The Horror of Lockdown

Julia & Dan would like to share a summary of their lockdown experiences with you..

An insight into how things really are behind the scenes

My name is Julia Robinson and I own a wet-led pub in a small rural town (Mossley, Tameside) which I bought in August 2019 and now run with my partner Dan..

Buying a pub was my absolute lifelong dream and at 44 years old I finally got it! This was going to be our ‘Happy Ever After’. The Butchers Arms had maybe 10-15 regulars we bought it and we had massively high hopes to turn this sleepy local into the busiest, most talked about pub in town. I put almost all my life savings into refurbishing the pub and reopened it on October 5th 2019. From this date on it was absolutely packed to the rafters due to the massively high standards and hard work of an amazing hand-picked team.

From day one we have had live music every weekend, all major sporting events shown, a pool team who were top of the league, a newly formed darts and crib team and we employed 8 members of an amazing bar team. We also employed 2 cleaners, one accountant, a window cleaner, one quiz host and a variety of local musicians. Our local takeaway and taxi ranks benefit massively from us being open for business. Dan suffers with Cystic Fibrosis, a lung condition, and so we also used our position in the community to do a lot of much needed fund-raising for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. We wanted and succeeded to create a community hub.

Our turnover has surpassed that of our cash flow forecasts by a few thousand and despite living and breathing the pub we loved every second of it.

Then came Covid-19!!

As Dan has Cystic Fibrosis so we were immediately told by the government to shield, which we did for around 12 weeks before allowing ourselves back onto the golf course. 

Once the news of lockdown hit I immediately cancelled all Direct Debits and spent hours on the phone begging for payment holidays or reductions in rates. I did everything in my power to help my team find any kind of income (at this point furlough had not been announced). My team was calling me in tears not knowing how they were going to pay their bills or feed their children. It was an extremely distressing time having so many people’s future in what seemed to be my hands. I employed a number of single mums who depend massively on the shifts they do for me.

Over the next few weeks we found that we qualified for the £10000 grant, although this was hugely welcomed, it was unfortunately a mere drop in the ocean given that we are still expected to pay our insurances, supplier accounts, card machine payments, licensing fees, outstanding utility bills from the previous month (when the pub was at full capacity and had high usage) etc. Various help schemes were announced but I couldn’t qualify for some as I hadn’t been open long enough. I did however qualify for the Local Restriction Support Grant and was able to take out a Bounce Back Loan. This has been just enough to keep us afloat in addition to the money I had been frantically saving back up with a view to eventually replacing my life savings and having a contingency fund.

We struggled along as most did in what was a very difficult Lockdown and then were told we could open on July 4th. With Dan having CF we were very wary of opening and so decided to wait a while to see how other similar businesses were coping.

After reading in depth the almost 50 page long document we received to prepare us for reopening and with all the tedious risk assessments and signage in place we then opened the doors on July 15th under the strictest possible restrictions (Gtr Manchester restrictions have been the toughest throughout this).

Our capacity was just 38 people (around 80-90 people are in on an average weekend evening), and this was only if each table had 4 people seated at it. Sometimes we would have around 20 people in and no tables to seat any more. I had to employ 3 members of staff per night; one took orders and delivered drinks to tables, one served the drinks at the bar and the other was constantly cleaning touch points and tables, collecting glasses etc. Alongside these staff members myself and Dan were downstairs at every opening moment to take bookings, man the door (as we were turning at least 50-60 people away at weekends), make sure the capacity wasn’t exceeded, ensure people were social distancing, wearing masks, staying seated etc. Almost every night I went to bed and cried myself to sleep. Our ‘Happy Ever After’ didn’t feel very happy at this point.

Then along came the infamous Eat Out To Help Out scheme; this took away almost our entire Monday to Wednesday trade as they were now going where the cheap food was. Then came the 5% Vat reduction which again was of very little help to us being wet-led.

During the July to October period I have had to remove and ban three of our regular customers due to them getting a little silly and not following rules, but word soon spreads in a small town and we had some very bad press on Facebook, which has since been resolved.

