Living with the Ninny State

Time flies, folks…whether you’re having fun or not. Those brief few months when we were able to re-open our doors and welcome customers back to the bar were good while they lasted, but now the party is over.

It’s a cold, wet and grey November day and I’m waiting to hear what exactly the latest lockdown rules mean for the business. We all knew for weeks that another raft of restrictions were on the way, but there was a sting in the tail after the PM made his latest speech to the nation on Halloween.

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What the what, now? Back in March we had started a delivery service before the first lockdown was announced. Off-licence sales had sustained us through the spring and well into summer (because of renovation works happening at the bar we weren’t able to open until the first weekend of August). 

I was expecting to spend November doing the same as we’d been doing in high summer: shop sales from passers-by (with a max of 2 mask-wearing customers inside at a time), local deliveries of cans and BIBs in our ‘beer wagon’ on the weekend, plus on-the-spot draught growler fills from our taps. All supplemented by a sales portal on our new webshop which we’re promoting with 15,000 leaflets being dropped around the neighbourhood the first week of November.

Once again we’ve had our plans up-ended by a party of nincompoops who only go to the pub when it’s time for their annual photo op with their donor friends. It’s like living in a Ninny State.

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The uproar from pub landlords and brewers over the past few days has been deafening on social media, but it remains to be seen whether the MPs will make any changes before enacting these proposals. 

I understand the sentiment behind the restrictions. Throughout the summer pubs and bars that did not have an off-licence element to their business were selling pints and  cocktails for customers to drink in unofficial beer gardens or in the street. But c’mon, guys, it’s November. The long summer nights of raves, street parties or other mass gatherings are over.

Let’s also not forget the host of measures that pubs and bars put into place over the summer, meaning much of the financial support provided by the government ended up being spent on sanitiser, software and Perspex screens…not to mention our combined efforts resulted in a nationwide ad-hoc track and trace system that was in place before the government’s highly-paid consultants managed to unveil their own (hugely expensive) botched effort.

These measures meant that traceable infections from hospitality accounted for around 2-3% of all cases in the autumn. By comparison, restaurants packed out with diners eating out to help out only helped to accelerate the second wave. And let’s not even dwell on the situation with schools, public transport and the workplace.

My initial reluctance to open the bar eased as it became more apparent that our reduced capacity, increased ventilation and stringent cleaning regime were working in our favour. Our spreadsheet of contact details had over 600 names on it before the Track & Trace app went live. As most of those people came in with a partner that meant we had well over 1000 people pass through our doors without a single high alert (although that may have something to do with the recent news that the app’s parameters on what constitutes a high risk were set at too high a threshold).

I think what’s most upsetting is that every single time the government has had an opportunity to make a drastic change that would actually make a difference, they have dithered and delayed, testing out the public response via leaks to the media, before announcing what amounts to only the tiniest of tweaks. We knew weeks ago that a lockdown was likely, but what was the PM’s response? Close pubs an hour early.  We knew here in Manchester that Tier 3 was highly likely (we have the country’s largest university student population) but it turned out that tiers were negotiable.

And now we’re in the situation where a proper nationwide lockdown is probably what’s needed the most, but essentially all that will happen is that the barbers will have to shut up shop along with pubs (many of which were already shut for being in Tier 3).  All because what would really make the difference (better testing, better tracing, more capacity in the NHS) are beyond the government’s capabilities.

One good thing to come out of all this latest round of agonising and anxiety is that we’re all guaranteed our place in heaven. God knows to not keep us in purgatory, not after we’ve lived so much of our lives in limbo.

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July 4th: UK Independents’ Day?

So there we have it folks, English pubs can re-open from the Fourth of July. You’ve heard it from the man himself (not only that, but apparently our PM will take personal responsibility if there’s a second wave in infections).

What we’ve not heard are many details. The PM has a knack for showing up when there will be applause and adulation, then quickly disappears when it’s time for answering questions and ironing out the finer points. For instance, could he please explain the new socially acceptable distance of ‘one metre plus’?

The only concrete information I heard during Tuesday’s speech is that pubs will be expected to provide table service and to capture their customers’ details as a means of assisting the NHS to contain new outbreaks. Yes, it turns out the UK’s world-beating track & trace system will be magicked out of thin air by its pubs!

Now, while I’ve been single-handedly running a home delivery service and organising collections from our front door for 5 days a week for the last 13 weeks (which for the past few weekends has also involved filling 14 BIBs of cask beer each weekend)…on top of supervising decorators, sound engineers, floor fitters, refrigeration engineers, joiners and handymen carrying out improvement works…all while managing inventory, laying loft insulation, plus ordering (and assembling) an entire set of new furniture…well, you’ll understand why a few things remain on my ‘to do’ list, which now includes figuring out a booking and ordering system in the next 10 days.

We’ve been here before, of course. After weeks of leaks in the press, headline-grabbing announcements are made, stressing that people need to be cautious but ultimately be responsible for their own actions. It’s then left to each organisation or business (first schools, then shops and now pubs) to interpret and enforce the government’s announcements, which tend to follow much later, be vague and end up changing often.

Let’s look again at the PM’s own words as he describes ‘one metre plus’ as being the new gold standard in social distancing [with my comments in brackets]:-

“We are today publishing guidance on how businesses can reduce the risk by taking certain steps to protect workers and customers. [Did I miss this? I don’t recall seeing any guidelines for pubs being published on the day it was promised] [EDIT the guidelines came out well after midnight of the day of the announcement and can be found here]

These include, for instance, avoiding face-to-face seating by changing office layouts, [co-workers can’t face each other across a desk, but pub-goers can gather around a table?]

reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces, [how are pubs meant to gauge this, let alone profit from it…by mapping out the capacity of a room by using something called ‘one metre plus’ as a guideline?]

improving ventilation, [now that I can do, thanks to my extractor fan, no problem]

using protective screens and face coverings, [in the works, my sheets of Perspex arrived this week]

closing non-essential social spaces, [which probably means no snooker tables, no jukeboxes, no fruit machines, no darts…so no problem for a micropub]

providing hand sanitiser [again, in the works]

and changing shift patterns so that staff work in set teams. [this idea had occurred to me and it’s something I will suggest to my team, but for those of you who run a micropub on your own or with a single helper, all I can say is you insist on giving yourselves a couple days off each week to avoid burnout]

And of course, we already mandate face coverings on public transport. [as of June 15th, nearly three months into the lockdown – but who’s going to be wearing face masks while having drinks at the pub?]

