Time to get back to the pub

Eating out at the pub

Like many in the hospitality industry, I was cheered by the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday. Reduced VAT on meals and mini breaks from next week, coupled with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme during August, certainly get my vote – professionally and personally.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I haven’t been back to the pub since the great reopening last weekend, but that all changes this Friday, with a family lunch in London. We didn’t go to this pub before lockdown, but their website had all the right messages about social distancing and hygiene and when I phoned to book a table their tone struck the right balance between welcoming and responsible. I’m reassured they’ll do their best to serve a damn fine pub lunch AND avoid our party being taken down by COVID-19. In these strange times, I’m not sure we can ask for much more.

There aren’t many silver linings for operators in the cloud that is trying to run a pub or restaurant in a post-COVID world, but here are a few that I think are worth latching onto.

  • Gathering customer data: as if operators didn’t have enough to deal with, along comes the Government’s advice for hospitality businesses to take guest contact details in case they’re needed for Track & Trace. But once the logistics of this are overcome, it is surely a golden opportunity to collect valuable customer data? The Track & Trace solution from sector technology specialists Airship has been taken up by a number of operators including Pret, Leon and Roadchef and, of the 17,000 customer check-ins so far, 28% have opted in to receive marketing emails. Factor that by however many months this is going to be a part of hospitality – which must surely be until we have a COVID vaccine – and it’s a serious addition to any business’s marketing armoury.
  • Table service: this will be heresy to some, but I’ve never been a fan of waiting to order at a crowded bar. All that worrying about whether you’re going to inadvertently jump the queue or miss your turn, while trying to hold your party’s drinks order in your head. Staying at your table while a waiter takes and then delivers your drinks seems a more civilised approach and for smart operators it must also be a route to upselling.  I’m more likely to say ‘yes’ to the offer of another glass of something lovely brought to me than to bother getting it myself. And upselling is surely easier done through a leisurely chat at the table about the merits of, say, the wine that’s just a notch up or two from the house,  than at a busy bar where frazzled bar staff serve customers what they ask for just to keep things moving.
  • Alcohol-free drinks: yes, it’s disappointing that the VAT reduction isn’t including alcoholic drinks, and it does mean that wet-led pubs aren’t getting the same help as those where food is the focus. But does it present an opportunity for pubs to up their game on drinks without alcohol? I’m not going to pretend I’m planning a series of completely alcohol-free trips to the pub this summer, but the experience isn’t all about the drinking, as testament the growing number of younger drinkers in particular who are choosing to give up alcohol completely. And with the range of no-alcohol beers, ciders and other drinks now better than it’s ever been, nobody’s sacrificing taste or flavour.

The hospitality industry, and its customers, are still learning about what going out looks like post-COVID, and there are many tweaks to be made to improve the experience on both sides of the bar. The challenges of trading profitably under the new rules and regs may seem daunting, but it’s worth remembering that the pub has been adapting to a changing world for centuries. I’m confident that ultimately, pubs, and pubgoers, will be ok.





Reopening pubs will get our lockdown drinking back in check

One of the perhaps unsurprising impacts of lockdown has been a change in our drinking habits. Recent research from Drinkaware shows furloughed workers and people now working from home rather than an office admit to having had a drink earlier in the day, and drinking on days they wouldn’t have before the pandemic. Why not pour a drink as soon as you close your laptop at 5.00?  And with every day seeming the same as the previous one, why make any of them drink free days?

The problem is that little habits like these can become ingrained in the long term and even contribute to an increased tolerance for alcohol. And with furlough set to continue until October for some workers, and working from home likely to become a permanent pattern for others, there’s a real danger that many people will be putting their health at risk by consistently exceeding the low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week.

There is a lot about life pre-lockdown that helped us moderate how much we drink. Drinking at home means alcohol is available 24/7 and, pubs, bars and restaurants will play a role in getting a lot of people people out of their lockdown drinking patterns. Drinking in the pub is controlled and supervised and, importantly, alcohol serves are exactly measured – unlike the generous free pours so many have been helping themselves to in their kitchens or back gardens over recent months!

