Landlords in lockdown

March 20th 2020 saw the closure of all restaurants, bars and pubs across the UK, after being ordered to do so by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a bid to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. This came a week after schools closed their doors, and just three days prior to the entire country going into lockdown. More than a month on, how are bar and restaurant owners coping with the pandemic?

Ben Garrett is a pub landlord who manages gastro-pub, The Charles Dickens, in Broadstairs. Being in the business for over 25 years, Ben has seen his fair share of challenging events over the years, but believes that this is most certainly the most challenging yet. The 46-year-old made the decision to close the doors of his establishment just hours after the Prime Minister enforced the shutdown.

“I decided to close The Charles Dickens on the Friday of the announcement, only a few hours after Boris Johnson had given his speech.” Explains Ben. “I decided not to trade into the evening as I had a feeling a lot of people would come rushing out of their houses and into the pub knowing they’d be closed for a while.”

The vast majority of establishments across Thanet also, like Ben, made the decision to close their doors to the public shortly after the Prime Ministers announcement. However, a very small minority of pubs in the area chose not to follow the government guidelines and to keep their doors open throughout the weekend. Although all pubs and bars have now been closed since the country officially went into lockdown, Ben believes that making decisions like this could have a detrimental effect on their business when pubs do eventually begin to re-open.

“I do think it was complacent of them to remain open and I don’t think it was wise on their part, obviously this pandemic is very serious. I believe that certain customers wont return to these kinds of places when we re-open, the longer the pandemic and the more serious it becomes it is changing our future customers, and influencing where they chose to drink when this is all over.

“The hospitality industry has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and it will continue to change. With what’s happened, and with this pandemic, it will ultimately alter people’s opinions on what’s happened and those who have been running these kinds of establishments.”

So, what exactly is life like for a pub landlord during lockdown? Ben explains how being away from work came as a welcomed rest for the first week, however after managing pubs since his early 20’s, the passion and itch to get back to work has finally set in.

“The first two weeks I found it quite nice to have time off and nothing to do. Working in the hospitality industry is very rewarding, but the hours are also very long. Usually I’m on call from 6 in the morning until 1 in the morning, so the first two weeks or so were actually quite novel for me. With the rising severity of the situation though I think it’s become clear that the chances of us opening again within the next six months are very slim.”

Although opening up pubs and clubs again does provide some form of hope for pub landlords, Ben explains how owners of establishments like this need to prepare to start work again in a “completely new world”.

The hospitality industry has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and it will continue to change, with what’s happened, and with this pandemic, it will ultimately alter people’s opinions in the future.

“It is now starting to get frustrating for me, as I know it is for a lot of other people as well. My thoughts now are turning to business plans and how I can re-open the pub when I’m allowed to, and the restaurant with social distancing in place. I’m asking myself – what will the world be like when social distancing ends? What sort of target markets will there be for me? A lot of social events have been cancelled and obviously this is something I’m considering may have an effect on business in the future.”

Located in Broadstairs, The Charles Dickens gastro-pub is no stranger to the popular summer event, Brodstairs Folk Week. An event that has now been running for 54 years, sees people travelling from all over the country to enjoy a week of food, music and festivities in the seaside town. However, at the beginning of the week The Broadstairs Folk Week Comitee announced that for the first time ever the event will be cancelled this year entirely. So how exactly will the effect pubs and landlords like Ben, and other small business owners in the area?

“Folk Week brings in an incredible amount of revenue to Broadstairs, and not just to pubs, to shops, hairdressers, hotels, any kind of establishment in Broadstairs gets an incredible amount of revenue from Folk Week. Sadly, a lot of business in Broadstairs rely on the Folk Week and summer trade to make sure they can get through the winter. A lot of these places are closed through the winter, and rely on their income and revenue from Folk Week to pay their winter bills. As for The Charles Dickens, fortunately we trade all year round, so Folk Week for us really is just the icing on the cake.

We trade all year round, and luckily for it’s something we can pull through. But unfortunately for a lot of places in Broadstairs, and I really do feel for them, they will feel the hit of this cancellation.”

Many reports from WHO and the government have made it quite clear by now, that no establishment in regards to pubs or restaurants will be open any time soon. With events nationwide being cancelled and dates being pushed further and further back, it really poses the question; what does the future hold?

“In regards to when would I like to open, I would like to open when I think it is safe and we can open properly. I know the world we are going to be opening to will be different, and I think some people will naturally socially distance. My unit, personally, I think I would be able to open and still maintain a healthy level of social distancing. However, a lot of public houses and restaurants will not be able to do this due to the size of their establishments, therefore I don’t think I would want to open until it really is safe to do so. I know myself, and a lot of other owners have said that if we can’t open without social distancing then we don’t want to open at all. I think until we can maintain a level of safety within the business, then carrying on as we are is most definitely the safest option for everyone.”