‘It doesn’t mean we can’t be a pub’ – landlord’s verdict on new era for industry
PUBLISHED: 15:08 14 July 2020 | UPDATED: 07:56 15 July 2020
Pubs group owner Thomas West isn’t a great fan of the Tory party.
But the Jolly Good Pubs group boss – who is expecting profits to take a 60% plunge this year amid the coronavirus crisis – makes an exception of chancellor Rishi Sunak.
His policies during the crisis – including furlough, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the Bounceback scheme have all helped his Ipswich and north Essex business to get through a dire period after lockdown was announced in March, he believes.
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The Manningtree-based group – which owns The Lord Nelson in Ipswich, the Red Lion in Manningtree and the Marlborough in Dedham – employs 58 staff across the three sites.
“All staff went onto furlough and we have managed to maintain the majority of the job – there are only one or two redundancies potentially,” he says.
The sites have had “soft” relaunches after pubs were cleared to reopen on July 4, with staff being brought back on board gradually thanks to Mr Sunak’s Flexible Furlough scheme.
“I’m certainly not a Tory supporter by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to commend Rishi (Sunak) for the work he’s done in stabilising the economy,” says Thomas.
“I think he’s stood firm. The whole way through (the crisis) he has been the only bit of quality and stability that this leadership has offered. There has not been any controversy around what he’s done or said.”
Instead, the popular chancellor has employed “well thought-out processes” to bring the economy back to some kind of normality, the publican believes.
But it’s not been easy for his business, he admits. “Our pubs are traditional pubs – we are used to having two-, three-, four-deep at the bar trying to get served and a nice atmosphere with everyone in close quarters.
“Those evenings are going to be no more for the foreseeable future, sadly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be a pub.”
Instead his hostelries will be employing “good table service”, where “the importance of employing staff with their own character has never been more important”, he says.
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The quality of his workforce – which has a very low attrition rate – has proved key to coping, he adds.
While some customers would be able to convert more easily to ordering from mobile phones using an integrated online ordering system, he had to accept there were patrons who would not be able adjust so readily, and his staff would need to be on their toes to help them.
Because of this, the pubs now have more of a “European feel”, like a brasserie, he says.
The reaction from customers on re-entering has been very understanding, and they are happy to see the new signage and hygiene measures in place.
But as the evening wears on, they tend to become more friendly with each other, he admits. The team is working on becoming “slightly sterner” with customers at that stage.
“The majority of staff have been really accepting. They understand there’s an element of risk in terms of what’s going on,” he says.
But had the government continued to offer support to stay closed, some may have been more comfortable with that, he admits.
“We have to be aware of that but the staff have been up and down through this as I think many people have who are slowly coming back to work or seen their working lives changed.
“We have got staff definitely who are uneasy. We work with them to make it work for them. We are not going to be forcing everyone back to work – there’s a furlough scheme in place at the moment.”
In the course of the three-and-a-half month lockdown, Jolly Good Pubs – which was launched eight years ago – has lost just over £600k in sales from a turnover of around £2m to £2.5m across the three sites. Meanwhile, there are mounting costs. Two of his pubs are freehold, but the one at Dedham is leased, and there is rent to pay.
“I believe our sales will end up down anything up to 50%, but I’m hoping we can try and mitigate that to 30%. It all depends on how the customers behave coming out of lockdown,” he says.
The pubs were never “raking it in”, so it’s challenging.
The pubs boss has fears for the industry as a whole, and for some businesses which may not recognise their true financial situation until next year. “I anticipate in 18 months’ time this is really going to bite,” he says.
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