According to Kantar research earlier in lockdown, 56% of people were looking forward to visiting a pub or restaurant when they reopen. Unsurprisingly, younger people are more comfortable about going out to eat or drink than older age groups at a higher COVID-19 risk.  And we’re all expecting to see new anti-virus measures such as social distancing, hand sanitiser and enhanced hygiene, to reassure us.

It’s interesting to see why we’re so keenly anticipating the end of the hospitality lockdown. Nearly two-thirds of people cited catching up with friends, and around half of us are planning a celebration or romantic occasion.  I think it’s the informal sociability of the pub that we’re looking forward to – the ability to turn up, as you are, share your highs and lows with friends or friendly bar staff, join in a quiz or listen to live music. Great pub experiences hinge on social connections, which is what we’ve all missed over the last three months.

In all of this, alcohol is definitely optional rather than compulsory and increasing numbers of pubgoers, particularly in younger age groups, are enjoying everything that the pub has to offer – except the alcohol. It helps that the range of ‘no and low’ alcohol drinks has never been better, so choosing to go without alcohol doesn’t mean sacrificing quality or flavour. Any licensees who have a chance to review their drinks range before opening their doors again should, as a priority, be making sure they have a great ‘no and low’ alcohol selection.

It’s also worth noting that, despite the uptick in home drinking, many people have developed positive behaviours to protect their health during the pandemic. According to recent research from CGA 3, a third of us are exercising more and a quarter are buying healthier foods. Nine per cent have cut out alcohol completely. Some of these good habits will surely stick once we come out of lockdown.

Let’s hope that the reopening of the pub, as an environment that encourages moderate drinking, combined with an increased desire to lead a healthier lifestyle, will help to reverse the excessive drinking developed by many during lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on many aspects of our life, quite possibly for years to come; wouldn’t it be good if a better relationship with alcohol could be one positive to emerge from it?  

Guest blog: Andrew Whiteley, chief experience officer, Airship

Hospitality at home: the key to a successful lockdown

Andrew Whiteley, Toggle

If innovation and ingenuity are what it takes to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, there are plenty of hospitality operators who deserve to come through the other side of lockdown with a thriving business and a band of loyal customers who they’ve continued to engage with, despite their doors being shut.

Once lockdown was announced, smart operators were quick off the blocks to find new ways of keeping themselves relevant to their customers and bring in much-needed cash during closure.  Many have sold gift cards, which allow customers to buy a round of drinks for themselves or a friend, redeemable on that happy day when the pub’s doors reopen. The success of these schemes is testament to the customer loyalty inspired by some pubs; The Devonshire Arms in Yorkshire, for example, has sold £25,000-worth of vouchers, using the Toggle platform that allows pubs to create gift cards for free.

However, as the closure carried on, it became clear that customers couldn’t be expected to keep buying what was effectively a goodwill gesture with no immediate benefit to them. Operators realised that, to keep their customers engaged while their doors remained closed, they needed to offer them a ‘lockdown version’ of the food, drink and, most importantly, experience which they’d enjoyed in their pub, bar or restaurant before closure.

At Toggle, we’ve seen many great examples of how operators have turned their in-venue offer into an in-home one, and been involved in bringing several of them to life. The secret to success lies, we believe, in a number of factors, demonstrated by some of the best lockdown marketing:

Understand the core of your offer. At first glance, The Beer House in Sheffield wouldn’t appear to be well placed for the lockdown: a small micropub, it had never sold beer for takeout or delivery before closure. However, owner John Harrison realised that the reason customers visited The Beer House – to explore a wide range of craft beers, guided by the pub’s expert staff, could be recreated.  The Beer Box, a weekly-changing selection of beers as 9-litre ‘bag in box’ from the likes of Beatnikz Republic, Marble, Roosters and Arbor Ales, was born.

Create a virtual community.  The Beer House created a WhatsApp group for its customers, which gives them an exclusive six-hour window when they can access the weekly Beer Box, before it goes live on the website. The first time they did this, they sold £500 of Beer Boxes in an hour.  They’ve developed that online Beer Box community since, with hints and tips about enjoying the beers.  John even researched the thorny issue of how to put a head on the ales at home, testing a whisk, cafetiere and even a child’s Calpol syringe!  Now, group members wish each other a ‘Happy Beer Box Day’ and post videos of themselves with their home-poured pints.

