“Up and down. Up and down. These stairs are our life now!” Lisa Black laughs as she expertly skips down the winding stairs to the vaulted cellar bar.
The basement of The Beer Emporium on King Street is a cavernous piece of Bristol history. When Lisa and her husband, Steve, opened the Beer Emporium in 2013, it was the first craft beer pub on King Street. They went all out to convert this space into an oasis for beer lovers; an intimate space for craft beer fans to get together, discuss, and share beers.
Said to be a former rum cellar, the stained glass window above the basement bar obscures the hatch where countless barrels were once offloaded from horse-drawn carts and lowered by ropes into the cellar. Now that Lisa and the bar staff are having to run up and down these stairs hundreds of times a shift to deliver pints to the outdoor seating area, it must be tempting to tear out that glass, throw open the hatch, and add in an intricate pulley to delivery pints to punters with ease.
Social distancing and other restrictions that were necessary to allow pubs to reopen safely have meant a very different experience for patrons and servers alike. For starters, it has imposed a much higher-touch style of service with table service replacing the all too familiar scrums at the taps. But now that pubs across the UK have been through a few rounds of re-opening, under shifting conditions and rules, many have been rethinking the whole idea of customer service in a way that may long outlast the restrictions.
For Lisa, this has meant doubling the staff on duty for any one shift, even though the capacity has dropped. Part of this is to support the table service, but servers also have found themselves in the role of traffic warden, acting as a public face of the current coronavirus rules. “The key is to make it friendly. So we greet people at the door. It's a bit of a welcome, and we can explain the rules to people. It’s easy to think that everybody's used to the rules now, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who turn up and they still don't know what the rules are.”
Image: Beer Emporium's outdoor seating area has been adapted to greet visitors and handle table service.
All pubs have also had the tricky decision to decide on what level they require help from apps and other technical tools that promise to simplify transactions. From Lisa’s perspective, the use of apps was contrary to the ethos of her pub on a fundamental level, the same way they eschew televisions and other distractions in their space, saving room for more face-to-face interaction. “I was always old-fashioned,” says Lisa. “When I worked in sales I was all about the carbon paper. A copy for you, a copy for me. Maybe it's just me that's holding it back?” To Lisa, the interaction between staff and customers is key to the experience, even if it is a bit strained by the need for masks and two metres of space.
“It's easy if you're behind the bar. No matter how busy it is, you pull pints and keep going,” says Peter Gibbs, owner of The Volunteer Tavern (or ‘The Volly’, to those who know it). “We have times when there are queues out the front and back door but it's manageable. With table service there’s a lot more work.” Gibbs was a reluctant convert to using apps and a booking platform, but now that it’s in place at The Volunteer Tavern, he’s come around to see the value of using them. “We didn't realise how much of a strain the restrictions were going to be on everyone,” says Peter. So when the subject of apps was raised during the staff meeting (one of the Volly’s regular team meetings which have been a key part of giving staff agency in the pub), they agreed to give it a try. The initial concerns that using an ordering app would somehow diminish the experience and level of interaction were soon forgotten as it became clear that the service was always more than just bringing drinks to tables; there were still plenty of opportunities to chat to patrons and check in with regulars whilst seeing to it that their pints were delivered to their tables safely.
And for Peter, the biggest revelation has been the value of pre-booking tables. With table space becoming such a premium under limited-capacity seating, many pubs have introduced some sort of pre-booking system, for all or a portion of their tables. This required each of those pubs to pick a time slot to allow for each group, most seeming to have settled for somewhere around two hours. Unlike walk-in systems where groups could hold a table indefinitely, pre-booked time-slots have allowed bars to turn over tables several times in a night, resulting in an increase of sales. Peter thinks this factor alone has driven their sales to higher volumes now than any time prior, and he thinks some form of pre-booking will stick around for many pubs long after it’s a necessity.
There are still negatives that Peter doesn’t take lightly however. He still notes that there are financial pressures due to additional staffing, and feels as though the higher level of table service will likely have to be scaled back once restrictions ease.
“In Europe they have far less duties to pay on alcohol,” Peter says, referencing taxes on beers that can be up to 10x the rates of our continental neighbours. He thinks the queuing at the tap was born of economic necessity to provide efficient service, and once allowed to go back to that, most pubs certainly will.
Image: The Volunteer Tavern's outdoor spaces have always proved popular, but are now even more important with reduced capacity inside the pub.
At the Beer Emporium, they’ve remained walk-ins only and don’t use an app of any kind. Lisa says her previous experiences of no-shows and stories from other pub owners she knows of no-show rates as high as 80% one busy nights are enough to keep them from going that route.
And even though the staff costs have been way up, Lisa also sees some unexpected upsides. For example, as people are being given a physical menu of drink options, they are discovering higher-shelf options than what they might usually order, and given the pressure-free chance to look over a menu has led to more upscale products shifting.
While all the pub owners we spoke to found positives in the way orders and table service is currently handled, there’s certainly a strong desire to get pubs back in full swing with as little fuss as safety permits. It’s clear from our conversations that the demands of serving under the less-than-ideal conditions that Covid has required have taken their toll on staff.
“I've never worked in such a challenging environment,” says Lisa. “We want people to come here and enjoy a drink. We don't want to be telling people to put their mask on and stay seated. That doesn’t sit well with us but what can we do?” Lisa feels the current added demands are a big part of the recruitment crisis facing much of the hospitality industry. Her staff have regular staff meetings now, in order to share tips and tricks, but also to make sure they’re holding up, to offer each other support.
“Hospitality should be proud of themselves because we've proved how resilient we are,” says Lisa, who recalls how in the early days of lockdown they were able to quickly ramp up an online store and shift to door-to-door deliveries. Some of their furloughed staff volunteered to come in and help refurbish the bar, and they’ve all rolled with the punches as the re-openings and rules force them to adapt.
“We're still here. Everything they bat at us we're batting back and I think we should be proud.”