Whilst the experts cannot give a precise assessment of how much the risk is reduced [studies show transmission rates can double or even increase tenfold when 2m distancing is halved],

they judge these mitigations would make “1 metre plus” broadly equivalent to the risk at 2 metres if those mitigations are fully implemented.” [again, someone please explain one metre plus to me, plus show me how pubs will be able to fully implement the mitigations outlined above]

Now, I know many of us are gasping for a pint. I know many of us are desperate to open our doors and the taps. But personally I think it’s a bit premature to rush back to normality when there are still nearly 1000 new cases reported each day. And somebody in our government must recognise this, if they feel the need to limit weddings to 30 guests, with no singing allowed.

As for the armchair experts, I was told by someone on Facebook that I should take comfort in the fact that there is on average 1 case per 1700 people. He continued by pointing out that since the largest pub in the country seats 1300 people, we’ll all be fine.

I was also told on Facebook that it’s time to move forward and yes, while there are risks involved in doing so, we’re moving ahead with (in her words) ‘controlled risk.’ Except that’s the point, we aren’t. We’re telling people it’s acceptable again to gather together indoors, without masks, to socialise for hours on end, with reduced social distancing. In other words, we’re being told to ignore every risk-controlling precaution that was imposed on us these past three months.

I understand why people are yearning to break free from these risk-controlling measures, but there is no declaring independence from a disease which still has no vaccine. There’s no guarantee a vaccine would even work. There is no truly effective treatment yet either (steroids help in only a third of cases).

Some will shrug and say it’s not as deadly as feared, but try telling that to anyone who has been suffering relapses for months on end, or to those who end up needing lung transplants. Others will point out that it’s only fatal for people of a certain age or with underlying health conditions, but there’s little to prevent any one of us from unwittingly spreading the disease to persons most at risk from dying of it.

On the topic of risk, this is the most recent advice from ‘MD’, the medical correspondent for Private Eye [again with my comments]:-

“You are safer outdoors. Wind, heat and UV light protect you. [thankfully we have some outdoor space at the bar]

The SARS CoV2 virus is fragile. It breaks up simply by using soap and water. Hand washing is a highly effective weapon. [staff will drilled on this]

Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. [this is where masks come in handy, they keep you from touching your face]

The highest-risk environments are enclosed, with a high density of people. [which is exactly why pubs were always going to be among the last places allowed to open…]

The virus travels in droplets of fluid. A single cough produces 3,000 droplets releasing 200m virus particles at 50mph. Heavier droplets fall to the floor or surfaces. Others travel up to 2m, but if you’re less than 2m away for less than 15 minutes, the risk is low. [staff contact with customers will have to be kept at a minimum and to help with this we’re building a Perspex screen around the bar top]

Successful infection = exposure to virus x time. If in doubt, wear a clean mask and handle it hygienically. Know your numbers. Healthy under 45s are at much less personal risk of harm, even at 1m….” [this is where it gets personal to me]

Never mind the anxieties I feel because of responsibilities to my staff, my customers and by extension their circle of friends and families: I am male, I am a borderline diabetic and I am a couple of years away from turning 50. I will therefore be opening only when I have as many ‘mitigations’ in place as possible. More on what those will be exactly in a future post.

In the meantime take a look at the Hospitality Resource Bank assembled by Manchester’s nighttime tsar. And go buy some masks…and beer!

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Another day at the office

In some ways, things haven’t changed despite the lockdown, even with converting the bar & bottleshop into an off-licence that does local home deliveries. Wednesdays remain as ever my main delivery day: fresh stock continues to arrive, photos need be taken, prices need to be logged and room needs to be found in the stockroom.

These days though the stockroom is on full display, since being relocated to the ground floor. And one of my alltime favourite activities – breaking down boxes for recycling – is now an exercise in finding empty boxes that I can use for packaging.

On a typical day I arrive at the premises between 9-10am. If there’s shopping to do or errands to run then the nearby precinct is quiet that time of the morning. Sometimes as well I’m summoned on the phone by a courier wanting to drop off a delivery, but thankfully I live a 5-minute drive away (that is one of the drawbacks of having beer delivered by courier, not knowing what day they might arrive).

I make a point of not checking my phone or the Facebook inbox until about half 11.  Facebook has an ‘out-of-office’ feature so everyone receives an automatic reply to remind them I am not yet open for business. According to my licence I am not allowed to trade until noon anyway so I do not complete any transactions before then. Without those distractions I can focus on opening the post, paying bills and updating the socials with new photos.

Today I had my weekly churn through my stock which nowadays covers all of the tables and much of the floor at the front of the premises. Have I priced everything? Is everything for sale? What am I running low on? How can I better organise the stock? What boxes are almost empty? On a pre-lockdown Wednesday you would have found me in the stockroom breaking down every available box to stuff into the recycling bin, but these days a sturdy box is a precious thing so I am careful to hang onto these for deliveries.

In an earlier post I alluded to how I’m running out of things I thought I’d never use. About two years ago when I was first invited to run a craft beer stall at the local artisan market I was selling a mix of 330ml bottles and 500ml bottles. I initially had a large stock of two different cardboard gift boxes, depending on the size of the bottle, but when it became clear that 500ml bottles were more popular at the market – and 330ml bottles began to be phased out in favour of cans – I found myself left with at least a couple hundred gift boxes designed to hold 6 x 330ml bottles. For years these sat untouched in the loft…now I’m down to my last dozen after realising they can perfectly hold 6 x 440ml tallboys instead just as well. After using these as the default for all deliveries, I now save them for any orders that are being bought as a present.

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For most orders (up to 8 cans) I am using plain white carrier bags (or ‘handy bags’) that the pound shop sells by the roll. For bottles of beer, gin, wine, etc I rely on my supply of leftover sturdy boxes. With the dry weather I’ve not had to worry about leaving cardboard out in the rain, but most customers tend to be home when I’m doing deliveries anyway and the beers don’t tend to linger outside for long.

PROCESSING ORDERS

Right before noon I’ll have a bite of lunch and read the news headlines before diving into the messages that have been coming in. I do a quick skim to see if anyone wants to come collect anytime soon.

There’s quite a few ways people can contact me and I have to remember to check them all in turn. While reading each message I take notes on a pad of paper, starting with how I received the message so I can find it quickly again if need be.

Anyone using the contact form on the website has already had to fill in some obligatory information to filter out spam. Since starting home deliveries I’ve tweaked the contact form so it asks for their mobile number too which saves time when it comes to processing payments.

I’m alerted by emails to Outlook on my laptop when a contact form has been submitted, but one issue I’ve had is that my replies are occasionally treated as spam. There is a reminder for customers next to the contact form asking them to check their spam folders for my reply, but having their mobile numbers from the outset means I can chase them up by text.

