On-trade

Pubs – biding their time through gritted teeth

Emotionally & financially, the current Lockdown has come at a harder cost than the first Lockdown. Pat Nolan asked publicans around the country how they're coping and what they hope for the future.
Clearly, a lot of frustration has made itself evident among vintners to the point that a number have already decided that they won't open again anyway.

Clearly, a lot of frustration has made itself evident among vintners to the point that a number have already decided that they won’t open again anyway.

With pubs, restaurants, bars and hotels now not expected to reopen until the end of May, June or even July at the earliest – and even then with the focus likely to be on outdoor dining and drinking only – it seems that the current Lockdown is having a more significant impact on publicans than the previous ones.

The lack of certainty surrounding clear Government plans for hospitality to emerge from Lockdown is unsettling.

Clearly, a lot of frustration has made itself evident among vintners to the point that a number have already decided that they won’t open again anyway.

It’s been one long, arduous up-and-down journey over the last 12 months, agrees John Clendennen of Giltrap’s Bar in Kinnitty, County Offaly, “But now that we have the Covid Restriction Support Scheme and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment in place it’s possible to find some level of security” he says, “but I’d like to see the level of CRSS increased as we’ll be one of the last sectors of the economy to open”.

Overall, publicans faced with the conundrum of when they can reopen also wonder can they remain open in the shadow of restrictions being reintroduced.

“We took difficult decisions in the best interests of public health and I believe that the majority of our members want to do what’s right” says John, “but they also feel that they’ve outlets where they can be responsible and provide a safe, healthy and reassuring environment for their customers.”

I'd like to see the level of CRSS increased as we'll be one of the last sectors of the economy to open". - John Clendennen with Percy & Eleanor Clendennen.

I’d like to see the level of CRSS increased as we’ll be one of the last sectors of the economy to open” – John Clendennen with Percy & Eleanor Clendennen.

 

Publicans’ & coping strategies

The licensed trade is “a unique enough industry in that we’re probably all ‘scrappers’ who adjust well and are progressive enough people,” reckons Michael O’Sullivan of Clancy’s Bar in Cork’s Princes Street, “We live on the side of getting on with things.

“Some of our staff are fed-up, of course, as are our business partners etc but others are enjoying that time off – for example those with a young family.”

Michael has been able to give more time to his four and six year-olds than he was able to devote to his teenage daughter when she was their age.

“On the flip-side we’ve staff who don’t have anything to be doing,” he continues, “They’d be in my thoughts and I hope that they’re getting through their days.”

"We're probably all 'scrappers' who adjust well and are progressive enough people," reckons Michael O'Sullivan of Clancy's Bar in Cork's Princes Street.

“We’re probably all ‘scrappers’ who adjust well and are progressive enough people,” reckons Michael O’Sullivan of Clancy’s Bar in Cork’s Princes Street.

 

In Dublin, “Everyone is dealing with it differently” says Alan Byrne of Harry Byrne’s in Clontarf, “but everyone is feeling the same way – stressed about the future of our business, the welfare of the staff – and I know everyone’s first priority is making sure that there’s a viable business for the staff to come back to”.

This Lockdown since Christmas Eve has been pretty different believe publicans like Michael O’Donovan, proprietor of the Castle Inn on Cork’s South Main Street.

“It now seems like a very long tunnel with no reopening dates and so nothing to work towards,” he said.

During the first Lockdown publicans used the time to paint, renovate and set up Social Distancing signage etc. This time, not so much.

"It now seems like a very long tunnel with no reopening dates and so nothing to work towards" - Michael O'Donovan.

“It now seems like a very long tunnel with no reopening dates and so nothing to work towards” – Michael O’Donovan.

No one has any guidelines and there’s not a lot of work to be done in the months of January and February.

Nevertheless, the VFI has been organising online seminars on various issues to keep members informed.

For example VFI County Secretaries and Chairmen recently took part in an online discussion with Chief Executive Padraig Cribben to discuss the Lockdown.

In fairness, says Martin Harley of Ballybofey’s Cheers Bar, the VFI carried out a lot of work over the Winter on keeping members informed.

“One thing I’d be worried about for my fellow members is their mental health,” says Martin, “But this has been the case for everybody… It’s been tough to get up in the morning and trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your time and before you know it, it’s dark again..”.

 

Weekly running costs covered?

What the trade is getting from the Department of Finance is not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

People like Alan Byrne believe that the CRSS can go a long way, “…especially for the ongoing bills that don’t go away: insurance, light & heat, small bank loans”.

But opinions differ on whether the government’s business support scheme is keeping up with a pub’s weekly running costs. All agree that there are challenges in certain areas and in others it’s not ideal.

The introduction of the CRSS scheme hasn’t worked out too badly for Martin Harley, for example, “…. but we’re looking to get the CRSS up to 15% instead of 10%,” he adds.

Every situation is different. Publicans like John Clendennen don’t want broad sweeping statements on this to be the message from the sector, “… because everyone’s financial demands are different” he says, “but I personally think 10% is relatively fair, all things considered. And we’ve to acknowledge the government’s decision to double the CRSS payment for the Christmas holidays considering the business we lost.”

Might the Government look at this again and similarly double CRSS payments for such fiscal highlights in the publicans’ calendar such as St Patrick’s Day,  Easter and the June Bank Holiday etc?

John Quealy operates Quealy’s Bar in Dungarvan’s O’Connell Street.

In John’s case it all depends on the turnover level beforehand and on what your pub’s closed costs are.

“Bad and all as I am as a ‘wet’ pub” he observes, “it must be worse if you’ve got a kitchen to maintain too.”

But while both John & his wife Caroline get the PUP, the CRSS leaves them 15 to 20% short of their fixed expenses while closed.

