Tuesday April 12, 2022 marks the one year anniversary of the return of pubs after the third coronavirus lockdown. But Surrey pub staff have revealed there are lingering hurdles, even now there are no Covid restrictions in sight.
To remind us of the regulations back then, on April 12 last year, pubs, restaurants and cafes in England were able to reopen their outdoor spaces as part of the UK government’s phased roadmap for the phased reopening of hospitality. And unlike December’s Tier 2 rules, there was no requirement to order a substantial meal.
It wasn’t the full return – some places felt limited by the fact that indoor dining wasn’t allowed until the following month, and there were still limits on the number of tables – but the date April’s unlock was certainly a huge step forward, an official return of the great British pastime of going out for a drink. Fast forward to today, Surrey pubs have reflected on those times, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go before UK pub culture comes back to its own.
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Paul Cornish is chef and manager of The Wheatsheaf and Pigeon in Staines, his wife Jocy Cornish is the bar manager. Like many pubs, they offered takeaway during subsequent closures, but the return of the pub gardens was a big moment.
He says: “It was nice knowing we could reopen. We opened and we were quite busy, people were itching to come back.”
Pubs had been closed for several months until the 2021 lockdown before then. But even after so long, he says customers’ desire to visit the pub hasn’t gone away.
He recalls how the pub invested in a few gazebos in their garden to make outdoor seating as comfortable as possible, and the two at the front stayed there after indoor dining returned, showing that there were lasting opportunities that flowed from the restrictions.
But Mr Cornish says there’s still a long way to go before smooth navigation in the pubs industry is restored. As well as the trust issues with some of the most vulnerable customers, he points to the issues of increased energy – he gives an example that it costs around £40 to fill the two fryers in his pub these days, so that it would have only cost about £20. .
He said, “As we were [starting] to get really excited about business and trying to get money back from the bank, it’s all gone the other way now, we’re struggling with gas and electric bills coming in. The more money we take now, the more money we lose, it’s always a scary time for us.”
Pub and restaurant visits are also the kind of luxuries people give up first when faced with financial problems. But he also says that amid the struggles of the past year, he has seen fantastic loyalty.
He says: “This pub is mostly a real family community pub, a lot of people are older, they are lonely. They want to be in this pub to talk about things and people just wanted that pub atmosphere, the chance to hang out and socialise. , that will never change.”
“The damage is really done”
John Kerwood is co-owner of The Famous Green Man of Ewell Village, and says the mood back last year was one of trepidation, challenging in terms of demand, but exciting. He says: “The atmosphere was great, we were absolutely drunk, it was a party atmosphere, everyone was just happy to be back in the pub and socializing.”
But he says looking at his ad these days, business is down about 40% from where it was before the pandemic. His theory is that people had gotten used to drinking at home and realized how much cheaper it was, when there is such a big gap between supermarket and pub taxes on alcohol, a chasm that has deepened further during the lockdown.
He said: “The sad thing is that they can go to [supermarkets] and buy four cans for £5, while they only get a pint for almost £5 here. UK pubs need to up our game colossally now to make it worth people coming because the damage has really been done even now we have pubs closing because they just don’t do business .”
They have been luring customers in with live music, but Mr Kerwood says it could take several years before we have a chance to get back to what it once was for the pub business.
“We are going to have to increase our prices at some point”
Andrew Hayward is owner and head brewer of the Thames Side Brewery and its Tap Room in Staines. He said, “I remember it was snowing [on April 12 2021, he isn’t joking! ], which I thought was impossible, the day we are allowed to return to the pub! Despite this, we had quite a few bold souls in the garden [and] since then people have continued to slowly come back, and so I think we’re a long way from where we were before.”
But that is indeed a long way back for many – he also noticed the impact of the energy crisis on the sector. As a brewer he has seen the price of malt and hops rise firsthand as well as energy prices, although he is also able as a brewer to have more opportunities to income than some publicans.
He says: “We haven’t raised our prices yet, but we’ll have to at some point. I don’t want to put people in more trouble as we come out of this, but we can’t take the hit. too long, to be honest.”
They always have sanitizers and ventilation around the Tap Room. But he continues to encourage people in Surrey to support their local pubs.
“Please, please come out and show your support. We have to live on now, we’re at the point where most people are bitten, and we have to learn to live with this now, come back back to normal.”
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