Recreate the complete experience. If cask ale is challenging to recreate at home, then so too are cocktails.  According to CGA data, only 4% of people have enjoyed cocktails since lockdown, compared to 22% before.  Revolution Bars has created two Cocktail Kits, sold through Toggle – Pornstar Martini and Espresso Martini, containing all the ingredients needed to make them at home.  Just as importantly, they realised that what customers crave as much as their favourite cocktail is the atmosphere of a Revolution bar, so they’ve populated their social media channels with a steady stream of engaging content, from charismatic bartender Dimitri conducting cocktail tutorials to a DJ set or a ‘hangover HIIT’ session on Facebook Live.  A competition inviting people to tag a friend at #RevsDate and win a DIY cocktail kit attracted hundreds of entries from customers, reminiscing about their times enjoyed in a Revolution bar and looking forward to the fun ahead after lockdown.

Stay true to your brand. Restaurant brand Côte is all about high-quality authentic French food, which it has continued with its Côte at Home offer, promising ‘freshly-prepared, restaurant quality meals; effortless cooking with no skill or washing up required!’. As well as ready prepared meals, they also have a Butchery section with steaks, sausages and prestige burgers, and a selection of unusual French cheeses. It’s a perfect translation of the in-restaurant experience to the at home environment and has allowed thousands of Côte customers to enjoy a genuine taste of France. 

With a reopening date as early as 22 June now being mooted for some venues with outdoor spaces, it will be interesting to see to what extent consumer behaviours may have changed during more than 100 days of closure.  Let’s hope that those operators who adapted their offer and kept their customers engaged through social media, are rewarded with returning guests who appreciated the ‘lockdown version’ of their favourite pub, bar or restaurant, and can’t wait to experience the real thing again!

Airship’s Toggle platform allows operators to create online gift cards, and was made free to users during lockdown. www.usetoggle.com This column first appeared in Propel’s Friday Opinion on 12 June 2020.

Pubs in the pandemic: community heroes

The team at Cwmbran Fire Station receive food from Brains pub The Blinkin Owl

Working with PubAid is always a wonderful reminder of the great work that pubs do at the heart of their communities, and never more so than during this time of national emergency. Despite the catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on our industry, countless licensees and their teams across the country are putting people before profit and turning their pubs into invaluable hubs of community support.

Des O’Flanagan, PubAid co-founder, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic may have closed pubs for now, but their support for their local communities remains undiminished as licensees up and down the country adapt to offer local people practical, social and emotional support to help them weather this unprecedented crisis.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

Many have adapted their menus to takeaway or delivery, with a number providing free meals to local pensioners, others setting up village shops to serve those unable to travel, and generally acting as a hub to co-ordinate community efforts to support vulnerable residents. There’s plenty of support for NHS and other key workers – turning over car parks and in some cases pub rooms for their use.

Just as importantly, many pubs have found ways to give their regulars some of the social and emotional benefits they gain from a visit to the pub. A number have set up helplines to offer local housebound people a much-needed social interaction, others have organised on-line pub quizzes.

We’ve published a selection of stories about inspiring community pub heroes below – but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

When Mother’s Day became an early Covid-19 casualty, Brawns Den in Durham donated all the food they’d planned to serve families to local food banks. 

In similar vein, The Cross Keys in Coleorton in Leicestershire delivered 50 lunches from pizzas to Sunday roasts to the community on Mother’s Day.

The Old White Bear in Keighley had taken 129 bookings for Mother’s Day but rather than let down their customers, they made all the meals available for takeway instead, and are continuing to operate a take-out service.

Pub operator Brains had food worth £100,000 sitting in their 106 managed pubs as the lockdown started. So they decided to give it all away to local NHS and key workers, care homes, food banks and other worthy causes.  Their donations helped more than 40 groups across south and west Wales, including Cwmbran Fire Station, who took some of the food given away by local Brains pub The Blinkin Owl.  Brains chief executive Alistair Darby said: “We gave away everything that was going to go out of date while our pubs were closed – much better to have it used by those in need than let it go to waste.”

