Looking back on almost a year of heavily interrupted trading, Roxane Marjoram, who owns and operates a handful of pubs (two leasehold, three freehold) and a brewery with husband David, reflects the Covid crisis has engulfed the pub sector for so long that it’s easy to lose track of all the “nuances and changes”.
Indeed, when the co-founder of brewer and pub operator Gusto Pronto speaks to The Morning Advertiser (MA) in January 2021, she does so accompanied by a homemade pandemic timeline.
However, while Marjoram acknowledges the importance of newsworthy points in time such as the announcement of the furlough scheme and rollout of grants, she adds that more personal – albeit often digitised – customer interaction has helped her take the ongoing crisis one day at a time.
“There have been some landmark moments in terms of the initiatives the Government has announced but also sometimes it's literally just getting through a day or getting a nice bit of feedback from someone that's ordered a couple of bottles of wine from us online [that stands out],” she tells The MA. “It's a bit of a mixture.
“Obviously things like furlough, grants, Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme loans being announced provide some form of relief, whether it enables us to protect the team or to bring some much-needed money into the business, so I would see those as being landmarks in lots of ways, but sometimes it is a customer emailing us and that sort of makes your day.”
Putting money in the right place
Having taken on their first pub, the One Bull in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk – above which she and her husband still live and base Gusto Pronto’s head office – in 2008, Marjoram describes the ongoing situation as “totally different" to anything they've encountered.
“We only had about 10-and-a-half weeks at the start of the year before Covid hit us all and Boris said 'don't go to pubs',” she says. “After that it was either no trading at all or about 11 weeks in the summer where we were able to trade, with restrictions, and then everything tightened up again.
“But if you go back to the start of the year, that January to mid-March period is obviously the most difficult time for hospitality venues anyway, so most of us would just be getting towards that end of March thinking ‘spring's on its way’ and that you normally start to see a bit more of a boost.
"Obviously we've made use of all available support and that has been appreciated and enabled us to get up to each point of the year,” she continues. “What we've tried to do all the way through is make sure we can protect the business as much as possible and that we can preserve as many jobs for the teams as we can.
“We've reduced or removed all the non-essential overheads – that happened as soon as lockdown one was introduced and has been an ongoing process throughout the year.
"Where we have spent money, we've tried to target that really carefully because when you've got finite resource you want to make sure you're putting your money in the right place.”
Sector doesn’t want ‘handouts’
What’s more, while Gusto Pronto has established online wine shop, Vino Gusto, from the Great British Pub Award winning One Bull – recipient of the Best Wine Pub prize in awards’ 2014 edition – which Marjoram states will continue post-pandemic, she adds that financial clarity from the Government is paramount as both her business and the wider sector look to adapt further.
"None of us in hospitality want to be sitting here and taking handouts,” she says. “But if we're not able to operate under our normal business plans then we need that support to enable us to come out the other side and contribute to the economy as we have done in normal times in the past.
“We know that at the moment there's a business rates holiday and the VAT on food is down to 5% – although neither of those are of much benefit at the moment as none of us are open and able to trade normally. We really need to see some announcements coming from Government soon to enable us to plan properly from April onwards.
“I would hope there would be a further business rates holiday and the VAT rate on food would be ongoing for a significant amount of time longer,” she continued. “I very much hope they [the Government] will announce a successor scheme to the Job Retention Bonus that was announced and taken away – my understanding is the Treasury said there would be a further announcement, but we obviously haven't seen that yet.
“I would hope that we would get some clarity on those areas as we start to go forward fairly quickly.”
What’s more, Marjoram reflects that the “stop-start timeline” of the past year has been a huge problem, incurring stock and staffing costs every time pubs have been told to reopen or close.
“Obviously there's a lot of discussion over when hospitality will be able to reopen,” she continues. “We will be really looking for those restrictions to be lightened before we feel able to open most of our sites again because trading in tier two was very difficult when you can't have any indoor household mixing.
"We've all proved we can change and adapt our models, but once we started to get into the curfew and tighter and tighter restrictions through autumn, it became much more difficult for everybody. That is the question really, not just when can hospitality reopen again but when can it trade under more sensible restrictions.
“I'm not in any way suggesting that the pandemic isn't seriously needing to be brought under control at the moment – we accept that – it's just that if you are prevented from trading then there does need to be support.”