There’s little doubt that this has been a challenging time for everybody but the most frustrating aspect of the pandemic for hospitality has been the lack of communication from the Government for significant periods through it.
“At times they simply showed a lack of respect to us but this has improved greatly of late,” says Noel Anderson, the Licensed Vintners Association’s new Chairman, who describes the initial supports for the trade as “awful”, but they’ve got better thanks in particular to the LVA’s Chief Executive Donall O’Keeffe who met with the Taoiseach and had direct conversations with him around support for closed pubs.
“We got rid of the €9 meal, we got rid of the divide between the on-trade and food pubs and the 15-person limit is now gone with outlets now linked to the available space involving six people per outside table,” says Noel.
Zooming in on the issues
The recent Zoom meetings with members of the government and other representatives were “most significant”.
Noel was able to set up a meeting with Fianna Fail parliamentary party members through his relationship with John Laharte. The Vintners Federation of Ireland also attended, bringing with them Ollie Crowe, a publican and Senator.
“At that meeting we finally got through to them how ridiculous the €9 meal was, pointing out that the outside area should be linked to the available space and not to 15 people.”
As a direct result of that meeting Fianna Fail put down a motion of support for the trade at their own parliamentary party meeting that night with the Taoiseach in attendance.
Later, another Zoom meeting was held with 13 Fine Gael senators who also widely supported eliminating the divide between food pubs and the others as well as eliminating the €9 meal and supporting linking numbers to outside to available space.
The Pandemic – what just happened?
Noel counts himself among those witnessing new opportunities to pivot one’s business model arising from the pandemic.
“… But I’ve also learned that things in a pandemic can always get worse!” he adds, smiling, “What we’ve learned from an LVA point-of-view is that it’s really important to have a strong voice in the fight.
“We’ve had one of the loudest voices in the conversation and from a business point-of-view publicans have shown a resilience to adapt, evolve and survive over the last year-and-a-half.
“I’m very encouraged about the future. It will be slightly different for the immediate future but slowly and surely things will get back to normal. What people miss are the pubs and hospitality.”
In the UK, hospitality is positively booming, up 121% year-on-year, he reports.
“I think we’re going to get a similar bounce over here this Summer. But it’s important that publicans adapt and listen to what consumers are demanding from the pub in terms of safety, comfort etc.”
Centre & suburbs
Dublin’s city centre & suburbs will be a very different proposition for vintners going forward.
“I think the suburbs are going to come alive,” he says, ” Towards the end of the first Lockdown and towards the end of the last Lockdown suburban pubs were doing better than the city centre.
“That may be with us for a while and the city is going to have to reimagine itself.”
As far as Noel’s concerned, Dublin City Council is going to have to think differently around Dublin hospitality too, although he welcomes its waiving of the street furniture licence fee for 2021 and ’22.
Take away the ‘takeway pint’
He won’t be sorry to see the end of the ‘takeaway pint’ either.
“The takeaway pint for on-street public consumption has been a necessary evil for a lot of us but there isn’t a future in it for the pub trade. People openly carrying pints down the street is not a good look for us. The future has to be in the 7-Day licence, the pub.”
This from somebody who’s served takeaway draught in plastic sealed bottles!
“However food could be a huge part of it. I’ve noticed that our takeaway food through Just Eat and Click’n’Collect continues to grow. I think that local pub food done right could be an option: ‘Will we get a Chinese, a pizza or a Bridge?’.”
Born and raised in Rathfarnham, Noel has managed many outlets since starting work at 17: Rathfarnham’s Blue Haven and Revels, the Abberley Court Hotel, McGowans of Churchtown and the Church in Mary Street – the latter two as Group Manager.
He also leased the Sarah Curren/Rathfarnham House & Venue and the Grafton Lounge.
Following the 2008 recession Noel even enjoyed a year on the other side of the supply counter working with Richmond Marketing (before taking on the Grafton Lounge).
Buying a lease at the height of the recession can be unbelievably challenging, he recalls.
Following a spot on Ian Dempsey’s Breakfast Show about start-ups in a recession the DJ spun Jamiroqaui’s ‘Virtual Insanity’ just for Noel (and people like him).
But Noel persisted, never missing a repayment or staff wage, battling through the first few years.
When the opportunity came to expand into the adjacent premises he grabbed it with both hands and the operation “took off like a rocket” with busy lunchtimes and especially busy Friday and Saturday nights, becoming Lemon & Duke in the process.
Before the recession turned, Noel had already decided to buy a premises.
Rugby’s Rob Kearney would often drop into the premises and talked to Noel about getting involved.
“I thought about the potential in a pub near Ballsbridge being owned by a couple of Leinster players and run by myself,” recalls Noel. The idea was made flesh and Bellamy’s of Ballsbridge became The Bridge 1859.
The rest is history.
The Lockdown has had negative implications for staffing, a huge issue for the trade.
He’s been able to retain most of his own staff but others have not been so lucky.
“The huge challenge remains getting staff back,” he says, “Staff confidence in the sector has been shaken, having been out of work so long. Some had to take pay cuts when open the last time and I think staff will be looking to come back to some sort of normality.”
FBD & pandemic insurance
His views on FBD are fairly well-known by now. He took out specific insurance against Covid-19 and along with the Loyola Group, the Chris Kelly Group and Sean’s Bar in Athlone has had to slug it out with the company in court when it “simply reneged” on its commitment, he says.
“The whole FBD debacle has been a horrible ordeal for me personally,” he says, “I’ve been forced through 15 months of Hell so far including a three-week trial where I was on the stand for 105 minutes being cross-examined. Thankfully, we won the test case but we’re not finished yet; we’ve another two-week trial in July on Quantum, but if they think they’re going to tire us out they’ll have got that wrong as well.”
The ongoing ‘support is what we do’ FBD campaign is particularly hard to stomach, he says, “But sometimes the little guys do win out”.
The good news, he says, is that 1,100 publicans have already received part-payment as result of that court case.
Women on LVA Board
Noel’s very pleased to be the first Chairman to introduce two women to the LVA Board through the appointment of Alison Kealy in Donabate and Laura Moriarty of the Moriarty Group.
“It’s very important to have diverse opinions and a different perspective on conversations,” he explains, “Women play an increasing part in the licensed trade and I think it’s important that they’re represented. In this we’ve two extremely good operators and it’ll also highlight to other women that there’s a career in this trade – I’ve a daughter who asked, ‘Can women become publicans too then?’.”
Noel has also created two new roles within the Association’s Council with the introduction of a Chief Whip in Peter Connolly from The Shed in Clontarf and Deputy Whip Michelle Murray from McSorley’s in Ranelagh.
“We’ve a huge asset in having a 40-member Council,” he points out, “By doing this we’ve also got huge Council engagement now which got in some strong campaigning around ‘Open Together’ for example.”
For now, his priorities as Chairman are clear: “We need to get everybody opened sustainably and then get them to survive with increased support,” says Noel, “I’ll also be working with my Deputy Chair on getting the late night members back on track.
“Thirdly, insurance; I’ve been heavily involved in insurance reform since joining the LVA seven years ago. We’re making significant progress on that now. If I got these items resolved as Chairman, I’d be a very happy camper.”
A happy camper who can move indoors in July.