As our pubs, restaurants and hotels prepare to re-open their doors, Wear Business asked leading figures in the region’s hospitality industry what hit them hardest during lockdown and what are they most looking forward to as D-Day 2020 approaches. Here are their thoughts…

Jonathan Graham, Tavistock Hotels, including Roker Hotel, Sunderland

The lockdown was so sudden and dramatic, we didn’t have time to say goodbye to our regulars. As well as the impact it has obviously had on us – and virtually all businesses – people have lost a place to meet friends and family, have a drink, a meal and enjoy a night out. That has been taken away from them and our staff have been keeping in touch with our regulars, taking tea and Sunday lunches. They all want to know when we will be open.

It has been very difficult in terms of cashflow because you are working month behind and we are having to pay our suppliers who have to pay their suppliers. We all know the difficulties we are facing, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It’s been tough.

But we have taken advantage of the closure and invested £80,000 to get The Roker Hotel ship-shape. Realistically, we couldn’t have installed the new fire alarm system with the premises open to guests, so that has been time and money well spent.

We’re now in the process of getting our staff and premises ready for re-opening with a few dummy-runs, and we are looking at table service, collection points, bottles of beer and wine, throw-away menus, cutlery, condiments. The pub industry is going to be at the forefront of the new normal. We will need people to be patient because I think it will be self-managed and it is only going to work if people remain sensible.

Colin Brosnan-Curran, manager, Farmer’s Arms, Shadforth, Durham

Closing the pub immediately on the Friday before Mother’s Day was extremely difficult. We were listening to the announcements all week, took the decision to order stock on the Thursday and the closures came the following day. That meant we had stock which was going to be out of date, such as the beer in kegs which we ended up selling for a pound a pint as part of a take-away service.

We introduced take-away meals and drinks in the first week and even that was a struggle initially because it was new to the staff, chefs and the customers but once we were up and running it proved an excellent service.

It brought us customers who hadn’t even been to the pub, so that was an interesting way to get new customers and obviously we are hoping they will return to us once the pub has re-opened. The take-away orders have fizzled out a little bit now but it has definitely been worthwhile.

I’m just looking forward to re-opening again. I didn’t realise how much I had really missed the customers until a couple picked up a take-away from the pub this week and they sat in the beer garden waiting. It was just nice to hear laughter, voices and people enjoying themselves around the pub again.

Mark Fox, owner, Durham Sausage Company, The Food Pit, Durham

We opened our new business in The Food Pit in Durham before Christmas and things were going well when we were forced to close our doors and halt trading. It goes without saying that Christmas is a difficult time of the year to start any new enterprise and The Food Pit is an entirely different venture for the city of Durham and its people.

But we were pleased that we had a relatively good opening serving our gourmets sausages and getting our menu out there and we were beginning to build a rapport with customers. We were starting to see a definite up-turn when Covid-19 hit and we were forced to close.

Now we are just looking forward to getting back with our fellow traders, and seeing some familiar faces and welcoming back those regular customers we had started to build a rapport with.

Initially, we are looking at what we could provide as a take-away or eat-on-the-go service but the Food Pit already has plans in place for social distance dining and hopefully we can open the doors eventually to serve our customers.

Ian High, director, Pub Culture, runs The Engine Room, Sunderland, and The Dun Cow, Durham

We closed our four venues on March 17 and I think the hardest part of the decision was actually having to tell our team. When it came down to it, the decision to close our venues in itself was a straightforward one because we put our staff and customers’ safety at the forefront of the decision.

At the time, our team were very understanding and we have kept them up-to-date throughout on any relevant developments.

What I am looking forward to most when we re-open our doors is welcoming back our customers. It feels like a long time since we have pulled a pint or served a meal and we cannot wait to look after our customers once again.

Pierre Bertolotti, general manager, The Impeccable Pig, Sedgefield

I would say that the biggest issue has been the lack of warning and information – from when we were told to close, to the new regulations as we look to re-open. The hospitality industry sent a 75-page Covid-19 proposal to the government this week covering all aspects of the industry and at the moment nothing has really been confirmed.

But we are working on the assumption they will drop the two-metre social distancing to one metre but even then I will have lost 40 per cent of our seating capacity, so if it is two metres I don’t know what we are going to do.

When the shutdown came, we didn’t have time to close properly. I can fully appreciate why – the government didn’t want to panic the public and wanted businesses to stay open as long as possible – but it had a massive impact.

If you remember it was Mother’s Day that weekend and we had still had 350 people booked in for the Sunday. We delayed for as long as possible but we obviously had to buy stock and when we were forced to close, it was going to pass its sell by date and we lost most of it.

Now we are getting emails from people all the time asking when we are opening and under which restrictions we will be working. If they are booking a weekend away, they want to know if they are going to be allowed out of their hotel room to enjoy themselves and to enjoy the restaurant and the bar.

I’m most looking forward to just getting back to work and doing our bit to get the economy going again. The Impeccable Pig is at the heart of a small village with a lovely atmosphere and it is very much part of the social circle here. We want people to come out, socialise and enjoy themselves.

I know restaurants are one of the first industries to take a hit and it is going be even harder if we have to stay a metre apart and they will be served by people in masks.

Graham Kennedy, Owner Bell’s Fish and Chips, Durham

From the moment we switched off the fryers on March 23 until very recently, we had no income at all. Although grants were made available, three out of our five outlets did not qualify. Luckily, careful cash management before the crisis meant we were strong enough to ride the storm, but it wasn’t easy.

Fortunately, we were able to arrange payment holidays with our debtors. It helps to have a good trusting relationship with business partners and they all knew that Bells would come back. Of course, we also looked after our tremendously loyal staff.

The decision to close down fully at the start of the crisis was a fairly straightforward one. The safety of our staff was paramount, as was that of all of our customers. We knew that although we would take a hit, we had to be a part of the national effort to beat it. We’ve followed industry and government guidelines to the letter and that’s why we have began to tentatively open up as we have, as things slowly ease.

It’s the first time in thirty three years I’ve taken two consecutive weeks off. It was a strange feeling going in and looking at nearly £3 million of investment, just sitting there idle. It wasn’t what we envisaged at all. However, like everyone else, we knew it was a collective effort.

Now I’m just looking forward to getting fully opened up, as long as it’s safe to do so. Our restaurants were created to be enjoyed. It’s been frustrating having to keep them closed.

 

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