A personal view on the challenges for hospitality under the shadow of coronavirus. Pubs and brewery business consultant, David Grant (pictured), issues a plea for a future with better service, quality, and — crucially — training.

David Grant

As tragic as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, we have seen some light emerge from the darkness. Neighbours have united and helped one another, the pace of life has been slower, and even the air quality has been better. We have learned to value life, friends, family and the tireless work of strangers, selflessly putting themselves at risk to keep us safe.

As the lockdown eases, we can now meet up again with other households, families can re-unite, and couples can re-connect. And, finally, pubs, bars, and restaurants are re-opening — a welcome return for both the operators and much of the public alike.

Post-coronavirus, many aspects of life will see lasting change — hospitality is unlikely to be an exception. As life returns to the ‘new normal’ I ask this: is the hospitality industry really ready? Across the sector, many brewers and pubs have been amazingly resilient, innovative, and bold, in rising to the challenge of the pandemic, quickly offering new click and collect take-away services and home beer delivery for the first time, with a good deal of success.

I know of brewers who have seen 30-60% increases in online sales as people took advantage of the fantastic weather and adapted to drinking at home. Some of those people may wish to stick with this, at least for the time being.

Pub owners and licensees have had the time to refurbish and recharge in readiness for people to once again enjoy the pub experience. But have they spent any time rethinking their business?

New challenges lie ahead to persuade people to return to pubs and bars. Yes, the key aspect has to be safety for staff and customers alike. We can have confidence that our licensees are responsible people and will do the right thing. Yet many former loyal customers will remain reluctant.

In recent years we have lost a huge number of pubs, and I fear those losses are likely to continue. Some will blame Covid 19. But many pub failures have been simply due to their inability to meet the demands of a public that will no longer tolerate shoddy service, failure to welcome customers, a poor food offer, and badly kept beers — especially cask ale.

Beer crisps

I believe that many, although by no means all, of the pubs and bars not re-opening would have closed at some point anyway. But I also have a sincere faith that those that have been well run in the past can successfully bounce back for the long term, learning from this tough experience and adapting to change as we learn to live under the shadow of the pandemic.

The physical nature of pubs will see change — beer gardens will be utilised to the full, despite the variable British weather, and indoors you will see more Perspex screens than in a bank. The casual British pub experience may change, too, moving from our very British vertical drinking centred on ordering at the bar to a more relaxed European style of sitting at tables.

As well as delivering the best quality food and drink, publicans must ensure they welcome customers with excellent service from well trained staff. The new normal should see staff showing customers to seating and offering service. Staff will have to become more aware and attentive to communicate well with the customer. Training for all staff — casual as well as permanent — must be a key investment.

Publicans will have to work with brewers, wine merchants, gin producers, and food suppliers on this. In this ‘new norm’ the point of sale will be the waiter person. Can we perhaps now look forward to some great table service? The better trained and informed the team is, the more they will sell — each cover will have to deliver more income per hour than ever before. Staff must better understand the art of salesmanship, for instance which drinks go with which food. They must be confident enough to engage with customers and suggest options.

There could be a real need for a full and up-to-date drink and food menu — perhaps learning from Belgian cafés on how to offer beer. All this against a backdrop of social media and ‘apps’ for table booking and ordering.

Quality, of course, is everything. While I have had some fantastic bottled beers during the lockdown, I badly miss my favourite tipple of cask ale, pulled correctly and enjoyed with friends — something I think many people have missed. Pubs that do cask ale well are likely to prosper, because they care.

I am optimistic for pubs. Just as in life generally, I believe there is now light emerging. Perhaps there is the potential to increase income as customers enjoy a better experience and a chance for pubs to become the best the industry has ever been. Let us all look forward to meeting again in the pub and raising a toast to a prosperous future in the ‘new normal’.

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