I also receive Outlook emails when someone sends a message by Twitter, but I also have to check to see if anyone has made a comment on any of my tweets, so Twitter stays open on my laptop all day.

Most orders come in via Facebook, which is also linked to our Instagram account. Again, it’s important that I regularly check for comments on my posts in case there are any questions or requests to follow up on.

When messages come in through the socials my phone makes various noises and although I’m stood at the laptop with notifications flashing up in front of me I still check my phone now and again since some customers have my number and will send me an order by text or WhatsApp. These also tend to be the customers who like to collect from outside the premises, sometimes with only a 1-hour warning, so I prioritise their orders as I go along.

The benefit of social media is that most customers have a recognisable photo of themselves on their profiles so I can verify their age. For orders by email from anyone that I don’t recognise I ask for photo ID. It is also my duty to ensure they are drinking responsibly which requires caution both in terms of the volumes being ordered and the circumstances. If someone asked for say 3 cases of beer or it’s clear when delivering that a gathering is taking place then I would refuse the order.

I keep a pile of scrap paper for recording order notes: name of the customer, their phone number, whether they want delivery or will be collecting, their address for delivery, any special instructions and the order itself. Most times my customers are buying something specific so it only takes a couple of minutes to pick their order and send a text with the payment link. If someone asks for both wine or spirits with their beer, or venture ‘off the menu’ as it were then it takes more time to pick out what they want, price their items and find a suitable container to hold everything.

The ‘menu’ or ‘catalogue’ is a series of photos kept on the bar’s Facebook page in albums called ‘beer for delivery’ and ‘wine and spirits for delivery.’ It’s not a line by line inventory and it doesn’t show real-time availability, although I check it daily. For anyone not on Facebook I can take screenshots of the photos, after they have told me what style of beers they are interested in.

PRICING STOCK

I decided quite early in the lockdown to not list individual beers for sale, but instead to group similar beers that would fit different price points.

So for instance there’s a ‘pick and mix pales’ miscellany of 6 beers, mainly session pales and lagers, that I can sell for £18. The ‘sesh’ is a trio of beers (2 cans of each) for £20, all pale and sessionable and from prestigious local breweries like Cloudwater, Marble and Track. Next up are ‘proper IPAs’ around 5-6% which I can sell 6 for £25. The ‘chocolate box’ assortment are the dark beers, mainly on the sweeter side: imperial milk stouts, barleywines, pudding ales etc which are 6 for £30.

I was caught on the hop towards the start of this venture after completely misjudging the thirst for fruity pales and sours. It took me well over a fortnight to build up the stock but I can now offer a ‘fruit salad’ assortment of fruit beers and milkshake IPAs (6 for £18) and a ‘sour selection’ which is 6 for £25 due to their strength. It is also common for customers to request ‘a sour or two’ to go with the other beers in their order.

A quick word on profit margin: ever since fully refrigerating the ‘bottle shop’ stock at the premises I have worked on a pricing strategy that differentiates between buying a can of beer to take home vs opening a can of beer to drink at the bar vs asking for a pint of beer over the bar.

To determine the ‘drinking in’ price of a can I take its ex VAT case price and divide by half of the units in that case to arrive at a VAT inclusive price (for a beer that arrives in a case of 12 and costs £24 ex VAT that’s 24/6 or £4.00 inc VAT to drink in). In our bar & bottle shop days if a customer picked up that £4 can of beer from the fridge and asked to take it home to drink they were given a 10% discount and would have paid £3.60. The customer saves money by not paying ‘corkage’ because they are not drinking their purchase at the bar.

Corkage is the premium a customer is expected to pay for occupying a seat to drink a beer that has been chilled, asking for the use of a glass, enjoying my air-conditioning, going to the loo, then returning an empty can that I need to recycle along with a glass that I need to clean.

These days of course there is no drinking in but I still start with that price and then knock off 10% to arrive at the delivery price.

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SOURCING STOCK

Ever since the day we opened the bar we have dealt directly with as many local breweries as possible. We are exceedingly lucky to have the likes of Dunham Massey, Marble, Outstanding, Pomona Island, Seven Brothers and Stubborn Mule alone all within 5 miles of the premises.

Each brewery responded in different ways to the lockdown. For instance, Dunham Massey stopped brewing and after selling the last of their bottles decided to shut down operations entirely. The brewers at Outstanding supply us with our house lager, stout and occasional exclusive cask brews but have never packaged their beer so I’ve not been able to give them any business. Ed at Stubborn Mule is doing his own delivery service.  Marble and Pomona are both operating with skeleton crews but they are still managing to brew and package fresh beers. Seven Brothers have been steaming ahead after their recent re-brand and have been turning out a new packaged beer or two every week.

As new stock arrives I decide whether to sell it as part of the aforementioned generic assortments, or to create a dedicated brewery showcase. The likes of Dry & Bitter, Marble, Pomona Island and Track have all warranted the showcase treatment. It’s mainly brand recognition that drives this decision.

I continue to buy from some of my usual distributors, although a few have ceased trading because of the lockdown and all the others are struggling with fewer staff members and less stock.

I have been bringing in beer from further afield as well direct from the breweries, but very few are delivering direct anymore and are relying on courier services which have proven to be patchy at best. On numerous occasions I’ve received notifications about deliveries that never materialise. If I’m lucky, I can collect these myself from the depot. If I’m unlucky, I may not even see a tracking number, or the goods are damaged.

Customers collecting from outside the door to the premises are often surprised by the amount of stock that I have in, but as the lockdown continues it is clear that pubs will be the last businesses to open again so I think it prudent to have stock to see me through. Many breweries have stopped brewing or have had their brewing schedules interrupted and I anticipate a beer drought is on the way.

TAKING PAYMENTS

With deliveries it’s important to be paid in advance. Instead of taking payments over the phone and doing ‘cardholder not present’ transactions on the card machine (which is an option), I rely on the iZettle app. I start each sale with the customer’s name and indicate the amount they owe which generates a unique transaction link ready for the customer to pay securely through their phone or online. I send most links by automatic SMS using the customer’s mobile number, but I can also drop it into a WhatsApp message, send to one of my Facebook Messenger contacts or copy the link to my laptop to paste it into an email or Facebook page manager message.

The folks at iZettle process the payments and send the funds (less their 1.75% fee) by bank transfer. Settlement takes longer than I’m used to with my usual card machine: for instance, proceeds from Tuesday’s sales don’t arrive until Friday. No processing takes place over the weekend so proceeds from Friday and Saturday (my busiest days) do not arrive until the following Wednesday. I’ve yet to understand in today’s digital age why the world of finance operates only on ‘business days’, as if computers have to be shut down out of respect for the Sabbath or something.

