A week after coronavirus restrictions ended in England on July 19 – with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not too late – the pub sector is finally back to normal.
But what is considered “normal” may have been altered irreversibly.
Many publicans and sponsors will be happy to see the return of pandemic-related restrictions that have hampered commerce and social experimentation. But some trends are likely to become permanent fixtures, changing the face of the time-honored British pub forever.
It’s not as tragic as it seems. Last year, the government made it easier for bars and restaurants to obtain “pavement licenses” to serve guests on the street, to offset restrictions affecting indoor capacity.
Business Secretary Paul Scully recently announced that paving licenses can now be extended or even made permanent. This means valuable extra floor space for venues, although the continental-style al fresco dining culture may not be very popular in the cold, rainy months.
Bars were also granted temporary licenses last year, allowing them to sell take-home drinks. This has been extended for another 12 months, indicating the potential for pints of ready meals to become a permanent fixture.
Since table service has become the norm during the pandemic, many patrons have developed a taste for serving them refreshments, rather than jostling for the attention of bar staff. Larger places and ones that serve food as default will likely stick to it, even if bar service is also an option. Oakman Inns, which has 35 pubs in the Southeast and Midlands, said its services will continue to be table only for now.
This is all very well for Oakman, whose venues are largely in rural areas with large beer gardens, but smaller urban locations will be happy to see the back of table service.
Chris Josie is the CEO of Admiral Taverns, one of the UK’s largest pub chains, with around 1,000 venues. “Some will keep it, but the vast majority of them want to go back to serving in the pub because those costs are killing them and they are quite adept at doing so,” he said.
Request through the app
Table service may not be universally popular but it is likely that ordering through the app will continue, particularly in places that serve food.
Richard Carter, co-founder of one such app, OrderPay, points out that there are plenty of reasons why bars and customers prefer ordering by phone.
“If you’re worried about missing a moment in football, buying rides, or getting fed at the pub, we can solve those problems,” he said. For bars and their staff, phone orders are usually 10% larger, he said, and bars can increase sales of extras like pork scratch. Ease of ordering also means more transactions overall.
No more tip jars
Another benefit of ordering via the app is the non-cash tip. The pandemic has hastened the transition to a cash-free society, raising concerns about hospitality staff who depend on this little extra.
Several surveys have shown that guests are eager to give big, knowing how hospitality has been damaged, but they may not know how. However, most ordering apps make tipping possible, while services like TipJar, Tip Pot, and Easy Tip offer the option, sometimes via a QR code.
Fewer bars, more Wetherspoons
At the start of the pandemic, there were 40,886 pubs in England and Wales, according to property consultancy Altus Group. About 473 have gone forever since then, at a rate of about one per day.