Dow, who reopened the Castle Inn on Sunday 5 July, tells The Morning Advertiser (MA) that despite his pub looking and feeling very different to the one that closed on 20 March the atmosphere among staff and customers remains upbeat.
"It's a positive vibe, it's all just very weird,” he says. “You're busy at periods when you would never normally be, like on Sunday night (5 July) I usually have a quiz and it's normally the busiest pub in town, but there was nobody in after half-past-seven and I could have closed. But then on Monday the weather became nice and at 2pm, when it'd normally be quiet because everybody goes back to work, it was full outside."
Dow adds that in tandem with social distancing guidance, widespread furloughing and redundancies have thrown his sense of on-trade timing out of kilter and that his July trading resembles patterns he would typically expect in January.
“At the minute it’s a free for all,” he says. “You're busy when you're busy and you're not when you're not. It'd very odd. It's like days don't mean anything.
"Your customer base has changed because you've still got a lot of people on furlough that can drink all day if they want to.
"A lot of teachers haven't gone back yet, but then you've got people that maybe lost their job during lockdown but have got a different job so when they would normally come in, they don't come in."
Don’t want to look like a post office
Dow’s pub is able to accommodate 50 people inside and 82 outside under new guidance and has introduced now commonplace pandemic features such as a host stand and a table-service only policy as well as ubiquitous signage and sanitiser stations to accommodate them all safely.
"My regulars all came in and they were a bit like me – 'I don't like this, I like to stand at the bar' – but we made them all sit down and made a fuss of them,” he tells MA. “They kind of filled the pub but in a nice way.
“It felt good, looked good, and there was a nice vibe – once they'd had a beer they were all laughing and joking, clicking their fingers 'come and get me a drink then', it was positive.
"I didn't bother with an app, I might do, but I would rather it be personal service – everyone's done an app, I want to be the one who hasn't got one, I want to be the pub where the staff talk to customers.
“I've got a QR code, so if you scan that it brings up our drinks menu – I'll add the food menu to that. I've got no Perspex because I don't want it to look like a post office, but you don't come to the bar so it's not a problem.”
However, despite a new set of running jokes from the regulars, Dow says there remains an edge at the Castle and that he feels as if his decade behind bars counts for very little at present.
"It was nice to be open, it was nice to see everybody, but I just feel I'm on edge all the time – it's a very strange feeling,” he says. “I'm sure it'll wear off but it's not the same.
“It's a bit like being at primary school, somebody comes up to the bar and you've got to tell them to sit down. I don't want to be that guy.
"Talking to a couple of regulars they said it's weird because me and my staff are on edge, and they're on edge because we're on edge. I thought the regulars would be the ones who'd say 'I'm not doing this rubbish' but they're the opposite. They're kind of guiding some of the tourists, they're like my police in a way."
Another aspect of post-lockdown trade that’s surprised Dow is the willingness of customers to comply with data collection guidance. He jokes that customers are also less likely to misbehave if he has their contact details.
"I thought I'd have immense grief with that but people are just doing it,” Dow says. “What I'm doing with my regulars is because I know them all I don't expect me to give me their details every time they walk through the door so I've got a tally chart with me and the staff and put their name on it. But everyone else has to sign in with name, address and number for Government track and trace.
“I thought I'd be up against that, but everyone's just done it. That surprised me – a few eye rolls, but I don't think they're rolling their eyes at me, they're rolling their eyes at the idea of it."
Though Dow reopened on 5 July, he explains that the decision to do so was “touch and go” and that he remains apprehensive about the unpredictable footfall patterns.
"I was very reluctant, to be honest, it was touch and go whether I was going to open on Sunday,” he tells MA. “I'm not serving food straight away, I'm going to wait a week, I want baby steps, I want to get the drinks sorted first.
"I'm apprehensive when the sun comes out because I've got a big beer garden. I'm only one person and my staff are going to advise customers but I'm not putting them on the front line arguing with people.
“I don't want sound negative but I'm worried about where accountability lies if I've got everything in place and I'm telling people but as soon as I turn my back 50 people walk up and just stand there. I can't go up against 50 people and I don't want to be wasting police resources. I don't want them to walk up and I get the fine because it looks like I haven't done anything."
"I was talking to the police on Saturday and I just said I'm really worried that when the sun comes out and its 20-odd degrees I'm just going to get inundated, because the whole town just mobs this pub, which in normal times is great because that's when I make money but at the minute I don't want it to happen. Serving them isn’t a problem, it's the accountability – where do I lie?"