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On-trade re-emerges with professional calm and strong bookings

Published:  06 July, 2020

Early indications from those on-trade operators that chose to reopen over the weekend suggest good numbers of customers and both guests and staff taking safety guidelines in their stride.

Many multiple site and some single site businesses have chosen to either stagger openings dates, or wait until a quieter mid-week day, with CGA’s Outlet Index suggesting today (6 July) that 45% of pubs and bars reopened over the weekend.

Those that did open on 4 July generally appear to have confounded scare stories that the British public would descend for an unruly and drunken bun fight, while also reporting healthy customer levels.

Anecdotally, Harpers booked into a local food-led pub, The Hampton in Brighton, where the levels of professionalism from the well-versed staff regarding safety measures and full table service were exemplary, with customers responding well to the new rules, and management saying that almost as many passed through the 1.5 hour timed slots as on a ‘normal’ Hampton Saturday.

A similar picture emerged from others, such as Martin Williams of the M restaurant and Gaucho groups in London, who said that customer numbers were high, with bookings looking healthy in the days and weeks ahead.

“[We had] a busier weekend than usual across both the M and Gaucho brands, bookings look strong for July on a la carte bookings, though obviously down to zero on private dining and events,” said Williams.

He added that safety measures went well and were well received by diners.

Rob Maynard, co-owner of Hove’s Wild Flor, which plans to open its doors on 9 July, said he had, “decided to let the first weekend go by to see if there were any glaring nightmares or challenges [but] it seems relatively smooth for most places, and I suppose the weather turning sour literally cooled things off a bit”.

Maynard added: “Bookings for our opening weekend are great however, with almost a full house for all the evenings and lunches coming along, [which] gives a bit of optimism.”

On that much-needed optimism for the on-trade, the neighbourhood-based Maynard also echoed the experience at The Hampton.

Despite a planned shorter opening week, the effect of bookings across tightly managed slots Thursday through Sunday is currently looking set to deliver as many covers as before, when a majority would be “compressed into Saturday”.

“We’ve shortened our week and spread our bookings, but in theory if it were to continue, we’d be doing more or less the same numbers as before, just spread across the four days,” he said.

Location, as predicted, is clearly to play a part in how fast customers return, with city centre and commercial districts understandably experiencing less uptake than their neighbourhood counterparts as workers continue to work from home.

Xavier Rousset, co-owner of the Comptoir restaurants in London, confirmed this widely expected trend.

“Blandford Comptoir in Marylebone was extremely busy both days (Xmas level!), customers were in very good spirit, relaxed, happy, enjoying themselves,” said Rousset.

“Café Comptoir was less busy, that side of Mayfair is empty at the moment - I am a bit worried about the level of business moving forward, offices in Mayfair are empty, Marylebone may do better as it’s more residential.”

Rousset sounded a further note of caution, saying that he “anticipates August to be even more challenging”, with London largely devoid of tourists, non-essential workers still being advised to work remotely, and Londoners themselves likely to head for UK holiday breaks.

Ben McKeller, chef-owner at the Sussex-based Gingerman pub and restaurant group, also highlighted the hard road ahead.

“Government was late giving the final restrictions and it’s very difficult opening multiple sites at once, nobody is particularly confident of numbers going forward - most people report 50% occupancy, which is not ideal but pretty much how we thought,” he said.

“[We have] steady bookings, which gives us hope, we just need to get through this month and hope public confidence returns. It’s scary but we need to take these first steps and be flexible.”

The hospitality sector still faces unprecedented challenges, with weekend reports that more casual dining chains are in deep trouble flagging the unfortunate future for many. But for those quality-focused operators currently reopening their doors, there is at least optimism born of customers keen to return and fast reboot some of the old vibrancy in the UK’s unrivalled bar, pub and restaurant scene.