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Notes From a Small Pub

What a year. We’re still here, against the odds, and sitting patiently waiting for a time when we can fling open the doors and be The Bay Hop people always loved.

To put it into context, the pandemic has resulted in us being open for just 76 days over the past year. When you break it down into hours, we have been open for just 18% of the time we would have expected to have been open. All of that time has been under various restrictions too, so far from the potential we might otherwise have reached. I’m not going to whinge though – the fact that we are still here at all is a miracle.

Looking back to the approach towards the first lockdown a year ago, it still gives me shivers. For weeks we had been increasingly hearing about this virus sweeping across the globe, and we are as guilty as anyone for trying to ignore the runaway train that was hurtling towards us. In early March 2020, we finally took some action – our regular Cheese Night was cancelled, and we put a few bottles of hand sanitizer around the place. In hindsight, that was woefully inadequate but no one really understood how to deal with anything like this.

Then, on 16 March the Government decided to advise people to stay away from pubs, restaurants and theatres. We weren’t told to close though, and we weren’t given any advise on how to mitigate the risks. People largely took this advise and stayed away. That week was horrendous – very few customers and being left to our own devices to work out how best to protect those who did venture out. We wanted to be responsible, but we had no guidance on how to do that.

While the industry had been calling for a mandatory closure that week, and it being increasingly obvious that it was only a matter of time, when that call was made it was still a shock. The thought that the social space we had worked so hard to build up for three and a half years was dangerous was terrifying. While we had certainty on what had to happen, I was 90% confident that we wouldn’t survive this.

We had one small advantage. We had always offered takeaway draught beer, so we were prepared to hit the ground running the day after the closure order. Yet, on 25 March the official Government Guidelines were published and it was clear that there was no room for us to provide takeaways. It’s easy to forget now just how fluid the situation was at this time, and the initial absence of Off Licences from the ‘essential retail’ list was just a small part of legislation being produced in a hurry. Just hours later, Off Licences were added to the list and we went through a week of trying to formulate a safe way of getting beer to our customers.

Everyone at this point was feeling their way in the dark. We were planning for something we had no end point for, fairly convinced that whatever we did was not going to be enough to be viable. There were some hard lessons to learn in the coming months.

In the weeks leading to this first lockdown we had continued to take delivery of our usual number of cask beers, and had in-fact taken a large delivery the morning of the day that the lockdown was announced. We had always been cask-led, and this approach had served us well with a great reputation for quality real ale and numerous CAMRA awards. However, it soon became apparent that cask beer would be impossible to maintain on a take away only basis for us.

On the basis of the very limited shelf life of cask beer, it was obvious very soon that there wasn’t enough demand to ensure a choice of four or five casks could be turned over in three or four days. It was frustrating, but to have a chance to survive we had to change what we had always prided ourselves on. At times, we were throwing away almost half a cask of beer – not sustainable, and essentially making a loss at a time when the financial security of the business was already threatened.

At the beginning of 2020 we had come up with a vague plan to expand the number of keg lines from three to five. While lockdown seemed like a strange time to expand the range of products, it made sense to bring those plans forward. Keg doesn’t have the same short shelf life of cask, and it would allow us to continue to provide a varied selection of beers throughout without worrying about wastage. So, with the first of the Government grants in our pocket we took the leap. Looking at what we needed to provide the same styles punters were used to on cask, we decided to go for seven lines rather than the original planned five. Mike Cornish of Beer Care was called in and the job was completed in just a couple of days.

It is fair to say that increasing the keg lines was the best decision we have made in the past year. There is no doubt that it has made the takeaway service worth doing, and that without it we would have not operated at all or – in the worst case scenario – not been here at all now. It was a risk though, and if the support from our customers for the takeaways had not been there it would have left us financially very vulnerable.

For the four months from April, we eventually found our feet and fell into a pattern of providing a takeaway service. I think there was a certain amount of being over-cautious, and putting in systems that might have been a bit over the top (only ordering in advance online and getting a time slot to pick up your order), but rather that than be complacent and potentially putting customers at risk. As time went on, our approach loosened a little and our confidence in knowing what was safe grew.

The question we have been asked most regularly since last March is “Do you know when you’ll be reopening?”. The short answer is always “No”, but it is difficult not to fall into the trap of speculating. There is also certain amount of speculative planning that you need to do, so I had it in the back of my mind that we could probably survive through to September. For reasons that escape me now, I became pretty convinced that September would be the point where we’d reopen, so it was quite a surprise to find that July / August was in the pipeline.

In mid-July we had the date for reopening of hospitality in Wales. It was set to be 3rd August, but we made an early decision to delay our own reopening for another week to make sure we had everything right. Despite all the years being involved in this industry, reopening after that first lockdown made me feel strangely nervous. There would be new systems which we would need to put in place, although we didn’t know what those systems would be until just a few days prior to the opening date.

The seating would need to be rearranged, but I was determined to not lose the feel of The Bay Hop more than we needed to. Sure, no one could stand at the bar (or anywhere else!), no one could just walk in and grab whatever seat they wanted and we would have to take orders at the tables… But back in 2016, we arranged the bar to be as social as possible and we wanted to maintain as much of that as as we could. This meant that plastic screens were out the question for us – they would just put an unwanted barrier in the way. Screens would have allowed us to place tables a little closer and fit a few more people in, but it just felt a little too clinical for a pub like ours. So, as a result, we had to stick to the 2 metre social distancing rule strictly. The tape measure has never had quite so much use!