I do still have my usual card machine for the occasions when a customer pays by card upon collection. Now and again I make a sale from passersby out having their daily walk. It means not forgetting to do a Z report when I close for the evening.

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Come 4pm and I will have picked all the orders I’m delivering for the day so I spend an hour checking that all payments have come in, chasing the ones that haven’t, loading up the car and mapping out my route. There are usually one or two collections waiting for the end of the day. Once these have been collected I sometimes need to make a delivery or two around the immediate vicinity, which I’ll do on foot.

At 5pm it’s time for the half-open shutters to come fully down. After locking up I nip around town for about an hour or so with my deliveries. As the days have gone by and the deliveries have mounted up I have become quite familiar with most of the local streets and shortcuts. If all else fails I could always become a taxi driver.

It’s a long day, but that’s nothing new in this trade. I enjoy being out of the house, being on my feet, keeping busy – and having a quick spy on where my customers live!

In my next post I’ll share some ideas for operating a pub under the social distancing rules which are likely to be with us for the rest of 2020. Until then…where can I get a beer??

Posted in Business ideas/analysis, Covid-19 crisis | 2 Comments

This is the new normal…for now

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:-

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After the first couple of days I began noticing common queries and added my answers to my pinned Facebook post:-

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And then to keep Karen happy (because there is always a Karen on Facebook), I added:-

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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?

Posted in Business ideas/analysis, Covid-19 crisis | 1 Comment

Pubs closed until Christmas: separating the facts from the headlines

News travels fast these days, but once again misinformation has quickly muddled the message and panic is the rule of the day.

Right in the middle of typing up yesterday’s blog post a message popped up on my phone from a friend watching an interview with Michael Gove, the gist of which was that pubs would be the last in the queue to re-open during a phased easing of the lockdown which was being considered. ‘Pubs back open by the middle of summer,’ was the conclusion my friend had reached.

So imagine my surprise this morning to find everyone on Facebook screaming that pubs would be shut until Christmas, because the likes of The Metro and the Daily Mail had decided to lead with headlines such as:-

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Upon reading the article I came to a different conclusion. Yes, Michael Gove had responded to a question about whether pubs would be open by winter by saying that pubs and restaurants would be the last venues to re-open when it comes time to ease the present lockdown restrictions.

But…was a timetable given? No. Were any promises made? No. Was this news a surprise? Not to me. Days ago I had spoken to a customer while they collected their order from outside the door to the premises and I mentioned that even if pubs are allowed to re-open in the coming weeks that social distancing measures would still need to be adhered to until there’s a vaccine.

The same article quoted a brewer who said something along the lines of ‘at this rate we won’t be open until Christmas.’ I found the remark to be rather sardonic in tone. I most certainly didn’t get the impression that the brewer was privy to government strategy. But for an irresponsible journalist, that was all that was needed to justify a headline claiming that pubs would stay closed until Christmas.

By this point we should be used to a government minister refusing to give a clear position about our leaders’ plans for the future. But clearly this time the usual dearth of detail from a government minister, combined with irresponsible journalism, had whipped the public into new heights of hysteria…and no doubt sold a few newspapers in the process.

Perhaps those panicking at Monday’s headlines had already forgotten what was published in those exact same newspapers the day before:-

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Again, this is not the official timetable, as far as anyone can (or will) tell. Certain government figures have been on the news again today insisting schools are not opening anytime soon (but let’s not forget the Prime Minister kept making it quite clear that schools would not close, right up until announcing the date when they would).

Rumours, panic, indecisiveness, obfuscation, blame-shifting…everything we don’t need in a time of crisis is pretty much all we’re hearing from our leaders (which leads me to suspect that there isn’t a cohesive strategy and/or that there’s a power struggle taking place behind the scenes). In the meantime it is left to us to decide how best to struggle on.

What does this mean for us, the publicans and pubgoers of Britain? Here’s a clue, from a news article I was reading about social distancing measures in the workplace:-

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In my next few blog posts I’ll explain how I’m continuing to trade from my premises and talk about coping with the ‘new normal.’

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From ‘Last Christmas’ to last orders…and now the last to leave the lockdown: a Covid-19 diary

One morning, very early in January 2020, maybe only a couple of days into the New Year, I remember hearing a brief item on the radio about a virus outbreak in China. I sighed to myself ‘oh, here we go again’, thinking back to the SARS panic around a decade ago.

headlinesAs the days went by and the situation developed, the outbreak began to feature more prominently in the news: a handful of deaths…proof of transmission between humans…the first cases outside of China…the first deaths outside of China…all leading up to the first reported case in the UK at the end of January.

Throughout January I had my concerns for the future of the business, although I kept these thoughts to myself, not wanting to make my partner anxious or cause our staff to worry. We had just had our busiest Christmas & New Year yet (and I had paid the VAT bill to prove it). ‘Last Christmas’ was one of the holiday songs still stuck in my brain.

Then in mid February, while taking the day off with a couple of staff members to attend a wine tasting, I shared my worry that our trade would soon be affected by the virus: maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly if the public mood changed and people became less inclined to venture out, gather together and spend money.

Business however was good throughout February and well into March. In fact, business was fantastic, although it became obvious that the mood was shifting. We heard less laughter from our customers and more earnest conversation about the possibility of school closures, the spectre of layoffs and panic buying. No wonder the shops didn’t have loo roll, each time somebody sneezed everybody shat themselves!

The death toll was growing in places like Italy and Spain: places some of us had been to on holiday recently, not far-off foreign lands. And yet even when Italy quarantined regions like Lombardy in early March, there was no indication from the UK government that anything similar would happen in Britain.

The Prime Minister attended the Wales v England rugby match. Thousands of Spanish football fans flew into Liverpool, despite being unable to attend La Liga games in their own country. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the Chelthenham races. All the while the news headlines were full of buzzwords like herd immunity, self-isolating, containment, contact tracing etc and my impression was that the UK’s leaders had a plan for dealing with the crisis and that there was no reason to panic.

I reminded staff members about their hygiene training, including the need to stay home if they felt ill and to ring NHS111 if they were worried about their symptoms. I told the glass collectors to wear gloves. I made sure the ventilation fan was switched on more often to refresh the air in the premises. I put signs above the bar and in our windows asking customers to stay home if they felt unwell or would be in contact with vulnerable people.

All these measures were suggestions that we picked up from other bars we followed on social media. Official guidance from the government was limited to common sense rules about hygiene, with no specific recommendations for the hospitality sector being widely promoted.

I also continued to buy stock for the bar. Even then I was convinced that the primary thing which would affect my trade would be the public’s perceptions of the virus, not public infections.