“It’s difficult to complain in that we’ve got a certain amount of money but very few will have anything put aside to reopen at this stage.”

Over the past 12 months publicans such as John are probably talking of close to €50K gone.

“I put in a lot of my own money into it and any we had in the bank – which is now gone,” he says, “We’d do around 25% of our turnover at Christmas but as a pub that doesn’t serve food we didn’t get that opportunity and the Government promised that we’d be looked after for this in the New Year – but we’re still waiting on that from them.”

And there’s not so much as a hint as to what form this will come to the trade in.

"Bad and all as I am as a 'wet' pub" observes John Quealy, "it must be worse if you've got a kitchen to maintain too."

“Bad and all as I am as a ‘wet’ pub” observes John Quealy, “it must be worse if you’ve got a kitchen to maintain too.”

 

Outside proposition

Last April and May would have been good for some as the milder weather allowed outdoor service as an alternative but some  publicans don’t even know if they’ll be open again this year.

With the approach of Summer and a possible easing of restrictions back to the ‘bad old days’ of permitting a maximum of 15 persons outside the premises, it’s not really feasible for some, especially without appropriate outdoor facilities.

For operating outdoors a small pub would need at least an owner and one staff member. But with a 15-person limit many feel that it’s simply not worth the candle to fund two such salaries.

It would seem more logical therefore to match the numbers outside to the available space there rather than a one-size-fits-all 15.

Surely someone could look at the size of the outdoor area and allocate a pro-rata customer number?

The Castle Inn is ‘landlocked’ so for Michael O’Donovan operating outside is not an option.

“But if outdoors is an option for some, I hope the government will consider raising the current limit on numbers,” he adds.

In Clontarf, Alan Byrne agrees. His larger pub wouldn’t merit bringing staff back for just 15 people.

Alan Byrne's larger pub wouldn't merit bringing staff back for just 15 people.

Alan Byrne’s larger pub wouldn’t merit bringing staff back for just 15 people.

“We’ve a big area outside in the car park which we transformed last Summer into the permanent structure we now have for dining,” he says, “I was operating with three pods of 15 with completely separate staff and  toilet area etc.

“If you could be Socially Distanced in comparison to your size of premises, everyone would like that,” he believes.

But serving up to 15 people outside does remain an option for publicans like Michael O’Sullivan as Clancy’s traded well the last time the restrictions were eased.

His location in the middle of Cork City in a new and rejuvenated Princes Street means that his outside business will be feasible.

But he’s also a realist.

“If our business model was trading on only 15 people outside at a time then we’d be great – but that’s not the model we were designed for obviously!”

And publicans can’t go looking for a bank loan based on a turnover of just 15 people outside the premises.

Originally a ‘wet’ pub, during the first Lockdown Martin Harley subsequently decided to change over to offer food, investing some €40,000 in the conversion process.

“In the long term it’s a good move” he says, “but when are we going to get operating again?” he wonders, cautiously eyeing-up his costly new slumbering combi-ovens, “I’ve talked to different businesses about this and we need 50-60% of capacity,” says Martin.

Then again CRSS payments are not going to last forever. Most publicans can wave them goodbye as soon as the pubs are allowed open in any format. Then they may have to move into this space.

“Perhaps the government could allow some to open to the 15-people maximum and allow them to qualify for a 15% CRSS payment,” suggests Martin, “That would be doing two things: taking staff off the PUP and paying out less in social welfare and benefits.”

 

Notice period

Everything appears to operate on a week-by-week basis with the country’s pubs seemingly the last thing the Government’s thinking about, so it’s unfair to ask a business to open up at short notice.

Two weeks would probably be a really good timeframe in terms of suppliers, getting staff rotas up-and-running and organising training etc.

“l need a couple of weeks to get restocked and my suppliers would need that too,” believes Alan Byrne, “We’re dealing with hundreds of pubs and most importantly you need to give your staff notice to come back and get training done too.”

 

The future

As for what vintners expect on reopening, it’s probably going be a bit different to what it was before, says Michael O’Donovan, “… but without getting an opening day and seeing what the guidelines are going to be, it’s a bit difficult to know exactly what it’ll be like”.

The trade is watching closely government sentiment in relation to ‘herd immunity’. Clarity is still required where there has been little but uncertainty and fudging throughout this whole ghastly period.

Inevitably then, hospitality has witnessed a steady haemorrhaging of good staff from the industry during the past 12 months.

Some of the food outlets look to June or July but for ‘wet’ houses John Quealy reckons on another six weeks again,”…..And now there are murmurs of September…”.

Even then, it may take a long time for some people to go into the pub with any degree of confidence.

“I think Social Distancing is here for a good while and probably even if the coronavirus disappears off the face of the earth it will take people a while to get confidence back,” John concludes.

Going forward, John Clendennen intends investing further in his own premises.

“These are uncertain times” he agrees, “and while by far the most extreme ever, they’re not dissimilar to others we’ve experienced as a trade but we’ve stepped up to the plate before and attracted people to premises despite it all.

“Nevertheless, it’s going to be a long road back and so Government support must stay in place for a considerable period of time yet so that when we do finally reopen we’ll be like a bike with (Government) stabilisers.”

We need to be getting the vaccination rate up to 50% at least before you could think about opening the hospitality sector, believes Martin Harley who feels that this too is going to be a long year.

“So that’s going to be two years that the industry won’t forget!”

Everyone Alan Byrne meets out and about tends to say how much they’re missing the pub.

“It’s not just the drink – they really miss the pub and meeting their friends and even the staff – just to be around people – it’s a very lonely world out there. The pub is a lot more important to the people than just drink.”

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