It has now been just over three long weeks since the country’s pubs and restaurants closed their doors to the public.
In that time publicans have had a chance to reflect on their predicament, argue their case with the banks, the insurance companies and – not least – the Government itself about keeping staff on the books and ensuring enough working capital to re-open when the nightmare recedes.
It’s the re-opening part that’s taken the attention of most of those I spoke to when asked what they do with their days now and what will the post-Covid-19 pub landscape look like.
The Swan Bar’s Ronan Lynch
LVA Chairman Ronan Lynch has been working on his family’s farm in the mornings and sitting down to paperwork in the afternoons during this on-trade hiatus at his pub, the Swan Bar, in Dublin’s York Street.
“I’m also using my time to envisage how I see the pub going forward – and I think it’s going to be a different animal,” he tells me.
He’s trying to imagine what the customer will want when the pub re-opens – a customer with less disposable income as a result of the inevitable recession that will follow this health crisis, a customer that will have been out of the habit of going to the pub for quite some time and a customer who may have little confidence (health-wise) in going to a place where other people congregate in number.
Ronan is therefore pondering customer expectations post-Covid-19 in terms of the on-trade’s operational needs.
He wonders, for example, if customers wouldn’t now expect pubs to be up to ‘hospital standards’ in terms of hygiene and spacing precautions, while nevertheless still seeking out that ‘pub’ feel.
“We’ll have to look at training staff to a higher level to get them more onside with higher standards even ‘though pub standards are already far superior in Ireland” he says, “but we may have to raise them further still to keep the customers happy.
“The timing has to be right too; if we go too early and there are still outstanding issues it won’t go well for the pubs. We must take proper guidance on this.
“It’s going to be a very testing environment and I’m concerned about people’s confidence in going to the pub,” he says, “Have we seen the end of ‘packed pubs’? If the pub is considered ‘too full’ are people just going to walk out of pubs?”
He raises a number of interesting questions and reckons, for example, that pubs will have to maintain spacing initially and that this will be tricky to enforce.
Focus on Q4
Maximising the use of his downtime, Ronan is working at envisaging this and other prospects for tomorrow’s pub, “… teasing it out since we’ve currently time on our hands.
“We’ve a historic pub which was involved in the civil war and the War of Independence and we really need now to focus on Quarter Four of the year which is going to be so very important.
“As and when we open up, trade will be very tentative at first but hopefully, with the return of confidence we might see some degree of business coming in towards the end of the year.
“I’m putting together a business plan, a formula as to how the pub should be going forward” he says, “all the different attractions my pub provides and how I can further develop these while I also set about improving my website, beefing it up a bit.
“Anyway, we’ve plenty of time to think about it,” he adds, “It’s giving us a bit of breathing space to re-evaluate our business, to put a bit more order on it and that’s what I’m doing.”
He also expects to find that for the foreseeable future pubs can no longer rely on tourism to help boost coffers.
Nevertheless, he’s looking to when the pubs can open again – perhaps after June or July – and is focused on this.
“But it’s going to be slow,” he agrees, “Might we be going back to the old Victorian way with enclosed areas – snugs – something I’m again toying with: perhaps people want a breaking-up of the bar into snugs again?”…. which would be ironic as he only recently took out a snug in his own Victorian treasure of a bar.
Padraic McGann of McGann’s in Monivea
My call to VFI President Padraic McGann brought him away from cleaning out his shed at home.
“For three generations Good Friday was always a great day for doing this sort of thing but I never thought I’d see similar days ever again,” he tells me.
His biggest concern for the trade at present remains that of insurance for business interruption.
“I feel that the Ministers for Finance and Health have confirmed that it was mandatory for the pubs to close,” he says, “This is becoming a headache for everyone. There’s different wording on so many different policies making this such a grey area.”
But if there is a silver lining to this Covid-19 cloud it’s that he never realised just how much electricity the open McGann’s of Monivea was burning per day “… but thanks to this shut-down, I know now!”.
The Government has handled the crisis well, he feels, with everybody pulling their weight.
“Afterwards, everybody will be looking at how we do business when we start off again. But I think our whole lives are going to be changed. It’s going to be a different world. It might be for the better, I just don’t know.”
Those in the habit of going to the pub on a regular basis, for example, might no longer do so.
“When a person gets into a different habit of drinking at home, for example, it takes time for them to get out of that habit.”
With the exception of the insurance industry Padraic believes that all the different companies have rowed well in behind the licensed trade albeit the banks were a bit slow.
“… but VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben is working very hard on our behalf along with everyone else putting their hands to the wheel,” he says.
Lemon & Duke/The Bridge 1859’s Noel Anderson
During the first week to 10 days of the pubs being shut it was full-tilt in the LVA with meetings between the Association and the chief executives of insurance companies and banks, engaging too at Government level to try and get the staff issue sorted as quickly as possible.
“Those were 10 intense days,” he recalls, “Then I was trying to sort out my own 70 staff who’d to be laid-off temporarily.
“It was just the nature of it how things moved so fast so quickly,” he explains.
These days he’s fielding a lot of calls about insurance from members.
At the same time he has two young girls at home and is now their teacher in the mornings.
“I did a bit of work in the house but that’s stopped too, so there’s not much I can do now.”