Around the middle of March the potential severity of the situation began to hit home. The Chancellor announced business rescue measures on March 11th.  The Prime Minister acknowledged that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’ on March 12th. The Premier League suspended matches on March 13th.

That was the weekend I told my staff we needed to encourage the sale of drinks vouchers and off-sales (we’ve had an off-licence for the bar since the day we opened, growing from spare Ikea shelves brought from home to three fridges that lined an entire wall). That was the weekend I decided the quiz on the upcoming Tuesday would be our last for the foreseeable future and I cancelled a gin tasting scheduled for the Wednesday. That was the weekend we cleared the games table and put away the gin & wine menus.

That was also the weekend I sent this message to my deputy manager and assistant manager:-

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Later in that same conversation we talked about what it would take to get a home delivery service up and running, whether to offer growler fills and how to take ‘cardholder not present’ payments.

That was also weekend The Guardian published an article that gave some reassurance to both pub owners and pubgoers. As long as there was no direct contact between staff and customers… as long as we washed our hands… as long as we kept our distance…

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Reports in the Morning Advertiser also gave some hope to those of us in the trade. Local pubs like mine were not seeing the same downturn in business as city centre venues. Only one in seven respondents to a consumer survey said that fears about the virus would stop them from going to the pub.

Then on the next day after I read all these articles, pubs in Ireland were forced to shut on March 15th, with only a few hours’ warning. Immediately after hearing the news, I began contacting regular suppliers to say we’d no longer be buying cask beer:-

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That same evening  I proposed to my management team that we call it quits for drinks over the bar at some point in the week..

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…but I still had my anxieties:-

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We were paying close attention to the daily government briefings but to be honest we were believing (and understanding) less and less of what we were being told. It was obvious that bars and restaurants would have to close at some point, along with schools, and our only hope was that there would be some sort of advance notice.

We decided all we could do was to put in measures to protect the business while we were allowed to implement changes on our own terms, without waiting for government announcements.

At the bar that meant transforming the business from a bar & bottle shop into an off-licence offering home deliveries. We boxed up dozens of cans into cardboard gift boxes, priced them up and promoted them across our social media. We downloaded the app version of iZettle, the payment provider whose card reader I would take to our monthly market stall to take contactless payments, and we figured out how to send payment requests by text to our customers wanting to pay online for beer deliveries and drinks vouchers. We put in further orders for bottles and cans from local brewers.

We knew a lockdown was imminent. Personally, I expected to hear the news on the Monday after Mothers Day. Just in case I decided to treat my mother-in-law to a drive in the remote countryside and a pub lunch as an early Mothers Day present.

Then came a further announcement from the government…of sorts. It was the night that the British people were advised to stay away from pubs, but pubs were not forced to close.

I remember asking my deputy manager, ‘Why won’t the Prime Minister just tell us to close??’

We were not receiving unequivocal guidance from our leaders and our frustration was escalating. It seemed every announcement by the Prime Minister required a full day of explanations and corrections from his ministers as they busied themselves trying to tell us what the PM had meant to say before the next press briefing rolled along.

This particular announcement felt like a betrayal. It made us look irresponsible, when in fact we’d been spending every waking hour pouring all of our energies into looking after our customers.

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After debating the situation amongst ourselves and with no clear guidance from the government, we decided to announce to our customers on Thursday morning that we’d be closing the bar early on Friday the 20th. The idea was that while we would no longer be serving drinks over the bar, but would instead remain open as an off-licence and provide home deliveries.

Even that was to change over the weekend when we noticed how many neighbouring shops had shut and how few people were out and about. Despite the government not officially announcing a lockdown, most members of the public had self-imposed a voluntary lockdown. We decided on Monday morning to not allow anyone into the premises. All orders would have to be collected from outside our door or dropped off on the customer’s doorstep.

All bartending staff and glass collectors had been kept informed all along about how the business was changing from a bar to an off-licence. They knew Friday the 20th would be their last shift working at the bar and that they would all be furloughed. On the Tuesday, after taking orders and doing deliveries on my own, I decided that I would be able to shoulder all business responsibilities throughout the lockdown. It was at that point that my deputy manager (whose fiancee’s baby is due at the end of summer) and my assistant manager (who now had a young daughter staying home from school) agreed to furlough as well. On the 25th I paid all their wages for the month of March in full, in the hopes that HMRC will reimburse me for at least some of that bill in the near future.

These are uncertain, fast-moving times (although for many of us life has ground to a halt) and literally in the middle of typing up this post a minister has confirmed that the hospitality sector will be among the last businesses allowed to reopen after lockdown.

I’m signing off for now to digest that news and to discuss the situation with my staff in our WhatsApp group, but I’ll be back very soon to share in detail how we are continuing to trade and what I think pubs need to prepare for as the lockdown becomes ‘the new normal.’

Stay safe and stay sane!

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A year on and still evolving

A few weeks ago we celebrated our first anniversary at the premises, an occasion which saw us unveil several changes to our way of doing business. Instead of pouring beer direct from the taps, we now have beer engines. Instead of using chiller probes to keep our casks cool, we now have a chiller cabinet behind the bar. Instead of resting five casks in cradles atop the bar, we now have eight auto-tilts inside a chiller cabinet. We also have two additional keg lines, which means we can serve seven beers in total (four cask, three keg). It’s been a sea change, and an expensive one at that, but it should eventually pay for itself (although I am dreading the next electrics bill).

Ever since we started trading, it seemed we were not selling as much beer as initially predicted. I put this down in part to our popularity with women and their preference for wine, cider and gin (some nights half our customers or more are women). I also know our prices are higher than elsewhere in the neighbourhood, but who can compete with Carling for £2/pint? Plus, I noticed times when our beer was not in top form because of the challenges involved in keeping it cool, giving it sufficient time to settle and allowing proper secondary fermentation.

I knew however the biggest factor holding back our beer sales was the lack of head on our gravity-served pints. For every enthusiast who’d rave about us being ‘just like a beer festival’ and complimenting us on pouring pints fresh from the cask, someone else would grumble that our beer was ‘flat’.

It did no good pointing out that a fresh beer with good condition but no head will feel just as lively on the tongue, if not more so, than one agitated by sparklers (which can be used to make less-than-fresh beer continue to look appetising). No, the first sip of a beer is taken by the eyes and Northerners especially want to see head atop their pint, like they see on the telly (ads which are designed to condition customers to accept, nay, welcome a short serving: browse all the promotional imagery for Guinness and you’ll see what I mean).

So for quite some time we mulled over how exactly we would remedy the situation, while staying conscious of the fact that it would take a good deal of effort and expense. We don’t have a cellar on the premises and we didn’t want to take up any floor space with a purpose-built chill room. The only space we could utilise on the premises was the wall behind the bar where a low shelf supported two casks and a few crates were attached to the wall for our spirits.