I sketched a few different layouts for the ‘Covid-secure’ Bay Hop. Some of them were quite strange with a bench placed with it’s back to the bar, but in the end we found that moving one bench into the window freed up more space than any other layout. Over the short time we were open last year, we grew to like the new layout – when we finally go back to normal, the positioning of some of that seating might remain.

As we approached reopening, it seemed clear that there was the potential to leave a lot of customers disappointed due to the restrictions and the very limited seating we had available. Table bookings were being encouraged strongly in the guidance, and they seemed like a good way to make sure no one had a wasted journey. After speaking to a number of people in the restaurant side of the hospitality trade and pubs that were open earlier in England about bookings, it was clear that ‘no-shows’ could be a potential issue. Taking a deposit on a table seemed like a sensible way around it, and it worked a treat! In the whole of the time we were operating under those restrictions, we only had two occasions where the table booking wasn’t taken up – quite a difference to some places that were reporting 30 to 40% no-shows at times.

When we did open up under the restrictions in August, we had no idea what to expect but we were pleasantly surprised at what we achieved. Despite heavily reduced hours (13 hours less than in normal times) the takings were well above what we expected – and at times not far off what we would expect in a pre-Covid era week! It soon became clear that people’s enthusiasm for what we were doing was undiminished, and they had confidence that we provided a safe and clean space. While it is strange to not have the freedom of movement in a pub, I think we managed to create a warm and friendly social atmosphere.

The quality of the beer was no different, and – thanks to the new keg lines – the choice was much greater than before. As cask beer returned, we freed up some space on the keg taps for something different. When we first opened in 2016, I had a vague plan to have a permanent Belgian beer line. However, supply of good Belgian kegs in North Wales had always been frustratingly inconsistent. In July, I thought I’d give it another go and contacted a few suppliers. The timing was perfect! One Manchester based supplier and importer had been considering a North Wales run, and was happy to commit to it with the promise of regular orders from us. The choice of Belgian beers has gone down very well with regulars and newcomers alike, complimenting the cask and craft keg offerings. While we’ve not been fully open in this time, we have certainly built a following for these classics.

And, so, we continued through the summer and into September. The end of September saw Covid cases start to rise again, and it became clear that the restrictions would not be lifted any time soon. For two months it had felt like we had beaten it and that we would be back to normal by Christmas… How wrong can you be!?

On October 1st Conwy County was placed under Local Lockdown. It killed trade. Only members of the same household could share a table, severely reducing the number of bookings and walk ins we had taken previously. This had a very similar feel to the week before the first lockdown where people were told to stay away from hospitality, but we weren’t told to close. We limped along for a few weeks with the four tables occupied mostly by one or two people at a time. So, when the Welsh Firebreak Lockdown came along on 23rd October I’ve got to admit there was some relief… It was a chance to reset, get the virus rates down and to reopen 17 days later with more manageable restrictions.

And – in the short term – it worked. Not long enough to get us through to Christmas which was the hope, but it got us a decent few weeks of trading.

With the graphs rising and the panic about the mixing rules at Christmas, Welsh pubs were closed again from 4th December. There was a lot of complaining at the time that this meant that the hospitality industry would lose out on its biggest turnover of the year, but it was never going to be the case in 2020. The restrictions we would likely have been under effectively would have put a cap on what any pub could have made – the packed bars that give us that Christmas boost were never going to happen this year. I was more concerned about the possibility of a return to the ‘same household’ trade-killer in the Christmas weeks. Being closed is genuinely a better option than that.

So, back into lockdown for us and back to serving take away beers. The take away service is something we’ve taken a little for granted over the past year, but it has probably saved us from oblivion. England’s rules for the latest lockdown have stopped pubs from serving take away beers, so I guess we are lucky here in Wales (not sure ‘lucky’ is the right word!!).

One thing that has often been overlooked during this past year is the amount of fundraising pubs do for charities – in the UK this amounts to around £100 million, so it is obvious that charities have taken a knock due to pubs being closed too. During the firebreak lockdown we decided to do something about it. Myself and a handful of brave regulars started planning a headshave to raise money for Hope House Hospice (our charity of choice since we opened in 2016). This presented a few difficulties itself in terms of restrictions – hospitality and hairdressing restrictions don’t mix well, so where in normal times we would have done the shaves in the pub with an audience, it just wasn’t practical. Our friends at Divas And Dudes around the corner on Abergele Road stepped in to do the deed at their salon. In the end we more than doubled our target and raised over £1500! Once we get reopened properly, I’m determined to plan more charity events and embrace the community spirit of the pub.

And that’s about it. We’ve been closed as a bar since 4th December. While there is no date set yet for reopening indoors, we are getting closer to that time and the rules have been set out by the Welsh Government for the reopening of hospitality. I expect we’ll have about three weeks notice, and I hope that – with the vaccination programme and the current low transmission of the virus – reopening will not be followed by having to close again shortly after. This is partly why I’m not desperate for a reopening date. I’m happy to wait a little longer to maximise the chances of staying open – every time we have to close is a waste of good beer and a financial loss which we have to swallow.

It has been the strangest year. We have sadly lost regulars who have been with us since the start, and we have not been able to raise a pint to them at the bar as we would usually do. We have relied on government grants and our sideline of takeaway beers has become our main business. We miss the community, sharing stories and drinks together. For a whole year, The Bay Hop has not been what it should be, but we will be back soon… And we’ll raise our beers together again!