The start of the coronavirus crisis caused panic-buying in the supermarkets, meaning some people struggled to get their essentials. When pubs were ordered to close, some savvy operators saw this as a gap in the market and turned their pubs into shops.
London gastropub Parlour in Kensal Green, north-west London, is offering a plethora of fresh produce to customers and become a success story to follow.
Chef-patron Jesse Dunford Wood says: “We have set up Parlour Market Place selling fruit, veg, meat, fish, dry goods, alcohol and baked goods, open every day from 10am until 4pm.
“Mainly started with business survival in mind but also a way of serving the community, trying to stay ahead of the curve and being proactive about the terrible situation.
“We all wear gloves and masks, which is not the most comfortable. We have also taken the beer pumps down and taken the tables and chairs out, replacing them with fridges from the kitchen to be able to hold fresh meat and fish.”
Working day changes
Dunford Wood outlines how his day has now changed, which includes opening more during the week but closing early.
He adds: “A day now starts with a big baking session in the morning so we can offer four freshly baked breads. Followed by lots of unboxing fruit and veg and then sell, sell, sell.
“We have to be very mindful of having just four people in the shop at any one time and constant orders for pick-up on the phone and emails. In between this, we are topping up the produce.
“Not doing an evening service has been interesting but we are now open on a Monday instead. All the personal protective equipment (PPE) is tricky to deal with over a shift. Our locals have been really responsive. Lots of enthusiasm and customers, more every day, which is lovely.
“Our best-seller is flour. We ran out one day and there was uproar.”
However, the change hasn’t been without its complications and Parlour has had to adapt hugely to continue to operate.
“Flipping the business has been rather challenging, making it into a retail business has been rather mentally challenging. It’s about understanding the different margins on a retail business and working out the safest way of controlling the flow of customers,” Dunford Wood adds.
“Safety of our staff has been a concern with so many people [coming in] every day and being very aware of customer expectations in regard to social distancing and customer flow.
“Everyone with their face masks, both staff and customers is rather difficult to get used to, everyone looks the same these days.
“But, [it makes me think] should we open a real shop when this whole episode is over?”
However, the pub is still offering a small portion of its menu but the focus has shifted to a takeaway-friendly option.
Dunford Wood says: “First we were doing takeaway food but now we are doing very little prepared food and are more of a shop with ingredients.
“We still have our [ready-to-cook] Desperate Dan Cow Pies and Chicken Kyivs but are now focusing on produce and pantry items. The bread in the bakery will stay – everyone loves our breads.”
The Lodge in Tuddenham, Norfolk, had set up a shop prior to the coronavirus pandemic, due to customer demand but it wasn’t getting much traction.
However, since the crisis started and pubs in their traditional guise were forced to close, this has meant the tables have turned.
Licensee Vikki Hunt, who runs the pub with her husband Gavin, says: “With people feeling ‘unsafe’ using the large supermarkets, we have come into our own. In day one of our ‘pandemic trading’, we took more money in the shop than we did in the previous year.
“We are offering a contactless shopping experience, we have a Facebook page ‘The Lodge Shop’ and we regularly post photos of new stock.
“We also do a ‘live shopping’ video, where we encourage people to write their lists as we talk about the all the products on the shelf.
“Lists are then emailed in and we bag and box the shopping, call the customer when it is ready for collection, take pay- ment over the phone and when the customer arrives, we put the shopping directly in the boot of their car. They don’t even have to get out of their vehicle, it’s totally contactless.”
Long hours, big engagement
Vikki highlights how changing their offer to retail has also meant a huge boost in their social media following.
She adds: “Word has spread and we are now working longer hours than we did as publicans. We start packing boxes between 6am and 8am, depending on how many we have in, then we open the shop from 2pm until 6pm to the public (one at a time), before we start packing for the following day and then ordering. The longest day so far was 20 hours but most are 15 to 16 hours.
“Our daughter is helping us so we are an incredibly small team, having furloughed all our staff. We have gone from less than 100 followers to 2,057 in just four weeks, with a 46,000 post reach and 45,000 post engagement – up 219% – and the latest ‘live shop’ reached more than 9,500 people. It’s just been incredible.
“We are luckily using two family-run butchers, which supply us daily. We are encouraging customers to pre-order two to three days in advance. And we have fruit and vegetables delivered daily, which is the equivalent of two pallets. The beer cellar has now been turned into a fruit and veg store.”
Vikki outlines how turning the business around has made her realise what people really want from a retail offer.
She says: “Our catering suppliers have fortunately been able to keep us in items such as pasta and now flour, which are in such high demand, even if it does feel like all Gavin is doing is bagging flour into 1kg bags – we are selling almost 100kg a day.
“We have discovered that, during this time, people appreciate value. They are suddenly a family at home, all together seven days a week, eating three times a day. We have found it is the price-marked products that are selling well such as two packets of biscuits for £1. No one, at this time, wants a pack of six finest, oat- rolled, hand-crafted biscuits, dipped in 70% cocoa for a fiver.”
Hope habits remain
Similarly to Parlour, the Lodge is also offering locals a selection of classic dishes to take away and enjoy a small part of their pub at home.
Vikki adds: “For our customers who are missing all our pub favourites, we are making ‘easy teas’. These are dishes such as lasagne, lamb shank in gravy, curry, cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding.
“These are sold packaged and chilled for people to reheat at home and the feedback has been great.”
However, everything hasn’t all been plain sailing because, unfortunately, the pubs have been hit by attempted break-ins.
Vikki adds: “Every day is a sad day as I walk downstairs to see my once busy pub-restaurant now looking like a warehouse with racks, boxes and tins everywhere but, at least we are doing something to help during these worrying times. Our other pub (the Fox at Lyng, Norfolk) is just standing desolate.
“Both pubs have been the victim of break-ins, the Lodge had £1,000 worth of food stock stolen and the Fox had an attempted break-in. Luckily, the sensor lights and alarms sent the would-be thieves packing so we only had a window repair to do.”
Looking ahead, Vikki remains relatively positive and is keeping everything crossed that customers continue the same level of support.
“I do hope after this is all over, the shopping habits of people change and they continue to support the local independents that have remained open have gone above and beyond to offer a level of service to ensure customers feel safe,” she says.
“However, if we are lucky enough to then be able to afford to reopen the pubs, I will need to build an extension for the storage of all the shop stock, as we will need our bar, restaurant and cellar back.”
For operators contemplating how to offer produce to customers, one business has come up with a solution.
Powered by e-commerce firm StarStock, mypubshop.com offers licensees the chance to trade as food shops, providing access to essential items.
Founder and CEO Sam Ulph says: “We are seeing some pubs make real head- way with the platform, including the Beambridge Inn, Wellington, Somerset, and the Thatched House, Exeter, which are reaching 40 orders a day.
“It is fantastic to see these venues continue to serve their local communities and being able to take some of their team members off furlough.
“As uncertainty around lifting restrictions continues, this could prove to be a real lifeline, not just to customers and vulnerable members of communities, but to pubs as well.”