In my mind’s eye I could see how the same space could be filled with a 3×3 rack, but I wasn’t sure how it would be enclosed and chilled, nor how we would go about lifting the casks. Every system I had seen involved a cask-lifting truck which looked to be half the size of the rack itself!

Have you got something…smaller?

On a visit to a marvellous new micropub in our vicinity, The Chiverton Tap, we made a note to get in touch with the metal fabricator who had assembled their cask stillage in their cellar.

Then over the weeks that followed we brought in several tradesmen to have a look at the space: a refrigeration engineer to run through cooling options, our joiner to discuss building a cabinet and the aforementioned metal fabricator (Colin from Arcol Cask Master). Each of them assured us they could deliver, but it would be up to ourselves to co-ordinate their efforts and pull together a workable design.

We put Colin to work first in August and tasked him with assembling a 3×3 cask frame. He came up with several novel solutions to our circumstances. Instead of having us wheel a truck around to lift the casks (then not having any room to put the truck away), he was able to attach a pulley system to the frame itself. In order for us to lay the casks down, he tracked down heavy-duty sliding drawer runners. For each of these he was able to incorporate auto-tilts, meaning we’d be able to pull a unit out, use the pulley to lift a cask onto it, then push it back into place where the cask could rest and start to tilt up automatically as it emptied.

I went to Colin’s workshop in Colne to see the frame as it neared completion. Colin had casks filled with water to test the set up and showed me how the pulley and drawer runners would work. I left him to crack on with the finishing touches, including a lick of paint. A couple of weeks later he brought the pieces to our premises and had it up in less than an hour. The only wrinkle was that the lowest rack proved to be too narrow for 3 casks to sit together in a row because of the way our bar counter jutted out.

We took a bit of a risk because the refrigeration engineer had not seen any of this, nor had we agreed what type of cooling unit would be used, so we could only hope that there was sufficient space at the top (up to this point we’d only had vague assurances that something would work). In the end what caused us the most consternation at this next stage though was the difficulty in pinning down the refrigeration engineer to come have a look and fit a unit. Colin was having the same problems talking with his local refrigeration engineer. It seemed everyone was too busy to help us out with our odd little job. In the meantime, it was getting closer to our anniversary weekend.

What was aggravating is that customers were coming in and seeing our new above-ground cellar with casks resting on it, but we couldn’t yet fully utilise it. We still could only use the same two chiller probes that had cooled the casks on the original shelving unit. Then, our beer engines and triple keg font arrived and with these on the bar there was no room for the casks we had sitting there. For several days we could serve only two cask ales.

After the second or third time when our original refrigeration engineer missed an appointment and/or didn’t return a call, we did a Google search and contacted the first local company that popped up, Ultra Cooling of Stockport. They were on site the next day to measure up and were ready to install a cooler within the week.

Before they arrived our joiner enclosed either side of the steel racking with a wooden frame. We discussed panels or doors for the front, but needed something that could slide out of the way so casks could be lifted up from the floor and slotted inside. Then, our joiner had a thought: UPVC conservatory panels! No cabinetry, just plastic panels which we could lift off and on. For the first couple of weeks these were screwed into place until he came up with the idea of using adhesive magnetic strips.

With the refrigeration unit in place (a fan that previously had been used for a vending machine and blows cool air straight down into the ‘cellar’ space) our joiner was able to complete the enclosure of the racking and the good folks at Outstanding Beers came to sort our beer lines and keg arrangements. They did stellar work for us getting us up and running in time for opening night and here they were again a year later seeing us through the next stage of our evolution.

The small line cooler under our bar was replaced with a larger unit that now sits upstairs in our office, freeing up space under the bar for two kegs (the keg lines are inside a python that goes up the wall to the new, larger cooler which now sits upstairs in the stock room and then down again to the font). Our joiner cut out a piece of our bar front and put it on a hinge, creating a hatch for moving the kegs in and out from under the bar. He also hacked away a bit of shelving underneath the other side of the bar, creating a cubbyhole for a third keg. Seeing that we’d have more stock and empties, we had him build a low ledge in the customer seating area at the front under which we can tuck four kegs. His other big job was to build a plinth on the bar, using the same beech wood countertop, to give our beer engines enough space to operate. Some months before he had built a bottle rack above the bar so the bottles displaced from their crates could go on display and be in easy reach.

We can now serve four cask ales while four more casks are settling and/or finishing secondary fermentation. Up to six more casks can be stored under our stairs. When one cask finishes, we can move straight on to another (whereas previously it would take at least 24 hours before a replacement cask would be ready).

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Keg-wise, one font is dedicated to Outstanding’s superb Continental-style Pilsner, while we use another font to serve Outstanding’s equally delicious Stout (we aren’t tied to Outstanding, but our options are limited when it comes to locally-produced keg stout and porter). The third font is for what I call ‘pale and interesting’ beers, mainly IPAs by the likes of Ticketybrew, Runaway, Shindigger and Brightside although we’ve also had Cloudwater’s Grisette saison (our first try with keykegs…more on that little adventure soon!).

We may look more like a proper pub now with our gleaming brass hand pulls, but we remain true to the micropub spirit: everything remains independent and mainly local, right down to the crisps and old-fashioned soft drinks. Our task now is to get the word out that it’s ‘all change’ at our premises (and to get ourselves into CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide). More details on our publicity campaign and charm offensive soon, but in the meantime we raise a pint and say ‘cheers’ to everyone who has been so obliging in getting us to this stage.

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Getting down to the nitty-gritty: banking & other money matters

There will come a point while setting up your micropub when all it feels like you’re doing is writing cheques while watching your bank balance plummet. Speaking of bank balances, I suggest early on that you set up a business bank account to help keep an eye on your finances. Even if you’re a sole trader, which means you are the business and the business is you, a business bank account will help keep your money matters tidy. This is especially important during that anxious period when money is going out and you’re sure yet when money is going to start coming in.

One of the disheartening things about business banking is the realisation that banks detest physical money and will do everything they can to discourage you from making them handle it. That means they will charge you for making change, depositing cheques and even depositing your hard-earned cash. They might not even be that keen on you using their counter in the bank: with my Santander business bank account I actually do most all my banking at the local post office (my one tip about queuing up in the post office is to never get in line behind the devil: Satan can take many forms).

Pretty much every new business bank account will offer a fee-free period for at least 12 months. If I recall correctly, I was entitled to 18 months of free business banking with Santander because I already had a personal account with them. Although I’ve not been paying a monthly fee during this initial period, I have been charged for their change giving service (more on that particular bugbear later).

