One month into the lockdown and like many people I’m running out of things I thought I would never use.
On the flip side, I’m managing to sell things I assumed would end up in the bargain bin.
Looking at the numbers each week though and I’m doing three times the work for a third of the money.
Welcome to the new normal folks!
When the Covid-19 crisis really began biting in mid March, my staff and I managed in about a week to transform the business from a bar & bottle shop into a ‘beer warehouse’ providing local home deliveries. I wouldn’t call the business an off-licence per se, because I don’t allow customers into the premises.
The key factor allowing me to make that transition was being licensed for off-sales since day one of opening back in 2014. The bar has always had a bottle shop element, growing from a few battered Ikea shelves (stocked mainly with 330ml brown bottles) to three fridges which line an entire wall and nearly reach the ceiling (stuffed with gleaming 440ml cans – yet we still consider it to be our ‘bottle’ shop).
In addition to that, even before opening the bar I had a stall at the local market selling bottled beer, while for the past couple of years I’ve been the craft beer merchant at the monthly artisan market. This meant I had plenty of packaged stock, I had loads of cardboard carriers (including several hundred ones designed to carry 330ml bottles that had been collecting dust) and I had an iZettle card reader for taking card payments while out and about.
All that combined with the help of staff members happy to bring beer down from the stock room, build boxes and post updates on social media meant that it didn’t take long for us to shift operations during those last few days before schools, pubs and restaurants were told to close.
When we stopped serving drinks over the bar all the bartending staff were sent home and placed on furlough. Thank you, Mr Chancellor, for borrowing the money to sign their pay cheques. Within the first few days of doing only home deliveries it was clear that I could manage the new way of doing business by myself. My managers, with their families at home and mortgages to pay, were happy to take furlough next.
There was a nerve-wracking day or two while I tried to find out if I was indeed allowed to keep the business going on a delivery basis. On the one hand, non-essential businesses had been told to close, but on the other hand official government policy was encouraging people to stay inside, do their shopping online and take home deliveries.
Government advice issued on March 23rd seemed open to interpretation. Its first listing under the heading ‘Businesses and venues that must remain closed’ were ‘Restaurants and public houses, wine bars or other food and drink establishments’. The exception? ‘Food delivery and takeaway can remain operational and can be a new activity supported by the new permitted development right. This covers the provision of hot or cold food that has been prepared for consumers for collection or delivery to be consumed, reheated or cooked by consumers off the premises.’ I understand that some pubs without an off-licence took this to mean they were allowed to do off-sales, but the exception relates to food only.
Clearly food is essential, but what about alcohol? Further along in the same announcement was confirmation that off-licences and licenced shops selling alcohol were classed as ‘notable exceptions’ to the closures imposed on the retail sector. It still seemed a grey area, but being classed as a ‘notable exception’ seemed to be the closest the government would allow itself to describe an off-licence as an ‘essential business.’
Around that same time I received a stern email from the council asking that I confirm compliance with the recent legislation and had indeed closed my premises.
The email then continued: ‘We will monitor compliance with these regulations, with police support provided if appropriate. Businesses that breach them will be subject to prohibition notices, and potentially unlimited fines. As a further measure, and if needed, businesses that fail to comply could also face the loss of their alcohol licence.’
This bit from the council’s email is key: ‘Those businesses offering takeaway or delivery services must not provide alcoholic beverages if the licence does not already permit. Please check your licence to ensure it covers you for off sales of alcohol and not just on sales.’
The email concluded with some clear and helpful guidance:-
‘Alcohol deliveries are permitted providing;
- the premises licence permits sales of alcohol for consumption off the premises;
- payment for alcohol deliveries is taken where you hold the licence and is taken during your licensing times;
- you must ensure you have adequate age verification procedures in place for deliveries that include alcohol, and
- it is also essential that social distancing is maintained at all times.’
With the above in mind I pinned this announcement to the top of our Facebook page:-
After the first couple of days I began noticing common queries and added my answers to my pinned Facebook post:-
And then to keep Karen happy (because there is always a Karen on Facebook), I added:-
In my next post I’ll talk about one of my usual days of working at the premises which will provide more details like how I’ve organised my stock, how I’m sourcing it, what my pricing strategy is, how I process payments, etc.
Until then, consider what are you doing today to keep your pub business viable? Pubs will be among the last business to re-open after the current lockdown. Optimistically, that means trading again by the middle of June at the earliest, which at the time of writing is about 8 weeks away. That means there is time now to vary your licence to include off-sales.
Some of you may ask, why spend the time and money to obtain permission for off-sales? Besides, some of you may also be lumbered with conditions in your planning permission that would also need to be varied.
Establishing an off-licence element to your business might be the only way to keep it going. Even after the lockdown is relaxed, social distancing measures will remain in place for many months, perhaps for the whole of 2020 and beyond. This will prove difficult to manage in the small confines of most micropubs. We’ll talk more about how socially-distanced pubs will look in a future post. In the meantime, who else needs a drink?