The Myrtle Tavern in Leeds has stepped up to support the vulnerable in their local community, dropping off care packages to people self-isolating or unable to shop for themselves. Packages contain vital supplies – tea, milk, biscuits, toilet roll and a bottle of Guinness!

The Plough & Harrow in Leytonstone has donated soft drinks to the local hospital for staff to enjoy on shift, and alcoholic drinks for those who want to take them home. They have also donated to other key workers such as post workers and refuse collectors, and have set up a Facebook page encouraging other pubs to offer the same support for the NHS

Lesters in Margate has made its car park available only to NHS workers at the nearby hospital, who are also benefiting from the pub’s takeaway food service.  Licensee Barry is doing all he can to support the community, despite being himself in his 70s.

Food deliveries from the Swan in Addingham

Pedal power is delivering pub meals to residents in Addingham, Ilkley. Jon and Amy, licensees at The Swan in the village, have invested in a bike to bring their tasty pub meals, cooked from fresh, to local people.

Licensee Carole at The Clifton Arms in Blackburn raised more than £400 from the pub’s community in just half an hour and bought fruit boxes from a local producer to be delivered to the NHS staff at the local hospital. In the last week, the pub also delivered over 40 essential boxes to those who were in isolation or unable to leave home.

The White Hart in Nettlebed near Henley has set up a shop in the pub, offering vital supplies to local residents, and are cooking a daily hot meal, ready for collection if ordered the day before. A poll on the Nettlebed Facebook asking residents if they wanted the shop to continue got 127 votes in favour – and none against! Good work by licensee Ted Docherty and his team of live-in staff who are working on a voluntary basis to serve the local community.

The aptly-named Who’d Have Thought It in St Dominick in Cornwall is offering takeway and home delivery to the local community, and donating £1 for every order to a newly- established food bank offering vital supplies to the vulnerable. Great community support from licensee Tracey Fleming and her team.

The team at the Blue Ball, Rutland

The Blue Ball in Braunston, Rutland, has been making up food boxes for the local community. Licensees Dom and Pip also set up a fund so that people can make a donation to purchase a box for those in financial hardship.

The Chestnut Group of 11 pubs in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex has adapted its offer with freshly-cooked meals available for collection and delivery, live pub quizzes, Q+A sessions with the pub chefs on social media and online breadmaking demos.  They’ve also opened shops at the Three Blackbirds near Newmarket and Globe Inn at Wells.

To help keep customers socially connected through the lockdown, The Fleece Inn, Skipton, has moved its weekly Tuesday Pub Quiz online, with quizzers able to see licensee Tim read out the questions.  And The Portsmouth Arms in Basingstoke is running two quizzes a day – one for children at 5.00 pm and one for adults at 8.00pm. Around 4,500 people tuned in on the first day!

At The Bull & Bush in Shepshed, Essex, licensees Laura and Nez have set up a Facebook group for their regulars to share quizzes, music and more.

Pinxtos and pre-history: a ‘restless’ trip with San Miguel

Swapping the grey skies of a London winter for two days of Spanish sunshine would have been an offer too good to pass up even without the added attraction of visits to San Sebastian, the Atapuerca archaeological site, and Michelin starred restaurant Cobo Vintage. So when San Miguel invited me to join a trip as part of their ‘cerveceros inquietos’ – best translated as ‘restless brewers’ –  campaign, I barely hesitated before jumping on a flight to Bilbao.

Day One started with a drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian and The Basque Culinary Centre. This institute has been such a success since it was founded in 2011 that I wondered why we don’t have one in the UK.  As the name suggests, it is dedicated to promoting gastronomy, through education, research and innovation. Some of the initiatives we saw, and tasted, included their work on meat substitutes – chorizo made from pumpkin and an alternative to chicken, complete with crispy ‘skin’.  