The Santander business banking website has a price comparison feature, if you’re interested in seeing how the costs add up and whether Santander is more competitive than the other big players in the sector. Even better, they also have an extremely useful business start-up advice section with information specific to the pub sector which is available for anyone to peruse online. If you’re still in the initial stages and you’ve not got a business adviser or accountant, it will help a great deal with your business plan.

I found setting up the business account was quick and easy, although they will ask you to prove that you are going into business which can be tricky if you’re still at the planning stage. By the time I applied for the account I did have my personal alcohol licence off the council and a pre-lease agreement with the landlord to show them.

One thing which Santander did not provide to me automatically and which I had to apply for separately was a change-giving card. Although I had a debit card for the account clearly marked ‘business banking’, the post office was not interested in making change for me without the separate change-giving card. This is how the bank keeps track of how much change is being handed over, so that they can charge you accordingly for what they see as an inconvenience. It looks like a tiny surcharge percentage-wise, but it does mount up. And the reason why? No matter what you’ve heard, change does NOT come from within.

Just like your casks, you need to keep a constant eye on your change and make sure you have a steady supply. The first weekend we opened, I did have some bags of change lined up, but I assumed that since we were (hopefully) going to have customers giving us cash from the moment we opened our doors, that we wouldn’t need much change. What I didn’t realise is that people would be handing over £20 notes to pay for their pints. Even when their pockets were bulging with change, their first instinct when buying the next round was to pull another note out of their pocket. Cue several trips to local shops breaking notes and begging for change!

I don’t know what people do with all the pound coins we hand over. Maybe they eat them. And fivers?! We feel like fivers are our friends: our hearts lift when we are handed one and we feel said to see them go. We keep a stash of £5 notes handy (we never deposit them) and every time we get one as change at the shops we add it to the precious bundle. One way of modestly adding to your change supply is to run a raffle or a quiz and/or to keep a tip jar by the till (if you have a till!).

Cash is definitely king in this business, but you might consider getting a card machine. Many people walk around without cash in their pockets these days. If you don’t have a card machine, you might end up turning away customers, especially if there are no holes in the wall nearby. There’s a psychological benefit when customers use cards (it can feel like you’re not actually spending money, especially with contactless cards) and as the security consultant from the local police said to me, it’s earnings that a thief can’t walk in and try to steal.

If you do decide to get a machine to take card payments, I recommend that instead of contacting the payment service providers that you get in touch with Independent Merchant Services. They provide a free brokerage service and will review the market to find the best deal for your circumstances. You will need to pay a rental fee for having the card reader (around £15pm, more for a cordless model) and then the payment service provider takes a few pence and/or a tiny percentage from each transaction (although this can change at the whims of VISA, Mastercard, etc). In our case, we got a better deal from the same provider by going through the broker. You need a phone line on the premises for the card machine and will also need to commit to a minimum 12-month contract for the service (the shorter the contract, the better).

Although you may not feel the need for a card machine or a till, at the very least you need a recordkeeping system to keep track of your sales and inventory, plus a safe (this will probably be a requirement of your insurance). Simply keeping a tick list of how many pints you serve from each cask will be sufficient, as long as you can back up your deposits into the bank account with a record of your sales. As well as a sales record, you should keep a log of casks. My own cask log keeps track of the following:-

  • The name of the beer and the style so I can keep a good variety in stock;
  • The date the cask was tapped so I know when it’s reaching the end of its shelf life;
  • Any comments about the beer quality, settling time and wastage (some casks are whisper-quiet when they are vented, others will erupt and fill a bucket or two with foam. Some brewers can’t filter their beers so not only will their casks need to settle for 48 hours, but their casks will have more slops at the end. Some beer styles are more popular than others with my customers. I summarise these comments on a spreadsheet where I keep track of my inventory and margins, which allows me to factor in any wastage into my profit and see which brewers are giving me the best beer for the best price).

Which leaves us with that most important money matter of all: the question of price. We’ll talk more about that in a future post, in the meantime I hope I’ve given you some food for thought to chew on!

 

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Getting down to the nitty-gritty: insurance

There’s a pub near to us which suffered a theft last summer. Someone entered through the kitchen (the doors were wide open to let in fresh air on a hot day). They then walked upstairs unnoticed into the office (someone had forgotten to lock the door) and swiped a large sum of money (the safe was unlocked because the manager found using it too cumbersome).

Needless to say that’s one insurance claim which is not going to get very far, but it highlights three things: 1) you need to have security measures in place, 2) you need to follow these security measures and 3) you need proper insurance so that when things go wrong despite all your best efforts, the setback to your business is ameliorated as much as possible.

There are two insurance policies you will need for your micropub: one policy will be for your business operations and the other will be for the building itself.

In our case, the building insurance is organised by the landlord and it’s our responsibility to pay it (currently it’s just around £775/pa). We have a copy of the policy, the premium for which is renewable on an annual basis. It makes sense for the landlord to organise this insurance, especially since he has multiple properties and thereby benefits from a bulk discount.

At the start of our lease we paid two or three months’ worth of building insurance on a pro-rata basis until the previous (and higher) premium expired. The premium was high because the building had previously been home to a fireworks shop; needless to say a micropub meant considerable less risk to the premises!

We waited until we were ready to commence trading before settling on a business insurance policy. This made sense for us because the builders had liability insurance in case anything went wrong with their building work. Also during this time we had very little of value on the premises.

What surprised me was the reluctance for the insurance companies we contacted to work with our business. I initially got in touch with Swinton because they are an insurance broker and our membership in the local business leaders organisation entitled us to a 10% discount. It was impossible to get through to them on the phone (I swear after pressing what I thought were the correct options on the telephone menu that my call was being diverted to a broom cupboard). I left a message on their website asking why their phones were going unanswered and eventually got a call back from a representative who took my details and said she’d get back to me after a week or so of looking into our options. She rang back once in that time saying she was having difficulty finding any quotes for us, then we heard no more.

In the meantime I had opened the business bank account with Santander, where I already do my personal banking. They were quick to put me on to their recommended partners, AXA. Again, following a long telephone conversation and promises that I’d soon be given options to discuss with them, I heard nothing more.

Around the same time I received my copy of Opening Times with an advertisement saying that Towergate provided a discount to CAMRA members, but yet again nobody seemed to be interested given that my emails were ignored (I’d gone off the idea of ringing 0800 or 0845 numbers when I saw my mobile bill). Three times denied!

