone has to be eating a meal?
    "Not just a piece of toast, either. A substantial meal. Write that down."

    What's underneath that, of course, is a "restaurants good, boozers bad" mentality that runs so deep it doesn't even get put into words.

    1. Yes, that's essentially what I said in the previous post I linked to. If you say that nobody can sit down and eat a meal outside the house, you're imposing a massive restriction on economic activity. But you can't realisticlaly distinguish between food-serving pubs, and restaurants and cafés. And many places that trade as restaurants have full on-licences, not restaurant ones.

  6. Professor Pie-Tin2 December 2020 at 10:36

    Interestingly these are all the arguments that raged through Ireland when pubs were only allowed to open in the summer provided a meal costing a minimum of €9 was served to every customer who were only allowed to stay for under two hours.
    Wet led pubs managed to open for a month only in late summer and have now been warned they probably won't re-open again until next Spring.
    And with food pubs re-opening for Christmas the government has seen off previous attempts to get round the rules ( loyal readers may remember the pizza fiasco in my local )by stipulating only pubs with kitchens may open.
    The reality is - and I hate to break it to you - that wet-led pubs that tried to do some sort of food service were miserable places and people quickly lost interest when going for a heavily-regulated pint knowing they HAD to buy a meal.
    On the plus side for the UK the Government was only able to announce approval for the vaccine today because of Brexit.
    It will be at least another month before the EU completes its tortuous regulatory process.

    1. Yes, while it certainly *can* be done, I think for most wet-led pubs "putting a bit of food on" is a non-starter.

    2. Professor Pie-Tin - you forgot to put inverted commas around "because of Brexit". The approval by the MHRA was fast-tracked under an EU agreement that could be used by any of the remaining EU countries, without which we would not have been able to fast-track the approval of the vaccine as we are still in the transition period. The statement you quoted was either a lie or a stupidity on the part of Matt Hancock. I presume that you posted before he was discredited.

  7. Pubs could serve sausages on sticks. Inexpensive for pubs and punters. A sauage on a stick you cry. It's a snack. Not so: The 1965 ruling in Timmis v Millman may help pubs weather the latest ... sandwiches and sausages on sticks were found to constitute a meal. Worth a try?

  8. We are in Tier 3 but if we go to tier 2 one plan is to do bookings of sit down meals. We would open for a lunchtime sitting and and an evening sitting on days we could be guaranteed to be fully booked. Each sitting would be say 3 hours long, set menu, set price, no table turning. We could even keep a substantial range of cask as we are selling it for collection and delivery anyway. We don't have a kitchen but there are ways around that.

    So you have to pre-book but you get a table to drink and eat for 3 hours and I keep the staff cost right down, as well as knowing roughly what the take will be.

    1. Professor Pie-Tin2 December 2020 at 18:36

      One suggestion you might want to take on board from my experience of our Irish local which tried this.
      The landlord lost track of the fact that regulars were coming to drink not eat.It's why they were regulars in a wet-only pub in the first place.
      If they wanted to eat they'd go somewhere much better than your pub and that's not in any way meant as an insult.You sell booze.It's your USP.
      Basically everyone is taking part in the charade to get some drink inside them.
      So keep whatever you're doing simple and cheap.One meat and one veggie option.Nothing else.Buy a bar-top pizza oven and just do two types of pizza.Or some version of easily made food such as pasta..
      And get plenty of takeaway boxes.A pizza is still a substantial meal even if you only eat one slice of it and take the rest home with you.
      Remember they're coming to drink not eat.
      Rinse and repeat.
      Drink not eat.
      Good luck.

    2. Thanks for the advice. I probably shouldn't expect to do too many 'sessions' in a week then, maybe just the weekend, and will remember to keep it simple. Incidentally, my dad lives in the wild west of ireland, and the local in his village invested in a some very heavy curtains just after lock-down.

    3. Professor Pie-Tin3 December 2020 at 18:02

      My son works at a well-known East London craftie place which has opened chancing their arm with nachos, wings and other stuff they can bung in a mic.
      He's just sent me a picture.
      Not a single customer is in.
      Whatever you try to come up with the simple fact is that many people who would ordinarily go for 2 or 3 pints of an evening tea-time simple won't bother their hole if they have to stump up for grub they don't want.

  9. Excellent post.

    I'm sure you're right about Tier 2 pubs, particularly the smaller ones in the GBG, not bothering.

    As someone far more sympathetic to politicians of all parties than most, I agree there's is a strong element of snobbery about the imposition of a meal. Michael Gove, on 3 different platforms the other day, implied that food service meant well-behaved diners sitting down compliantly while "wet" pubs means drunk, swaying blokes rubbing against each other at the bar.

    As those of us who actually go to a pub to drink know, we haven't been able to see, let alone loiter, at a bar for months now.

    1. It's actually only just over two months, and for four weeks of that nobody has been allowed to go inside a pub at all. But it feels like a lot longer...

    2. The Stafford Mudgie3 December 2020 at 09:13

      But the 'advice' from early July was 'table service' so that's five months even if we walked up to the bar at quieter times as we always had done.

    3. The Stafford Mudgie3 December 2020 at 09:16

      Sorry, I was confusing 'the imposition of a meal' with 'table service', both concepts totally alien to me.

    4. In my experience up to the last week in September most pubs allowed ordering at the bar, although I did get table service on a couple of occasions.

    5. " service meant well-behaved diners sitting down compliantly while "wet" pubs means drunk, swaying blokes rubbing against each other at the bar..."

      I'd have expected that Boris Johnson's experience of dining out would have led him to expect rowdy behaviour from diners. Or have I misunderstood the raison d'etre of the Bullingdon Club?

    6. Some pubs MAY have allowed you to order at the bar but in pretty much all of the West Country this summer I was instructed to sit down as soon as I entered the pub, frustrating any attempt at a view of the bar.

    7. Varies between pubs, of course. Over that period I visited maybe 25 or so pubs, in only three of which I was given table service. In one I was told to, but in the other two it was more done as a favour at a quiet time.

  10. Professor Pie-Tin3 December 2020 at 11:54

    We're thinking of heading over for Christmas and meeting up with my kids who are in London and Bristol by renting somewhere for the holidays in Cornwall.
    I'm going to wait until the Dec 16th review of the tier system in case Cornwall gets moved up to food with booze status which would then obviate the need to rent all the way down there.
    Are there roadblocks on the Tamar bridge ?
    As an aside my youngest in London visited his local last night after lockdown was lifted - ordered a pizza and kept one slice uneaten all night in case of a visit.
    Guvnor more than happy to partake in the subterfuge.

    1. My experience of the old Tier 3 regs in Sheffield suggests that licencees in Tier 2 now would mostly take that approach. Perhaps not so much in a genuine gastropub.


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