Pre-lunch beer and food matching at the Basque Culinary Centre

Lunch in the Centre’s newly opened ‘Co-Creation Space’, co-sponsored by San Miguel,  followed this theme, with a menu that showcased the institute’s innovation with vegetables, as part of its mission to create a more sustainable gastronomic culture.  The roasted beetroot with kimchi and hazelnut and chive oil was the standout dish, paired beautifully with San Miguel 1516.  Unsurprisingly this beer and food match is one of the most popular in the Centre’s restaurant.

1516 was the first San Miguel beer not available in the UK that we tasted on our trip.  At lunch we also enjoyed San Miguel Fresca, paired with a dish of hake cooked in a green sauce – a Basque tradition.  Fresca’s crisp, fresh taste proved the perfect partner.

After enjoying panoramic views across San Sebastian from the top floor of the Culinary Centre, we explored the city on foot with an expert guide. It’s a fascinating city with a rich history – much influenced by its proximity to the French border and a strong cultural heritage – it hosts an annual international film festival, jazz festival and was a European Capital of Culture in 2016. It’s also widely regarded as Spain’s gastronomic capital, boasting one of the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre in the world.

Back in Bilbao, we were taken for dinner in a local bar for some delicious tapas – or, as the Basques call them, pinxtos. Each exquisite plate was matched with a San Miguel beer. Stand out pairings included red mullet, asparagus and squid ink teamed with Magna, the newest addition to the brewer’s portfolio, launched in April last year, and pork with cauliflower puree matched with Selecta.

Our hosts from San Miguel took us through the brewery’s history, from its start in 1890 in the Philippines, through its global expansion, split in 1953, when the Spanish San Miguel Brewery became independent of the Philippine parent and finally, the acquisition by Mahou to create Mahou San Miguel, Spain’s largest brewer. The Philippine roots evidently influenced the naming of its Manila India Pale Lager, a wonderful 5.8% ABV beer that I’d love to see in the UK.

Day 2 started with an uplifting view of Jeff Koons ‘Puppy’ outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, just yards from our hotel.  More than 1.2 million people visited the Guggenheim last year, making it one of Spain’s top cultural destinations.

Two hours drive south of Bilbao brought us to the city of Burgos, home to one of three San Miguel breweries in Spain – the others are in Malaga and Lleida, Catalonia.  Burgos is the centre for San Miguel’s R&D, and Magna, 1516 and 0.0% were all created here. It is also the only brewery where Selecta, Radler and gluten free are brewed. The scale of production here is impressive, and so are the site’s sustainability credentials.

To round off our tour, we were treated to a beer and food matching session from some of the brewery team.  For me, the standout pairing was a Burgos speciality of black pudding and egg with Selecta – its strength (6.2%) and toasted notes cutting through the dish’s fattiness.

Next stop was the archaeological site of Atapuerca, just outside Burgos. Excavations, which started here in the 1960s, have unearthed human and animal remains dating back millennia and in 2013, the discovery of a flint lasca proved the presence of humans 1.4 million years ago. San Miguel is one of the patrons of the Atapuerca Foundation which manages this important site, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Our guide at the Atapuerca archaological site

Back in Burgos, the last stop on our San Miguel tour was lunch at Cobo Vintage. The restaurant was founded by Miguel Cobo in 2015 and awarded a Michelin star a year later.  To say this meal was exceptional hardly does it justice; every one of the seven courses was delicious, beautifully presented and paired to perfection with a San Miguel beer. We tasted mussels with seaweed, smoked sea scallop with pickle, fish with a ‘pil pil’ sauce, veal ribs and more. With these dishes, we enjoyed San Miguel 1516, Manila, Magna and Selecta. And we were privileged to have chef Miguel at our table for each course, explaining his inspiration for the dishes and the beer pairings.

The trip certainly made me see San Miguel in a new light, which is the aim of the ‘cerveceros inquietos’ initiative. The extent of the San Miguel range – far broader than we see in the UK – the quality of the ingredients that go into the brew, and the potential for food pairing, were all showcased in an exciting and memorable way.  My thanks to San Miguel and to their professional and ever-helpful PR company Newlink for including me in this enjoyable, and restless, experience.