‘Trade on its knees – we are just trying our best in difficult circumstances’

By Nikkie Thatcher

- Last updated on GMT

Customer expectation: ensuring guests check in using the NHS app is just one of the challenges operators have highlighted amid reopening outdoors (image: Getty/kieferpix)
Customer expectation: ensuring guests check in using the NHS app is just one of the challenges operators have highlighted amid reopening outdoors (image: Getty/kieferpix)

Related tags: Legislation, Pubs, London, Suffolk

The first week of pubs being allowed to reopen for outdoor trading only has seen operators pivot once again in order to serve customers.

As part of the restrictions for reopening and in a change to guidance from trading last summer, operators now have to take contact details from all guests rather than one lead booker upon arrival.

Two operators have given their experience of the first few days of trading to The Morning Advertiser​.

Licensee of Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropub and former Great British Pub Awards winner Brendan Padfield of the Unruly Pig in Bromeswell, Suffolk said: “How fabulous it has been to see the smiles and happiness of customers again – old friends and new.

“How wonderful it has been to see head chef Dave Wall’s kitchen brigade to be back where they belong, so happy to be together again (and swearing at each other again!). I have really missed their cheeky banter. 

“Serving outside has inevitably brought differing challenges for the front of house team. They have nobly risen to these challenges and every day we learn, adapt and improve to this new norm. Happily, we have packed out, fully booked throughout.

“Opening outside only has not been easy but overall it has been a very positive experience. However, there have been downsides. 

“The new Test and Trace regulations are very burdensome and time consuming. Many customers do not use the NHS [app] and thus checking in larger parties is particularly labour intensive.

“Too many customers look at us in disbelief when we try to explain that we are now required to record Test and Trace details for all adults and not just the lead party.

“I am bemused that we are required to go to these lengths when diners are eating outside but supermarkets and gyms record nothing. It’s illogical at best. In truth, it’s ludicrous.”

Padfield also highlighted the return of negative and false online reviews amid reopening alongside complaints from customers during their visits.

Very difficult circumstances

He said: “Sadly it also took only a day for the abuse to start again. A highly personally abusive TripAdvisor review arrived.

“The reviewer seemed to have deliberately waited to for us to reopen. It related to an alleged meal eaten in November – when we were closed and in lockdown!

“The review was so rudely abusive I even managed to persuade TripAdvisor to remove it – and that’s a first! 

“Another customer complained about the heating/temperature in marquee (in the most hectoring tone I have encountered in my six years in hospitality).

“He even took it upon himself to start manhandling the nearby heater. I tried to explain we needed to comply with the law/Government guidance. He then criticised me for ‘just wanting to fall back on the law’.

“Hospitality is on its knees – we are just trying our best in very difficult circumstances. Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in people.”

Fellow Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropub and award-winning venue the Red Lion & Sun in Highgate, north London also reopened its outdoor areas last week.

Licensee Heath Ball highlighted the challenges, particularly how the weather has impacted the business.

He said: “People have honestly forgotten what's it is like to go out. There is such a divide between customers. 

“The ones who are just missing pubs, want to be there, don't care about the rules, just want to have a good time, don't want to be told what to do, they've had enough, you've got them.

“Then you've got the other people who turn up and probably had their one vaccine, are a bit nervous and apprehensive, are freaking out, bit worried about Covid-19.”

He went on to highlight how the weather presents its own challenge when dealing with customers.

This isn't hospitality

Ball added: “Now everyone has to be outside, even when you say to people 'please wrap up warm, you're outside', they say 'just put me near a heater'.

“You say 'we don't have that many heaters, we have got a few but you're still sitting outside' and they take great offence to the fact you say 'wrap up warm'.

“It's like you're asking them to do something they've never done before like wear clothes.

“They turn up with inadequate clothing to be sitting outside. It is freezing but it's my fault it's cold.

“They sit outside, they are cold, they get angry because they are cold, they ask to move tables all the time, which we say they can't do because it's a headache with Covid-19, you have to clean everything down so they are angry, they want to see their friends.”

Ball went on to echo Padfield’s comments regarding the NHS Test and Trace app, the difficulties around ensuring customers check in.

He said: “The amount of people that don't know they have to give their details so it's difficult checking them in.

“No one knows how to use the app, they try and take a photo of it like a normal QR code where it leads you to the website.

“A lot of people don't have the app, a lot of people obviously give fake names and numbers, you can see them making up numbers in their heads. You're trying to work out how to keep them all happy.”

However, one of the biggest challenges Ball has faced over the past week has been managing customer expectations.

He added: “Generally, people just don't want to be told what to do any more so it's just trying to manage expectations while trying to keep your team and everybody happy but it's horrible. This isn't hospitality.

“Everyone knows you need the money so they are taking advantage of that and they are just rude.

“I'm getting my chops busted, I'm almost in tears most nights, it's beyond painful.

“The way they talk to you and the expectations, it's unbelievable.”

Related topics: Legislation

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