‘Never let a crisis go to waste’

By Jay Weir, operations director, Stew & Oyster

- Last updated on GMT

Annual review: Stew & Oyster’s Jay Weir says ‘the past six weeks or so already feel like half a lifetime’
Annual review: Stew & Oyster’s Jay Weir says ‘the past six weeks or so already feel like half a lifetime’

Related tags Food Alcoholic beverage Public house Beer

As I look back on my first year as ops director of Yorkshire-based pub operator Stew & Oyster, to say it hasn’t quite been what I was expecting would be like saying beer is moderately palatable – rather an understatement.

Like every hospitality operator out there, the past six weeks or so already feel like half a lifetime. There’s no manual entitled How To Win At Pandemics​. I Googled it and everything. Everyone – whatever their profession or personal circumstances – is just trying to do the best they can. 

While every employee currently either working from home or on furlough is going through something similar, hospitality is in a league of its own, economically at least. We were hit hardest, first, and will be cut deepest while we’re all grounded for the longest.

I can remember where I was on Friday 20 March at 5pm​. I was with our entire site management team, gathered on a Zoom​ call, with everyone ready to hear the operating plan – the latest of at least three incarnations – that I’d been working on all week since the Prime Minister told everyone to stay away from pubs. We were in full denial stage, ready to safely defy this thing and not let it beat us. 

With hindsight, the schools closure announcement two days prior, as well as developments in mainland Europe, were pretty big clues as to what was coming. 

Live on screen, one of our team was keeping tabs on the PM’s press conference and read out the headline that we were all to close that night and not reopen. You’ll have to ask our team how good my poker face was as I metaphorically tore up my operating plan there and then. But the unmistakable “tsst” of my beer being opened that second probably spoke of my reaction in any case. 

Time for a pause.

Emerging from shutdown stronger

I’ve tried to think about looking back on all of this in August – which now feels a bit optimistic. What do I want us to have achieved and how successfully did we act? 

Aside from the obvious survival, firstly, ensuring that our people were treated in the right way. We won’t have much of a business to relaunch without our fantastic teams. The hugely significant, unpredicted, and very welcome, level of state support has allowed us to do just that. The alternative, quite simply, was immediate mass lay-offs, so Government backing is a huge relief as is the recent Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme extension​. 

We’ve then done our best to keep everyone informed as best we can and try to remind them, in their downtime, that they’re part of something brilliant. All being well, that brilliant thing they’re part of will be here waiting for them when we can bring them back.

I’ve seen a few of our peers write that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. With this in mind, we also resolved to do our best to display the best of what hospitality has always shown – the ability, to quote Bear Grylls, to improvise, adapt, overcome. How can we not only come out the other side, but do so in just as strong a position, if not stronger? 

Re-establishing a comforting, relaxing hospitality experience – somehow

We’re looking to put ourselves front of mind, by taking what we do to our customers’ houses while trying to give something back. We came up with a four-point plan to do so. 

One of our greatest assets is our central kitchen, where all of our food is made with love from scratch. At site level, this allows us to be able to bring our delicious dishes to table in a cost-effective way, so takeaway hot food was not going to be too challenging.

What our kitchen production method also grants us licence to do is offer our food as frozen ready meals, with our guests – loyal regulars and newbies alike – safe in the knowledge they can have tasty, healthy convenience food with no additives. Throw in takeaway tap-fresh draught beer in plant-based lidded pint cups, rather than settle for only getting back the duty element of our cellar ullage in three months’ time, and we think we have a strong offer.

In executing our new ‘business as usual’, it will be essential to look back and be confident we had remained true to our vision and values. As such, we have tried to keep some of our existing suppliers ticking over. We’re offering a number of household essentials boxes for our local communities that have, and might continue to, struggle to get certain basics. All of this delivered to your door – sometimes by me, if you’re lucky.

Furthermore, we are trying to get meals to those who really need them right now. So, for customer donations just to cover our raw ingredients, we are partnering with organisations local to each site and hope to feed as many vulnerable people as we can.

Once we’re able to open back up, our central kitchen and the unique way we do our food means we’re already set up to prepare great things to eat while observing social distancing. We don’t need a site kitchen full of bodies, we just need to work out how best to protect our front-of-house teams and our guests, while somehow providing the comforting, relaxing hospitality experience that is in our blood – I’ll get back to you on that.

So in looking back on the past year, I’m proud of what we’ve done so far in some unbelievable circumstances. We’d already gone through some huge changes this year, and had some great foundations, to set ourselves up for future success. This gives me cautious optimism that we can come out the other side, though there is much still to do.

Hopefully, I will look back in August – or more likely late autumn – at what was just another pothole in the hospitality industry road. 

I hope we can say that we successfully dodged it with the same agility as we would any other obstacle, and that Christmas – yes, really – is the catapult to making 2021 the best yet.

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