It must have been around this time that I was browsing the Micropub Association forum and found the name of Neil Kerkhove of Warwick Davis (insurance brokers in Worthing, nowt to do with that chap from Willow). I left my details on their website and received an email from Neil within two days asking for a few more specifics. He came back the next day with a ballpark premium figure of £1100pa. In his words, this was because we were a new start-up and our postcode came up as a high-risk area (a drawback of opening in the suburbs of a big city). He gave us the option to pay in monthly instalments although this would attract an 8% surcharge.

Now that I finally had figures to work with, I decided to see if I could find another quote for the sake of comparison. An internet search brought up the details for Terry Osborne Insurance, specialists in pub & restaurant insurance. They quoted a premium of £786/pa which I agreed to immediately, in part because we were days away from selling bottled beers at the local market. We had the policy documents on an email within hours.

I did consider seeing if Warwick Davis could try to match the quote, but what sealed the deal for me was that the folks at Terry Osborne offered interest-free instalments. I paid £100 to secure the policy and provided them with post-dated cheques allowing me to pay the balance over the following three months. I did later inform Warwick Davis of my decision and when the policy comes up for renewal I will give them another chance, but I was very happy with the service from Terry Osborne and what seems to be a reasonable quote. They also were able to point out which safes would meet the insurer’s requirements.

It’s important when obtaining your insurance quote that you provide as much accurate information as possible. Don’t understate the value of your stock or neglect to mention that you might be doing the occasional market stall.

It also is worth checking with your landlord that the policy meets their requirements or covers you for things left out of the building insurance policy. For instance, your lease might state that it’s your responsibility to replace any broken windows.

The council too might take a view on what levels of insurance is acceptable. Before opening we looked into the mechanics of organising a pavement licence, in the fine print of which I noticed that the council expects us to have £5m worth of public liability coverage. The standard with Terry Osborne was for £2m or so, but it only cost us 1p to increase this.

But like I say, the best insurance will not cover you if it was your negligence that leaves you open to theft, business interruption or the loss of your licence.

Coming soon, more about banking plus equipment for your premises. On that note, anyone in the market for a secondhand Spulboy??

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New Year’s resolutions

It’s 2015 already and the weeks are flying by. Although we have not yet been open 3 months, it feels much longer (in a good, settling-into-the-swing-of-things way) but it’s clear we still have plenty to learn and lots more to do.

The holiday season was busy and we’re all set to coast through the doldrums of January and February. Judging by how long it’s been since my last post here, it’s obviously time to fire up the blog again and what better way than by sharing some of the things we’ve learnt so far and our resolutions for making things better in the year ahead.

1. Good customer service is free and makes your prices worth paying. As you may be aware, we are two doors down from a Wetherspoons. Elsewhere in the town centre is a sports bar/nightclub for the 20-somethings, a sports bar/karaoke spot for the 50-somethings, a decent food- and family-orientated real ale pub, plus a new ‘craft beer’ bar run by the same chap who owns the real ale pub. The karaoke spot advertises Carling for £2 a pint and Wetherspoons sells its real ale for the same price on a Monday. We’re not charging Manchester city centre prices, where pubs are now charging a minimum of £4/pint for real ale, but we do sell the most expensive pint on the local high street out here in the Mancunian ‘burbs. Many locals tell us they don’t like to go to the cheaper places. Clearly they are willing to pay more for something different served in more convivial surroundings by people who strive to provide stellar customer service. We are people who know what we’re selling because we’re in direct contact with the brewers, we offer tastings to help customers chose, we provide recommendations, we top up pints without being asked, we keep glasses sparkling, we have a natter with our customers, we welcome dogs…and we even know the names of the dogs. It’s the little things that matter and providing a friendly environment only takes a bit of effort.

2. Sell what your customers want, not what you want. Here we are in the depths of winter yet IPA, cider and Belgian fruit beers still remain our top sellers despite being what I would class as strictly summertime refreshments. I make sure to have a variety of strengths and styles on tap, but after dumping one too many pints I have decided to buy all dark beers like stout, porter or mild by the pin (36 pints, as opposed to the 72 pints in a firkin). I notice we sell more dark beers on Saturday and Sunday afternoons when people are more likely to linger over their pint, but it’s still not enough to justify tapping 72 pints of it at a go. One problem is that brewers rarely charge half as much for a pin, even though the container holds half as much. Also, some brewers need advance notice when a pin is required, but since they take up less space it’s easy for us to have 3-4 pins resting. As for that cranberry & beetroot farmhouse saison which you love but which is gathering dust… Facebook is a great way to get people interested in the different beers you’re getting in, but of course nothing beats talking to your customers 1-2-1 and asking them if they are willing to sample something new. Besides, remind them it’s ‘Tryanuary‘!

3. Respond to your customers. A few weeks ago a ‘craft beer’ place opened around the corner from us which we heard described several times as a ‘Belgian bar.’ When we visited we noticed that yes, they were selling a few of the same American & Continental bottles that we stocked, but that we had three times as many Belgian beers on our shelves (and I’m not even that much of an aficionado of the stuff). We also noticed that their full-colour menus came pre-printed from their distributor, meaning they will have little flexibility or depth to their offering. Yes, they sell Anchor Steam Beer like we do, but we also have Anchor’s IPA, Liberty Ale, Porter and California Lager. Depending what our customers like, we’ll be able to keep changing. The other day two chaps on either side of our bar got chatting about Augustiner from Munich and asked me if I could get some Edelstoff in. We had a case delivered later that week and the first batch was gone in about two days.

4. Make plans for the business to grow. Although it’s your micropub and you can keep it as small and quirky as you like, you might start reconsidering your business approach during these cold nights after the Christmas binge. To coax people into your premises this time of year you might want to start a quiz night, host a meet-the-brewer evening or offer a loyalty card to your customers. Maybe it’s time to expand your offering by selling bottled beer, fine wines, single malt whiskies or e-cigs. Putting on live music or cheese platters are also good ideas, although you need to be aware of any licencing requirements. Or you could use your growing knowledge of beer and connections with local brewers to organise a beer festival, perhaps to aid a local charity.

5. It’s your place, you can do what you like. Well-kept real ale is the sturdy, reliable foundation upon which every micropub must stand, but we have been amazed by how many women visit our premises asking for wine, prosecco and gin (plus the occasional mug of hot water). In keeping with the micropub ethos, we make sure our non-cask products are also made by local independents wherever possible, which means that when customers ask for Coca-Cola they get a ‘local-cola’ instead. We also sell a keg pilsner, but again one that is made locally yet tastes like a Continental beer. We have however refused all requests for mojitos, vodka or ‘proper lager’ like Fosters.

In future posts we’ll review some of the specifics which we’ve alluded to in previous posts, like sorting insurance and bank accounts, but hopefully these ramblings have given you some points to ponder.

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