It would be ironic if 2020 turned out to be the year that the British fully and finally learned to embrace continental café culture.
Going out has changed, perhaps even permanently. We rarely stand by the bar with pint in hand, not that we are generally allowed to. We are all getting used to booking a table on-line, waiting to be seated on arrival and then ordering at the table, even for a beer, wine or coffee and often from an app on our smart phone. Table service is obligatory. No more heading straight to the bar.
If we can we’ll venture outside. Our city centres have streets closed off to accommodate extra tables, chairs and canopies (it is Britain after all). Our market towns and commuter communities are little different, apart from being busier with work-from-homers staying local.
Of course, this is not just because we are all missing our cancelled European getaways. But it is all to do with the knock-on effects of the pandemic and the new reality of post-lockdown life.
As operators like Peter Borg-Neal, with his Oakman Inns premium pubs scattered around the Home Counties, are finding, people are also dropping by for a coffee during the day to meet up with friends or colleagues or to log-on to the high-speed wi-fi and catch up with work emails.
Everyday activities that used to be the preserve of inner-urban coffee shops have been transported out-of-town. For many, especially better-off white-collar employees, going back to the office is still a long way off.
As a BBC survey of 50 of the biggest UK employers, from banks to retailers, discovered, none had plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future. While 20 had opened offices for staff unable to work from home, another 24 firms said that they did not have any plans in place to return workers to the office.
That’s pretty devastating news for our city centre business hubs, and especially London. While working from home has been a nightmare for many, for others it has offered flexibility, an improved family life and freedom from the three-hour daily commute. Hybrid working patterns are likely to be the new reality, not least because many would welcome them.
Among the beneficiaries of this shift, even if it’s only partial, will be operators out in the commuter belts around our major conurbations – pubs, hotels, in fact any hospitality business with space. Will we see a value alternative to the Soho Farm House, I wonder?
The reluctance to return to city centres is also part of the nervousness about crowds that many of public still have. That is diminishing around the eating and drinking-out experience as more venture out and are being reassured, but hygiene and safety measures like track and trace and social distancing that have altered the lay-outs of our pubs, bars and restaurants, are likely to be around for some time – and some may even become expected long-term.
Public confidence is still fragile, and venues with space, including outdoors, will have an advantage, as wider spacing between tables and the use of partitions and ‘tasteful’ screens are likely to remain in place even if official restrictions are eased.
Pub and restaurant operators may lament the buzz of crowded bars and dining rooms, but there are sections of the public that don’t, and are enjoying a more relaxed and perhaps quieter experience.
The good news is that people are heading back out again. The VAT cut on food and the masterstroke that has been the Eat Out to Help Out initiative have worked, but inevitably have switched the focus to eating rather than drinking out.
More people have gone out in August, around half for the first time since lockdown. Sales are up, with restaurants that have been open even seeing like-for-like growth on August last year. Although the boost has been seen mainly at the start of the week, any drop off on Thursday and Fridays has been more than compensated for, with some operators seeing weekend trade hold up well even with the Monday to Wednesday surge.
The fact that more people have ventured out for the first time, especially older consumers, is perhaps the biggest win.
The next challenge for the market is how to maintain the momentum that the Eat Out push has given the sector, with the Government withdrawing its various safety nets, in particular furlough.
The really hard work begins now. The economy is looking grim and the shadow of unemployment is growing longer. How can hospitality keep the public coming through its doors, and even make some money?
Some operators will be funding their own extension of the Eat Out campaign, still offering money off at the start of the week, using the VAT cut to help subsidise the promotion, while being wary of falling into a discount war. Those operators that can be flexible and agile and react to change are likely to have the advantage.
Location is as always going to be key, and if people are more likely to stay close to home for some time to come, Britain’s suburbs, market towns and villages, and that includes the urban villages of our big cities, are the places to be – pre-coronavirus commuter country no less.
And what type of businesses are most likely to prosper? It’s striking how the phased rebooting of the sector has panned out. Over 90% of pubs have reopened for business, but around 30% of restaurants still remain closed. If they’ve missed out on the mini-boom that Eat Out to Help Out has delivered, one has to wonder if they will ever be economic again?
With drink-led pubs and bars still under pressure, including from the authorities on the lookout for coronavirus transgressions, those businesses with strong food offerings and that are able to leverage drink sales on the back of that and all-day trading look best placed. No wonder the bosses of the likes of Oakman and Loungers have more of a spring in their step just now.
So is café culture catching? It may well be, if only because the rhythm of everyday life has changed – and we are getting used to sitting down and waiting to be served.
Peter Martin: A postcard from commuter country
It would be ironic if 2020 turned out to be the year that the British fully and finally learned to embrace continental café culture. Going out has changed, perhaps even permanently. We rarely stand by the bar with pint in hand, not that we are generally allowed to. We are all getting used to booking a table on-line, waiting to be seated on arrival and then ordering at the table, even for a beer, wine or coffee and often from an app on our smart phone. Table service is obligatory. No more heading straight to the bar. If we can we’ll venture outside.