“I look out of the front window of the pub at the moment and on what would normally be quite a busy day in the city I can see two people,” Phil Cutter of the Gardeners Arms – known throughout Norwich as the Murderers – explains. “City centres are pretty much ghost towns at the moment.”
Cutter’s pub has been in the running for the Great British Pub Awards’ Best for Sport gong in eight of the past nine years – winning the top prize in 2015 – alongside final berths in the ale and freehouse categories. However, despite the pub’s match-day prowess, it’s much more than just Six Nations and Premier League takings that have been kicked into touch by the spread of Covid-19.
Yet Cutter explains that while Norwich’s 10th annual City of Ale celebration of its pubs, local breweries and fine ales – which he helped establish in 2011 – has also, unfortunately, “fallen by the wayside”, the sense of community it fostered among the city’s publicans can play a part in helping its on-trade endure the ongoing closure.
“As a community of landlords, it’s important to try to keep close,” he told The Morning Advertiser (MA). “With the City of Ale group, we’ve tried to keep in contact as best we can.
“Some pubs are still doing meals in their community, some of the city centre pubs are having mini-refits and decorating and bits and pieces like that so a lot of the landlords I've spoken to are keeping themselves relatively busy at the moment.
“But how long do these things take and how much work is there to do? If the Government closed us down in 24 hours, are they at some point going to say ‘you can open tomorrow’? If you're halfway through painting a room, taking out a bar or cleaning your beer lines, you want to be given that little bit of extra time.”
Helping others is part of the ethos
Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson called last orders for pubs on 20 March, Cutter’s primary focus has been maintaining his staff’s mental wellbeing alongside their job status –with the help of the Government’s furlough scheme.
“I’m lucky, I live above the pub and have got bits and pieces that I can be getting on with whereas if you’re stuck at home there’s only so many box sets of Only Fools and Horses you can watch before you start getting bored,” he tells MA.
“I’m posting little group quizzes and stuff like that to try and keep people’s minds active. Before we closed down, I did talk to staff about volunteering because I knew there would be lots of opportunities to help in lots of different ways. I know a few of them have taken that on – helping others is part of the ethos of the whole pub industry.
“But, I had to be honest with them and say that, at the end of the day, if we close I can’t physically afford to pay them for more than three or four weeks because the business will fold – that would mean redundancies, which isn’t what I want to do.”
Chomping at the bit
For Cutter, despite a rent freeze from the Murderers’ long-standing landlord, he and his business partner are forgoing salary in order to cover the business’ overheads on top of contributions on tax, national insurance and pensions.
“We’re really very lucky our landlord is a trust, we’ve been with them for 35 years and built up such a good relationship with them,” he says. “They've discussed a rent freeze with us – which is brilliant. They understand that we’re not closed because we want to be, we’re not closed because we're having a refit – our hands are tied.
“The difficulty we have still, as an industry, is that while the help the Government has given us is great, even with the furloughed staff we’re still having to pay our contributions on tax, national insurance and pension contributions. That’s going to cost us nearly £1,000 per month. That’s not much in some ways, but when you’ve got no money coming through the door, other overheads – some TVs are rented, our coffee machine and dishwasher are on a lease – soon add up.
“My business partner and I have cut our wages accordingly – we’re not taking any payment through the business now at all – and hopefully that’s of benefit for the business in the longer term, but it isn’t necessarily sustainable. I can’t live on no money.
“The Government has said we've got this grant threshold of £51,000 but we don’t get paid until June. How do we live as self-employed publicans? We haven’t got loads of money. It’s still a really difficult market out there and I don’t know many landlords that aren’t chomping at the bit to get back to work.”
Publican friends... @morningad@CityOfAle@beerandpub@GBPubConfed@EveningNews@BIIandBIIAB Government scheme for destroying beer ...... they require filmed proof.... this is my attempt!! https://t.co/WV3JuT08CFpic.twitter.com/4jdZN7Pecg— Murderers Pub - Norwich (@murderersphil) March 31, 2020
Really careful balancing act
Cutter adds that staff returning to work in three to six months’ time with a year’s worth of holiday entitlement still at their disposal could also cause difficulties – especially if pubs reopen at the start of the festive season.
“I’m not criticising, but if this goes on for six months, my staff could come back after that period, turn around to me and say they want two weeks’ holiday – which they’d have to have on full pay because they’re back to work,” he explains.
“I get that but, as a business, we aren’t going to be able to sustain that when we get back, especially if we get back and it’s the build-up to Christmas – I’m going to have to fit a year’s worth of holiday into six months. That’s not sustainable.
“All of a sudden we’re being asked to do that little bit more and from a business point of view I want to support my staff, but if it gets to the stage where I have to lay people off to support the business and I end up doing 12, 14, 18-hour days then that’s the way it’s got to be.
“It’s the long-term benefit of the business that I’ve got to look after over one or two staff. That sounds really harsh, but if I don’t have a business, I don’t have any staff so everybody loses out. It’s got to be a really careful balancing act even when we get back to work.”
Finding reasons to come back to the pub
Though, like the rest of us, he doesn’t know when pubs will reopen and normal service can resume, Cutter hopes that when they do, Brits can take to the streets of Covid-19 ghost towns and raise a glass to the NHS, first and foremost, but also pub sector.
“Not a party because I don’t think the situation regards having a party,” he explains. “But what you do need to do is appreciate what you’ve got and I think that, as an industry, we are going to lose some good pubs and some good publicans – and that will be really sad.
“We need to make sure people find the reason to come back to and enjoy pubs, because I think over the past few years, people have taken pubs for granted.
“I think that with the NHS and the hard work they’ve done it would be nice to have perhaps some sort of voucher scheme, something we can do to say thanks to the people who’ve made a horrible situation a little bit more bearable.”