'Cautious optimism' for pubs hanging their hopes on summer trade

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams


Publicans and restaurateurs are relieved to have a date in the calendar when they can get back to work and are hanging their hopes on the summer.

Pubs, cafes and restaurants will be able to open up their outdoor areas again on April 12 at the earliest, but the indoor seating sections will stay closed until at least May 17.

This means the patchy spring weather will have an effect on business during that month.

The Belgian Arms is one of those that is planning to return to work ‘with the stabilisers on’ and a skeleton staff team on April 12 – but it cannot go much further.

“Without investing a lot of money, we only have 30 seats on our patio that are covered,” said Chris Peverell, general manager.

“What sort of revenue can you get out of 30 covers? Not enough to support the whole kitchen team coming back to work.”

The current closure of hospitality businesses and gradual reopening is being taken more positively than previous Government decisions.

“[Previous decisions] have been damning to the industry and to be honest there wasn’t really evidence to suggest hospitality was adding to the number of cases,” said Chris.

“This time it’s more black and white and the Government’s handling it well.”

He hopes that the business rates relief and five per cent VAT will continue for at least six months after pubs can trade normally again.

“All these things can’t just come to an end in April or all this work would have been wasted,” he said.

Oliver Good, manager of Stubbings Nursery and Café, is feeling less positive about the Government’s direction, which he calls ‘disappointing’.

The garden centre can be open as an essential shop, but its eatery has been suffering as a result of less footfall and nowhere to sit. Pre COVID-19, it contained around 70 indoor seats, coming down to 44 with social distancing.

“We’re trading nothing near what we would,” he said. “I accept that we’re trying not to go into a fourth lockdown but it’s very frustrating. I think the Government are being very conservative about it.”

At the moment, Stubbings is waiting on news of the furlough scheme, expected next week in the Chancellor’s budget.

“We can’t open before May but if furlough ends before that, it’s a serious issue,” he said.

In Holyport, owner of the White Hart pub, Michelle O’Keefe, is being ‘cautiously optimistic’.

“This time it’s not a case of just flinging open the doors – we have a lot to think about,” she said.

For example, the requirement to have table service is a drain on staff at a time where the White Hart may not yet be at full staff capacity.

Re-opening will also depend on other financial considerations, such as if breweries go back to charging full rent or continue with reduced rates.

Another unknown factor is how the details will change following the prime minister’s announcement.

Michelle added: “Last July we were desperate to get people back in, because we had the finances behind us. We have no safety net this time, so the decision has to be more financially driven than driven by passion.

“The damage has already been done by being shut for so long, so another couple of weeks isn’t going to kill us.”

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