Pubs and restaurants measure success in all sorts of ways: covers served, tables turned, pints sold, bookings taken, revenues reached – the list goes on.
But it is the small matter of 100 centimetres that represents the measurement uppermost on many operators’ minds at the moment. Except that it’s not a small matter.
As operators get closer to opening their businesses again, the difference between one metre and two metres in social distancing terms remains a massive bone of contention and could ultimately decide who makes it through the next six months in one piece.
Last week the housing minister Simon Clarke said the government intended to maintain the two-metre social distancing rule despite vociferous calls from the hospitality sector for it to be reduced.
Whatever the eventual outcome, every operator is having to build it into their thinking.
In a recent update on how it plans to reopen its business, 160-strong restaurant chain Loungers noted that there was a “marked difference” between one metre and two-metre distancing.
If two metres is implemented, for instance, it simply might not make any sense for it to open a number of its more compact sites immediately.
Other operators with smaller footprint sites especially will be going through the same steps as they explore what is viable – particularly if they don’t have any outdoor space to lean on.
Young’s is another operator that has been vocal on the subject. It has refused to open its pubs until August, when it expects the two-metre ruling to be relaxed.
“I am working on the basis that when we reopen in the summer, the guidance will be for one metre. If it is good enough for WHO and other countries then it is good enough for us. I would urge the government to move swiftly and adopt that guidance,” declared CEO Patrick Dardis recently.
Opening with the current social distancing measures in place not only creates obvious challenges from a customer perspective, it also has huge implications for back-of-house areas.
It almost certainly means fewer staff in the kitchen, which then has a knock-on effect for menu breadth, productivity output and speed of service.
Kitchen layout and work flow will need to be rethought, a greater level of flexibility will be needed and operators will be forced to quickly get to grips with different ways of doing things, from deciphering how to reduce chef movement and introduce one-way systems (which won’t even be realistic for many kitchens) to consolidating ingredients and menu items.
The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) told the PA news agency that if the UK followed the World Health Organisation’s advice of imposing a one-metre distance it would “enable many more pubs to viably re-open and serve their communities again”.
The caveat to all this is that no operator will say they want to see the two-metre distance rule reduced at the expense of customer or staff safety. And if that means suffering further economic pain to follow the health advice for a little while longer it is difficult to see an alternative.
Medical journal The Lancet published a piece of research this month showing that maintaining a two-metre distance from others is twice as effective at preventing the spread of coronavirus than a one-metre gap.
A two-metre distance reduces the chance of infection by a further 50% within the community, whereas that plummets to just 3% when a one-metre rule is applied.
There is a middle ground – in Germany they are operating to 1.5 metres – but some will argue that still doesn’t go far enough and might be more difficult to monitor given the way the two-metre rule has been impressed on UK minds.
The BBPA predicts that only 20% of pubs could reopen if social distancing were imposed at two metres. This would rise to 50% and 70% if the distance were reduced to 1.5 metres or one metre.
Furthermore, a one-metre distance would allow venues to operate at more than twice the capacity than they will be able to at two metres.
With so much pressure mounting, and government ministers continually saying the topic is under review, it appears it is only a matter of time before we see an amendment to current policy – but whether that happens before pubs and restaurants officially reopen again is a different question altogether.
Never before has a metre mattered so much to one industry’s future.