I have daily messages from our regulars, particularly the ones who live alone and depended upon us as their main point of social contact. These people are lonely without us. We have a number of elderly gentlemen who come in at the very same time every single night and drink the same few drinks and talk to the same few people. These customers are struggling. When we were forced to close on October 23rd there were grown men walking out of this pub literally crying.

As for the staff, to these girls this pub is not just about earning money, although that is obviously of great importance. Our team is now extremely tight. Work to these girls is a chance to offload and to share their problems and their struggles with their work bubble who have also become their closest friends. It’s a chance to escape from the routine and the monotony of daily life. During lockdown three of our team have had some extremely traumatic life experiences happen to them. As both their friend and work networks we have been left unable to give any real help or support to the girls. Most of them are now home schooling full time alongside worrying about their finances and their job security. These girls are strong ladies, forgotten heroes and coming here is really not only work to them, they need our support. 

Without any hesitation they came back into work on July 15th and put all of these rules in place as though it was the norm:

  • Limit Capacity
  • Limit opening hours
  • Keep areas well ventilated 
  • Wear face coverings when working
  • Wear face covering upon entry
  • Sanitise on entry
  • Track and Trace 
  • Remain seated at 1m+ away from other households
  • Single households only at a table
  • Rule of Six
  • No table hopping
  • Table Service must be provided
  • Encourage the use of contactless payments 
  • Hands sanitised before and after serving (staff)
  • Hands sanitised before and after collecting glasses (glass)
  • Wear a mask if going to the toilet or for a cigarette
  • Disinfect all surfaces regularly
  • Disinfect all tables immediately after use
  • No pub games allowed
  • No singing allowed
  • No dancing allowed
  • No karaoke allowed
  • Music limited to 85db
  • No cheering when sport is on TV
  • Deep cleans required if Covid cases are reported (a good quality virus protection spray costs around £500)

The average cost of a drink in here is probably around £3.50. 

A customer tends to have around 2 drinks per hour. 

So ONLY IF THE PUB WAS FULL TO CAPACITY we would bring in 38 x £7 per hour which equals £266.

Around 1/3 of this £266 is the cost of the stock, so that leaves £177.33 per hour coming in.

If we deduct 3 hours of wages from this at £8.72 per hour we are left with £151.17.

Take away the cost of Gas, Electric, Water, Mortgage, Sky TV, BT Sports, Insurances, Licensing fees, Telephone and Broadband services, professional costs (accountant etc), maintenance, sundry items, essential PPE and the occasional artist you can imagine that we have not been left a lot in the kitty at the end of a days trading at our new full capacity.

As things stand at the moment we have just a little money left in the bank and we are praying for the announcement of further help as funds are running low. We live above the pub, it is our family home and my sons live here with us. It has been a tremendous worry to us all. We are still not sure which will come first, the reopening of pubs or the relaxation of Dans shielding rules.

I have spent hours on the phone once again, comparing every single utility to ensure I am on the lowest possible rates for everything. The talk of extended VAT reduction and business rates exemption is absolutely no help to us at all as we don’t pay business rates and still pay full VAT on alcohol. The unfortunate fact is that we need cold hard cash. As it is right now there is no further help planned for us and what we have is all we will get. It would be a huge shame to come this far by way of government funding and then fall at the very last hurdle. I have already gone down to just 5 members of staff on furlough and don’t want to reduce the team further. If this situation continues much further I will have no savings left to subsidise the business.

The stress of keeping a roof over our heads, saving the business, helping the staff, maintaining the building, worrying about future finances, worrying about future restrictions upon opening, worrying about future forced closures on top of having to shield is beginning to take its toll and so I am living with a great deal of anxiety and stress at the moment.

From a small rural free-house in a sleepy town in North East Manchester I would most certainly say that we at least need an extension of the furlough scheme, an extension of the LSRG, flexibility of BBL repayments, no immediate rise in Beer Duty and most certainly need two or three weeks notice with requirements set out so we can plan our physical layout, our signage, our risk assessments, our re-stock, prepare our PPE requirements, rewrite our rotas (remembering that the teams lives have changed dramatically during lockdown and so has their availability). 

Good luck to every one of you in the hospitality sector who may be fighting their own battle, let’s pray we all come out of this able to reopen our businesses and see them thrive over the next few years.

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