He regularly checks in with his senior managers to make sure that the staff are OK but he feels that the biggest challenge now must be for those leasing premises.
“If commercial landlords don’t start playing ball with tenants, a lot of pubs will go to the wall,” he predicts, “Now we’ve no money coming in and there’s the future to think about when we do open up again whenever that will be.”
And here, some people may be deluding themselves if they think it’s going to be back to normal any time soon.
“If people think that the 1st July will see us open again with the Artane Boys Band marching down O’Connell Street, well that’s just not going to happen.
“We were one of the first to be shut and we’re likely to be one of last to be open. We may also be forced to open with restrictions around social distancing and Opening Hours. It’s likely to be a slow burn back up, if anything.
“It’s about getting confidence in people looking on the pub as being a safe environment; it’s going to be challenging.
“Indeed, until they get a vaccine, pubs could be in a tricky spot.
“And with turnover down, I can’t see us opening back up to the levels we were at before. If you had 100 staff on your books and were re-opening, I can’t see jobs for 100 people.
“I can’t see any DJs or doormen getting any work in this town at first when we reopen either.”
He does think it will get back eventually, but it could be a couple of years ahead of us.
“Government assistance is going to be absolutely vital,” he stresses, “We won’t just need zero VAT we’ll need to be able to make use of that VAT to help us get started again.
“And deferring rates is no good to business. It has to be eliminated entirely for this period as we’re not open and therefore unable to avail of services.”
If publicans and businesses don’t have the breathing space to get back open again, they’re going to close – it’s that simple, “…. because if you were finding it rough before all this, how are you finding it now?”
However it hasn’t been all bad news from the trade.
“Our suppliers have been excellent especially Diageo, Heineken, Irish Distillers, C&C, Richmond Marketing and Comans, for example. Dillon’s took back stock too.
“So while the banks have somewhat played ball, it’s the insurers that need to be addressed,” he concludes, “For policies that don’t have Covid-19 in the terms & conditions that’s one thing, but for policies that do have it, they should be covered.
“Similarly if the commercial landlords are fair across the board things will get back going again but if they aren’t, there’s going to be a car crash of leases collapsing across town.
“If everybody works together. It’s going to be OK but if certain people – like landlords, the insurance companies and Government – don’t row in, then we’re in trouble.”
Paul Moynihan of Moynihan’s Bar & Lounge in Donard
As the VFI’s President Elect Paul Moynihan is unable to work in his pub, Moynihan’s Bar & Lounge in Donard, County Wicklow, so he’s doing a bit of work for the Federation whenever he can.
He certainly misses talking to his customers but some County Wicklow pubs have set up their own WhatsApp group to keep in touch.
“Tourism has gone completely for this season and next year it will not be as high – the West of the country had been doing well out of it last year,” he tells me.
The Banker’s Alan Campbell
Former LVA Chairman Alan Campbell of The Banker’s in Dublin’s Trinity Street is filling in his time by keeping his pub maintained.
“Along with one of the lads I’ve fully painted the outside of the pub and am now in the process of painting the inside,” he says, “All the tables have been varnished and the floors polished. It will be a brand new pub when we do get going again!”
Naturally, during this time, he’d to take out a lot of the expensive whiskeys that the pub’s so well-known for and has put them into storage.
The Covid-19 crisis affects so many people both upstream and downstream of the publican.
“It affects my vegetable supplier to my whiskey suppliers etc,” he says, “I’m thinking that it will be three years before we see any pickup in tourism again after this.
“This season and next have definitely gone. After that we might start to see a bit of recovery and we could do with a repeat of ‘The Gathering’ to help it along,” he adds, “My biggest fear would be for the tourist pubs.”
He agrees that while there may be a number of pubs running takeaway and delivery meals for their customers, he can’t see it being worthwhile to have to get chefs in specially for that.
“Such pubs probably franchise out their catering and this is a way of the franchisee staying in business,” he says, “When we do reopen” he concludes, “it’s going to be a very different landscape.”
Initially he’d expect staggered hours to be introduced, with the Government unlikely to let all the pubs open at same time.
“….And I’d expect social distancing to become the norm in pubs,” he concludes.
I also thought it would be useful to have a word with Val Hanley, a Membership Liaison Officer for the VFI and a former VFI President himself, on what feedback he’d been getting from his Federation members about the situation.
One or two publicans have taken to painting their pubs and otherwise trying to keep them fresh during this lacuna in trade, he reports.
“But if they’re rural pubs then some of them are probably going to be part-time farmers and therefore part-time publicans, so will have somewhere else to work in the meantime. The real worry is those in towns who’re completely in lockdown and who have no other income; there’s not a lot that can be done for them where everything has had to be curtailed,” he tells me.
And even when pubs can open again he agrees that it will be some time before the previous tourism levels can be re-built.
“The big problem will be if the pubs remain shut until July, for example, then an awful lot of these commercial businesses will have three months’ rent owed and in a number of cases landlords are not stepping down from demands for that rent”.
There seems to have been no Government action so far but institutional landlords are still putting pressure on publicans to pay in the meantime, he claimed.
“If the landlord is getting a three-month freeze on the mortgage, the least they can do is pass it on.”