Bums on seats

The stark reality of running a pub in 2020 can be seen clearly in its furniture, writes Anthony Gladman


Coronavirus is a catalyst. As it runs through the population, this illness changes our society. Transformations that were already happening slowly are sped up and magnified. Working remotely, for instance, or drinking more beer at home.

Britain’s pubs were dwindling in number for years before coronavirus reached our shores. But that long and gentle decline was nothing compared to what was to follow once the lockdown bit. As autumn arrives the disease is putting its foot on the accelerator again.

In October there were almost 25,000 fewer pubs, bars and restaurants operating in Britain than had been before March. In London, where the slump hit hardest, almost one in four licensed premises remains closed as a second lockdown looms. These are businesses shuttered, wages foregone, lives on hold. People can only cling on and hope they will be able to reopen.

Pubs have been quicker to do so than restaurants, according to research from CGA and AlixPartners. More than nine out of 10 are trading again, but social distancing measures compel them to operate below capacity. Many exist on a knife-edge.

More work for less money

The Kings Arms is a small pub in East London known for its extensive beer list. Its reputation pulls drinkers off the main road to Bethnal Green and down a side street few would explore without the lure of a good drink at the end.

Ian McGrath, the general manager, says trade is ‘vastly reduced’ since Covid hit. “It’s tough,” he tells me. “You’re managing staff, but you’re also managing people, you’re also managing all these rules and regulations and things that need to be complied with. It’s a lot more work. It’s a lot more work, and a lot less money coming in. It’s stressful.”

It’s a lot more work, and a lot less money coming in. It’s stressful

To reopen safely, he had to remove 30 of the pub’s 88 seats. Stools that once lined the bar are now stacked along one wall of the disabled toilet. Tables and chairs lie in the darkened basement among bottles of ageing beer.

Before Covid his pub could hold 100 customers. On weekends it often felt like more. “A busy Friday and Saturday here would have people sitting at the bar, and then people standing, plus all the tables would be full,” he tells me.

Since it reopened, his pub hasn’t once operated at its new ‘full’ capacity. For two months it ran at a loss. It only started to break even in September.

“The Saturday just gone was our busiest day since we reopened, and yeah, all the tables were occupied, but some were in groups of two, some were in groups of four. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an occasion where we’re actually going to have a bum on every single seat.”

Seats matter in a small pub like this. Seats hold customers. Customers buy drinks. You want seats to be filled.

This was easy before the lockdown. If seats were free, people sat in them. Sharing tables wasn’t an issue. Moving seats around wasn’t an issue. Couples and small groups — the tables at the Kings Arms all seat six — often moved on partway through an evening. Now, if a couple book a table and stay there all night, that’s four seats not earning the pub any money.

“That is the issue that we face. Even pre-lockdown it was kind of annoying when you saw a couple nursing their drinks, but now, with the manager hat on, you’re giving them the evils.”

Ian says his pub is a popular spot for dates. As such, he gets a lot of requests for two-person bookings. “We limit how many we take now, because I don’t want a situation on a busy Saturday night where we have 10 tables with two people.”

Changing the game

Drinking is different in a pandemic. There are issues to navigate which didn’t exist before, not least the ever present risk of falling ill or infecting someone else. The rules governing how and with whom we can socialise seem to change all the time.

And this can lead to blocked seats. “People aren’t moving on,” says Ian. “They realise it’s going to be tough getting in places, so if they’ve got that table, people are definitely staying longer.”

“It’s kind of like an occasion now, isn’t it? If you go to the pub, you’ve got to be prepared to go through the whole thing of wearing a mask, of sanitising, of signing in.”

Ian tells me that he has noticed a shift in attitude behind the bar as well. Social distancing has introduced an unwelcome undercurrent of tension between staff and customers.

“You have this bizarre anxiety with the public now. You’ve got this constant policing and management of people, which wasn’t part of the job. The only real time you needed to confront customers [before Covid] was if they were being loud or misbehaving or drunk or whatever. Now you’ve got this constant anxiety from the moment they arrive.”

He tells me people have abused his staff over wearing face masks, signing in with the NHS Covid-19 app, and track and trace measures. With each customer, his colleagues wonder: will this person be nice or obnoxious?

“You have 100 customers who are fine, absolutely nice. And then you get one who ruins your day by being an absolute dick. That sticks with me more now than it used to. If someone came in and was abusive or drunk or whatever, I’d be like, ‘Get out of the bar now,’ and I wouldn’t dwell on it at all. And I don’t know why, but now that person sticks in my head, and I’m fuming about them, and I won’t shut up or stop talking about them. I don’t know why that is.”

Under the hammer

Most of the hospitality businesses no longer operating will hope to reopen. But for some it is already too late.

England and Wales lost more than 300 pubs between March and September, according to real estate adviser Altus Group. Some were earmarked for demolition or were converted for other uses. Others simply closed for good.

With the threat of closure looming so very close and so very real, some pubs have responded by flouting social distancing regulations.

“It’s frustrating when you go into another pub and you see that they’re not complying at all with anything,” Ian tells me. “There’s a lot of that. They’re just trading ignoring what’s going on.”

It’s frustrating when you go into another pub they’re not complying at all

Ian finds himself asking why these pubs aren’t bothering to enforce the rules. But also, he sometimes wonders why he bothers when others do not.

With some pubs up against it, a calculation takes hold. Managers balance the extra money they can make each week by ignoring the rules against fines they will pay if they get caught. In the long run, if they only get caught once every few months, they will still come out ahead.

“I’ve not had a visit from anyone since we reopened,” Ian tells me. “I’ve not had licensing come in. I’ve not had the police come in. I’ve not had environmental health. I’ve not had anyone check what I’m doing.”

Adapt to survive

The Kings Arms hasn’t yet lost any staff, but the hours available for them to work are reduced. The weekly rota has 144 hours these days. Ian and his Assistant Manager, the only two salaried staff with contracted hours, take 96 of these. The remaining four staff members must split just 48 hours’ work between them. “There’s not a huge amount to go around,” Ian says.

Staff at the Kings Arms are doing their best to find ways of generating more money for the pub. Ian hopes to improve mid-week trade by running bottle share nights, or beer and cheese pairing nights. And he will run a sour beer festival at the end of October, if pubs are still able to open by then.

He also plans to sell the pub’s stock of cellar aged bottles online. This would allow for some cash flow even if new lockdown measures forced the pub to close again.

“I don’t know,” he muses. “I’m taking each week as it comes at the moment. Everything changes. I’d like to say I feel positive. There’s certain times of day... Putting this festival on at the end of the month has given me a bit more focus and desire.”

All we have is now

Ian tells me he can’t remember what running the pub was like before Covid changed everything. “I’m trying to feel optimistic about things, but it seems like something comes along every couple of weeks that knocks your confidence a little bit. It’s hard to think that far ahead at the moment.”

In the midst of the pandemic, uncertainty smothers everything. Furniture remains pushed away into dark corners. In other pubs up and down the country it fills rooms that would otherwise hold paying guests. It even spills into staff member’s homes, where each chair, each barstool reminds them of a customer unable to buy a drink. The jumble of wood in the dark is profit unrealised, a future on hold. It is the pub as we knew it waiting to return.

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