Diary of an (empty) pub landlord – a month in Covid-19 lockdown

By Piers Baker

- Last updated on GMT

Pub diary: licensee Piers Baker describes a month in the life of being a landlord of two pubs
Pub diary: licensee Piers Baker describes a month in the life of being a landlord of two pubs

Related tags Wellington pub company Alcoholic beverage Public house Beer

Piers Baker, owner and manager of the Sun Inn in Dedham on Essex/Suffolk border for more than 17 years, details his experience of running a pub since the Government ordered shutdown on 20 March.
  • Originally published via the Sun Inn’s email newsletter

Monday 16 March

Lunch is a normal affair, 50 lovely guests in, looked after by our brilliant team. Extra vigilance being exercised to ensure the Government’s advice is being followed. A smattering of the afternoon drinkers in, numbers had been down for a week or so, understandably. 

At around 5pm, the PM tells everyone to avoid us. Again, understandable. But without any sort of plan of what we are meant to do, it leaves us bewildered. 

As the minutes and hours tick by that evening, the enormity of having no customers for the foreseeable future swells until an emotional tidal gives way upon reaching home and kids. Luckily, they’re braver and stronger and set me straight.

Tuesday 17 to Thursday 19 March

The week doesn’t get better. The number of guests who come for lunch and dinner could be counted on one hand. Understandable. 

Wednesday brings added unknowns with the reopening of Church Street Tavern (Baker’s second site) after its normal Monday-Tuesday closure. Same story, single figures for lunch, no figures for dinner and bar empty by 7pm. 

By Thursday, it’s clear to me something has to give. No luck in getting through to our bank to see what the options were. We’ve money in the bank, but not enough to pay what’s due at the end of the month – rent, VAT, suppliers, staff. No establishment in our industry has much wriggle room at the end of March.

The combination of paying December’s bills, VAT and rent on two to three quiet months always results in cash flow pressure. By mid-April, all this would normally be forgotten until November again.

Friday 20 March

A fourth sleepless night, still no appetite. What’s amazing is what the body can run on, or not! It’s clear now, something is going to give. 

Friday morning, we make a plan to cook everything we have in the building, combined with Church Street Tavern and make available for the community. Alongside this, we work with one of our suppliers – Anglia Produce – to organise food boxes for collection. Fine details worked on and uploaded to our website. It’s becoming clearer the tension and anxiety building among our team; where are we heading?

Then I’m faced with the biggest and most horrible decision I have had to make, ever. All week we’ve been hanging on the 5pm news conference to see if there was going to be any help for business that the PM had told you, understandably, to stay away from. All week, nothing. All week it had been building up to the realisation that I would have to lay off our teams. Individuals who, in some cases, had been working, contributing, for the past eight years. Individuals who had families to support. Individuals studying for their future. Individuals renting for the first time. With no income from sales, we would have nothing to pay anyone beyond 31 March. The haemorrhaging of cost without sales had to be stopped.

By 4pm, I had delivered the decision to the Church Street Tavern team. All laid off. Totally gut-wrenching. The best team we’ve had for some time, assemble, trained and nurtured. They were brilliant and took it like giants. Reassured me. Consoled me. Ready to come back again when the situation allowed.

And then, 5pm, the Chancellor announces the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. I put everyone in the lifeboat. And breathe. After we all assembled at the pub for a final drink, I slept a full eight hours without moving. 

Saturday 21 to Friday 27 March

A skeleton team at the pub continues with our food box service. Wonderfully supported by many of our community, we were proud that we could do something to help given the situation with supermarket supply and social distancing.

However, by the middle of the week, it was clear that supplies were unpredictable and we weren’t going to cover costs or wages going forward. Added to which, the paperwork involved with getting everyone on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, cash flow planning and landlord negotiations was pulling me in multiple directions. 

By Wednesday, we decided that we would pause the service and once the business was saved, we could look to resume. 

Early April

Today, I can happily confirm all our payroll for furloughed staff has gone through without hiccup and am now just waiting for the funds to arrive from HMRC to pay them. I am still battling finances. Between my two sites, we lost a significant amount in sales. Vital funds needed to pay suppliers from February (and March), rent, VAT, national insurance contributions. We don’t qualify for any grants because we are above the [highest] rateable value. We have applied for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan but the pile of potential debt makes things look tricky, especially on the back of paying down the cost of our 2018 refurbishment. Application has been in for 10 days and, in 30 days, have managed to get through to my bank once.  

I’m contributing to a national campaign within hospitality to get a #NationalTimeOut and #NationalRentFree period for nine months. How? By adding the debts incurred by closure to the end of our lease agreements, loans, etc. It doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything and allows landlords to not break their agreements with banks. It gives us all an opportunity to trade our way out of this when reopen and ensure jobs are protected.

Our MP, Sir Bernard Jenkin has been extremely supportive, putting pressure on our non-communicative landlord, Wellington Pub Company​, which, until Monday (20 April), hadn’t given us any indication of what it was thinking. Still hasn’t really. It’s a case of ‘wait and see’.

Fear not, I won’t be giving up. After almost 18 years at the Sun Inn and six years at Church Street Tavern, I've worked too hard and we have too many wonderful people involved in both our sites – you, our teams, our suppliers. We’ve had too much support from you, our team, our suppliers not to be given the opportunity to repay this and some.

When we go again, we will be better. We, and I, will be stronger. 
The obstacle is the way.

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