Restaurants, pubs and cafes officially opened again in England on Saturday 4th July and their Scottish equivalents welcomed their first customers back this week on Wednesday 15th July. In mid-March every premises was instructed to call final orders and close by the government, to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.
According to the Office for National Statistics earlier this Spring there were around 30 thousand licensed restaurants and also around 30 thousand public houses and bars in the United Kingdom. In total there were just over 120 thousand eating and drinking businesses spread over England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. (1)
Since the Independence Day when most food and beverages brands saw patrons returning through their doors again, there has been a small but steady stream of residents heading to their preferred inns again. Following the reopening nationwide this month there has been relatively unremarkable and weak demand reported throughout the hospitality industry. However a gentle bounce back is now happening and on the 12th of July sales were up from nothing to minus 44.65% when comparing number of diners to last years figures.(4)
Those going out need to give their contact details when booking at reception and a contact phone number in case anyone tests positive for Covid-19 and they need to be informed so they can isolate and avoid giving the virus to anybody else. Publicans only want to serve dishes to people from the same household at each carefully arranged individual table.
2020 has been a incredible year for using technology to overcome problems and barriers as we all try and achieve our goals, whilst minimising daily contact to others who we don’t live with. Innovative new hospitals have ‘popped up’ and ‘test and trace’ software has been invented. Online media platforms have evolved into sophisticated tools for doing pretty much everything from teaching to holding board meetings from the comfort of a person’s home office or car.
As with any enterprise that declares its entrance open for the first time there is bound to be some teething problems. When an organisation also introduces a new sales process that relies on the internet and the customer’s own technological devices, a steep learning curve and some significant programming development in back-end systems is required, at least over the initial couple of months.
Tim Martin is a well known pro-Brexiteer who started the publicly owned limited company Wetherspoon which has reopened 875 pubs across the UK. Known colloquially as ‘Spoons’ the chain has invested 11 million pounds in protecting its staff and customers with acrylic screens, hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and protective eyewear. (2)
The amazingly successful company hires energetic helpful adults of all ages which give great help to visitors during sometimes long shifts. The opening hours are usually from 7 am and they open into the small hours of the night at the weekends. Impressively, before the lockdown Wetherspoons across the UK were selling very reasonably priced food and drinks to 2 million people a week. (3)
Predictably it isn’t all plain sailing. The ‘app’ that is used by customers to order food and drinks at the Wetherspoon chain of pubs is experiencing ongoing technical difficulties.
Using technology to practice social distancing is a great idea and avoids queuing at the bar. There is a limited menu to help the kitchen continue to run like clockwork with all the new regulations.
However when orders are unable to be made via a handheld device the staff have to deal with some confusion. Different meals that are ready at different times on the the same table of diners can occur. Reverting back to the original pen and paper system causes a little frustration all around. Precious lunch time minutes are wasted waiting for food requests that are not making it as far as the commercial chefs and ladies and gentlemen are attempting to troubleshoot whether card payments have been processed or not.
Customer service is generally found to be excellent at Wetherspoons but it is beyond the managers control to ‘fix the glitches in the system’. Obviously it has been stressful for these hard working pub teams to open up again quickly and achieve all the goals involved with running a busy large dining room, with a full bar and all the facilities their regulars expect.
The manager at Wetherspoons admitted he would have been more comfortable with waiting a few weeks longer before returning his whole team from furlough in order to be more thoroughly prepared for reopening with all the processes in place. There was obviously a lot of pressure to meet the new requirements which include spacing tables away from each other with stickers saying ‘do not move due to social distancing’ and lots of circular floor signage to show punters where to stand and still be at least a meter apart from one another as they wait for service in the hallways and bars.
The young commercial leader quickly and happily personally solved our groups virtual food order hiccups and those of other clients on carefully spaced tables nearby. He then spoke about how important it is for all the key workers to return together to their roles as swiftly as possible. “For many people that live by themselves being able to eat and drink alongside their local neighbours. Pub company and all the familiar faces are a really important part of their lives. They have really missed us and we have missed providing this social connection.”
In an effort to support the recovery of the hospitality industry the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has recently promised a special government sponsored half price meal deal promotion throughout all of August. Registrations for the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme started on Monday via the central Gov.UK website. Companies can add their details to what will become an online database of restaurants who will then receive a weekly ‘subsidy payment’ to cover the difference in the price received on the discounted meals they have already provided at a reduced cost.
In any business profits and economic viability is fundamental to its existence. The British pub is also a treasured part of our culture and society. It is a safe haven that allows older, vulnerable residents and those who live by themselves or in difficult home environments a space to keep warm in the winter and a place to enjoy the company of other locals. Engaging in conversation with others who live and work in their area helps to minimise loneliness and prevents anybody experiencing extreme social isolation that can easily lead in turn to mental health problems.
Hopefully the government backed ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ promotion will be a special offer that will help supersize the industry again and give the resturant trade some much needed momentum.
(1) ‘Number of restaurants, takeaways, cafes, bars and pubs in the UK’ Office for National Statistics, 28 January 2020, ‘Number of restaurants, pubs UK’ Office for National Statistics
(2) ‘Wetherspoon is to invest an initial £11 million to ensure that its staff and customers are safe before its pubs reopen’ Wetherspoon website press release, 15 July 2020 ‘Wetherspoon to invest 11 million before pubs reopen’ Wetherspoon press release
(3) ‘Wetherspoons’ Wikipedia page for J D Wetherspoon plc, 17 July 2020, ‘Wetherspoons’ Wikipedia page
(4) ‘Year-over-year daily change in seated restaurant diners due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the United Kingdom (UK) from February 24 to July 12, 2020’ Jennifer Luty, Statista.com, 14 July 2020, ‘Covid-19 restaurant visitation impact UK’ Statista