The massive impact of Covid-19 on the pub industry was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when I took my two lads to the Wetherspoon pub next to Oxted station. Once every few weeks on a Sunday morning - lockdowns permitting - I take them for a haircut and a breakfast at the Wetherspoon. There aren’t too many places you can feed two teenagers and their dad a big fry up (plus add-ons) and drinks for £17.
Normally when we arrive at the Oxted Inn midmorning, the place is buzzing with a mix of customers: families having breakfast, locals having a cheeky mid-morning pint or a nip and groups of twenty-somethings having a restorative full English after overdoing it the previous evening.
Not on the Sunday morning we went. When the three of us walked into the pub at just after 10.30, there was one other customer. Yes, ONE.
By the time we left there were perhaps three or four couples, but light years short of the pub’s normal trade on a Sunday morning. A member of staff confirmed that it had been a similar picture every day since reopening after the month-long lockdown.
As the pub was in a tier-2 location, those wishing to consumer alcohol had to partake of a “substantial meal”, which presumably put off people who only wanted Wetherspoons’ cheap beers, wines and spirits.
But that didn’t explain the absence of customers seeking more solid sustenance. The staff member I was chatting to opined that “people simply don’t want to come out”.
As it happens, the majority of Surrey has now been placed under tier 3 restrictions, which means all pubs must close. Mind you, given my own experience, I suspect that a closed Oxted Inn will probably be less costly than the same pub under tier 2 restrictions.
Before Côte Restaurants went into lockdown back in March, the chain was in good shape. Its 96 restaurants were generating record annual turnover of £170m and had about 3,500 employees. Alex Scrimgeour, the chief executive, immediately went into preservation mode, cutting costs, entering discussions with landlords, reducing boardroom pay by 50% and launching Côte at Home, a business delivering restaurant-quality chilled meals to customers.
By September, as the false dawn of the summer and Eat Out to Help Out faded, Scrimgeour was forced to resort to selling the business to cash-rich new owners via a pre-pack administration. The sale to Partners Group secured the future of 94 restaurants and the jobs of 3,148 employees - though not, as it turned out, his own.
While it is quite normal for new owners to bring in their own management, it was something of a surprise when Scrimgeour’s exit was announced only ten days after he had said he would be staying on under the new ownership, working alongside new chairman Jane Holbrook, the former Wagamama chief executive. But with Holbrook swiftly beefing up her role to executive chairman, the former chef’s 12-year stint at the bistro chain was brought to an end, bringing down the curtain on a tenure that, for 11 of those 12 years, was highly successful.
Scrimgeour is also a thoroughly decent bloke, so it was great to hear that he has wasted no time in finding himself a new job, as chief executive of Everyman Media, replacing Crispin Lilly, who had resigned from the premium cinema chain in September. Everyman is an excellent business and once Covid vaccinations have brought back a degree of normality to life and the Hollywood film studios have stopped going straight to home streaming with new releases, it looks set to return to its ambitious expansion programme. It has a strong pipeline of new sites and if I was a betting man I’d be having a small wager on Everyman securing the new multi-screen arthouse cinema planned as part of the redevelopment of London Olympia.
Everyman’s formula, with a big focus on bars and restaurants, should also prove familiar territory for Scrimgeour, while the involvement of the Kaye family – former ASK Italian boss Adam Kaye is on the board and a shareholder – can only be beneficial as he takes on the task of turning Everyman into a force to be reckoned with.
Back on the tier system, country hotels are bracing themselves for mass cancellations over the Christmas period following the government’s decision to move London and much of the Home Counties to tier 3 status.
The traditional festive getaway for Londoners to boutique hotels with restaurants in rural locations is at risk from official guidance advising people who live in tier 3 locations to avoid anything but essential travel.
Robin Hutson, chief executive of The Pig chain, said that putting London under tier 3 restrictions would not only hit hotels in the capital but also affect country hotels reliant on guests from London.
“London accounts for 65 per cent of our Christmas bookings across eight hotels. It won’t just be the capital that suffers; every country hotel in the UK faces a catastrophic Christmas – food ordered, staff rota’d, hotels decorated.”
He said that while the group, which had been fully booked apart from its hotel in a tier 3 location in Kent, had suffered a few cancellations immediately, he was “waiting to see the full effect” in the coming days. Danny Pecorelli, boss of Exclusive Collection, which has six country hotels, including Pennyhill Park, the Surrey training base of the England rugby team, said: “It’s a trickle of cancellations at the moment but the pick-up has also stopped. We will probably end up with trade at 30 per cent of last year’s December revenue when we had expected to do 50 per cent.”
Andrew McKenzie, managing director of The Vineyard Group, including foodie favourite The Vineyard at Stockcross, summed it up succinctly: “The words nail, final and coffin spring to mind”.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said the implications of putting London in tier 3 during the two most valuable weeks of the year were “catastrophic”, going well beyond the capital.
She said that hotels and restaurants across the country were reporting thousands of cancellations from Londoners. “These are not small ripples either, it is an economic tsunami,” she said.
On that note, I wish you all as happy and as prosperous a Christmas and New Year as you are allowed by the government to enjoy.
Dominic Walsh: Is closure more costly then tier 2?
The massive impact of covid-19 on the pub industry was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when I took my two lads to the Wetherspoon pub next to Oxted station. Once every few weeks on a Sunday morning - lockdowns permitting - I take them for a haircut and a breakfast at the Wetherspoon. There aren’t too many places you can feed two teenagers and their dad a big fry up (plus add-ons) and drinks for £17. Normally when we arrive at the Oxted Inn midmorning, the place is buzzing with a mix of customers: families having breakfast, locals having a cheeky mid-morning pint or a nip and groups of twenty-somethings having a restorative full English after overdoing it the previous evening. Not on the Sunday morning we went. When the three of us walked into the pub at just after 10.30, there was one other customer. Yes, ONE.