When pubs were ordered to call for last orders on 20 March, nobody in the sector could have envisaged the battles that lay ahead.
If closing for three months wasn’t already bad enough, it has felt like pub operators have had to contend with new obstacles at every turn.
Huge sums have money have been spent on getting premises Covid-safe, while practices such as taking customer details have become the norm.
Even then, pubs have still found themselves blamed for the spread of Covid-19 despite some of the industry’s top figureheads vehemently arguing that the evidence doesn’t stack up.
And just when they thought the Eat Out to Help Out scheme had given business a turbo boost, the introduction of 10pm curfews has heightened fears that operators face another long battle to keep their head above the water .
It is for all these reasons that most of the leading pub groups have pledged unprecedented support for their partners.
Stonegate Pub Company said it would give rent reductions of 30% in October and 20% in November for publicans within its lease and tenanted business, Ei Publican Partnerships.
That move has created an overall support package — implemented in response to the Covid-19 lockdown — in excess of £36.5m.
Fuller’s, meanwhile, said that irrespective of conditions it would maintain its “relentless focus” on high quality food as its pubs and hotels reopen.
The 400-strong operator, which also runs a chain of boutique hotels, has invested heavily in chef development and kitchen infrastructure during the last five years to massively increase the scale of its food offer.
Chief executive, Simon Emeny, said it was vital that the group keeps a firm eye on the factors that had driven food sales prior to the pandemic.
“As we adjust to life as a focused premium pubs and hotels business, our relentless focus on fantastic food continues. Underpinning our food agenda are two key constituents — well-trained and passionate chefs and wonderful ingredients. While the former continue to be inspired by their journey through the Chefs’ Guild, the latter are equally key.”
Emeny said he expects the way in which Fuller’s engages with suppliers to have a huge bearing on how it bounces back from lockdown.
“We always look to develop long-term partnerships with our suppliers, which has led to actions that range from delivering financial gains from forward buying meat, to acquiring a whole field of asparagus to ensure supply, to accessing the apprenticeship levy of our suppliers to further develop our own apprenticeship programme. As we rebuild our business in the coming months, these supplier relationships will be more important than ever.”
Kitchen modifications have been an element of getting used to the ‘new normal’. As well as specific kitchen markers to remind staff about social distancing and visible PPE such as face visors and gloves, chefs have quickly had to get used to system changes.
Ross Pike, chef director at Oakman Inns & Restaurants, said that when its chefs first returned to work after lockdown, they were faced with a new set-up to reflect the climate.
“Where they used to have four passes, we’ve now reduced that down to one, so there is only one central pick-up point in the kitchen,” he explains. “There is going to be a lot of system changes they need to get used to and not one of our pubs is the same, so we have had to go into every pub and go through the whole motion again.”
Like a lot of operators, many of the changes Oakman has made are linked to offering a reduced menu. It moved to A3 menus upon sites reopening, which led to a 40% reduction in the number of dishes offered.
“Once I knew the size of the menu I took that into the kitchen and did a time and motion on every dish. With dishes where there would be cross-over from one person grilling it to the next person cooking it, we’ve now arranged it so that each section basically does each dish from start to finish. We’ve obviously tried to keep as many of the favourites on as possible, but there are some dishes that have had to come off for the time being.”
Menu streamlining has been a key theme for pub operators. At SA Brain & Co, it has been crucial for easing guests into smaller menus while handing pub teams some control over what they’re putting on.
Kitchen infrastructure has been reviewed and it has analysed how it can run a kitchen operation with segregation measures in place.
Coming out of lockdown, food operations manager Nathan Evans revealed that part of its plan was figuring out what a one-, two- or three-person operation might look like.
“We’re thinking the last resort would probably be to move kitchen equipment around. We’re thinking about what is realistic for that business, and if we reopen under social distancing what is our capacity? What does that now do to that equation? We’ve got X amount of covers, with X amount of menu items, that’s now a one-person kitchen operation…. you then have the added complexity of if that pub does click and collect takeaway then that ticks into another area. So we’ve done this whole calculation that tells you what this pub is going to be able to do.”
Staff safety and social distancing back-of-house have thrown up challenges for operators, too. Before Greene King began reopening its pub estate, it spent lockdown developing a delivery and takeaway service that was rolled out through its Metropolitan Pub Company division.
That gave it some valuable insight to kitchen practices, says Karen Bosher, managing director of premium, urban and venture brands at Greene King.
“With Metropolitan, we have our highest qualified cheffing skill base for Greene King. These are gastropubs, therefore they tend to be larger open plan kitchens, but we are using the protocols and some of the learning that we’ve established there to move into some of our smaller kitchens.
“It is allowing us to use that useful learning with real expertise. When we get more to the line chef-style businesses, we’re going to have to be far more disciplined in terms of how those individuals are guided through that environment.”