On pause: How coronavirus is hitting the hospitality sector
Boris Johnson put the UK on lockdown on 23 March, but it was a couple weeks before the Prime Minister’s TV address that Lewis Macaulay, co-owner of the Rum Shack in the southside of Glasgow, noticed a real change in the way people were talking about coronavirus.
“On the Monday night Boris Johnson had said not to go to pubs, and so on the Tuesday we just shut, partly because when the announcement came there was basically no one there, and we could see it wasn’t going to get any better. We just made a call that it just felt weird to be operating a pub when we knew people shouldn’t be in busy places. Then on Friday, when it was announced everywhere had to shut, it was pretty easy because we had spent three or four days before wrapping stuff up.
We set up the Dennistoun Food Collective to help distribute food in the local area
“It felt like there was a sharp change in the way people were talking about it the week before, which suggested that at some point we’d go into lockdown. We had a shitey weekend and it felt like folk were winding down. The way I’ve seen it, up to now, is that we’ve always paid everything on a weekly basis - we pay our rent, we pay our orders, we pay our staff, everything on a weekly basis, so for something like this we can just hit the pause button. Hopefully we can get our hands on the job retention scheme money soon so staff can feed themselves.
“We have said to all our staff, everything is on pause. There will be a job for everyone, and we will re-open, because we know we can. But as a business owner the only thing keeping me calm is the knowledge that everyone, on the whole planet, is in this position. There’s no way people can just let folk starve, and go homeless and die. It’s unchartered territory but everyone is in the same position. Everything is frozen.”
By their nature bars are social places and following the distancing measures and then subsequent lockdown, the Rum Shack is now effectively mothballed, with the owners left with no choice but to close up and wait until the circumstances improve.
The same story is playing out in every pub in Scotland, as well as in cafes, restaurants and hotels across the country. And while business owners initially scrambled to reorganise how they operated, with new guidance emerging every day and restrictions on the population’s movements ratcheting up all the time, plans are changing on a near hour-by-hour basis.
Long-term planning is almost impossible in this context. Laura Smith runs Fhior in Edinburgh, as well as the cafe at the Secret Herb Garden, with her husband Scott. At first, they reacted to social distancing measures by moving to selling takeaway meals, but as the UK entered lockdown it quickly became apparent that would not work either.
“It’s really hard to describe how we are feeling, because everything is moving so fast. As a business we are reeling - we feel very let down because the information is so scarce. They have made all sorts of promises but when is the money coming and can we hold on till then? That is really, really tough.
Fhior is moving to link suppliers with customers
“We want to find a way to hold on to our staff and we are working incredibly hard to flip the business around. They have worked incredibly hard for us and to be in the industry, so if we can find new ways for them to be employed that’s what we’ll do. Some of them can live with their parents, but in our industry a lot of others come from other countries. They are far from home, they are terrified for their families, and those are the people I worry most about. If we get rid of them, where will they go? We really want to protect people, however we can. But it’s hard, these are industry professionals, with 20 years of doing very, very niche jobs, and they are facing pretty much forever unemployment after this, because it will take a long time for restaurants to get going again and to pay them the wages their skills require. It’s frightening.”
With customers facing shortages in supermarkets, and with suppliers facing a crisis of their own as restaurants close, Fhior is working to bring the two together. Customers can get supplies delivered to their door, and Smith has promised the profits will be returned to the industry through loans and grants for small businesses to help them get up and running again when the lockdown ends.
“We realised all our suppliers are fairly stuck in terms of moving their produce, so we will take it from them, break it down and redistribute it. We are doing it all online and through delivery to reduce risk. We are hoping to do that for ready-made meals, access to produce and whatever household goods we can do. We know one of our partners is making hand sanitiser, so will deliver that, as well as things like toilet paper.”
And so, although there is no doubt the industry is facing a potentially existential threat, it is not going down without a fight. Phil Robins normally works behind the bar in The Gate in Glasgow’s East End, but with coronavirus hitting pubs and cafes across the city, he switched to focusing his energy on helping to coordinate the community’s response.
“We set up the Dennistoun Food Collective to help distribute food in the local area,” he says. “We have a wee van, and we’ve predominantly been acting as a hub for businesses to share information and to make sure everyone is doing alright, and to provide updates on who is closed and who is staying open. A few of the restaurants which had to close got in touch because they have a lot of produce that otherwise would have been chucked out, so we have been taking it to the local foodbank here, and some of it went down to kids who usually get free school meals in Kilmarnock, and then some of it has gone to a retirement home today.
“The places that have closed could potentially become collection points for people that can get out of the house, but if not then we’ve got the capability to do drop offs with the van.”
“I got in touch with all the businesses in our local area that supply food or drink, to help form a united front, so that if someone is closing we know and we can provide a kind of resource to each other.
“I think everyone is just treading water more than anything, it’s kind of a matter of locking everything down and just making sure you’re in the best shape possible for reopening. I think a lot of people might be scared to go out to bars and restaurants and cafes for a long time after this has blown over.”