“Timing has never been my strong suit,” says Trevor Brown, landlord of the Pickled Ploughman pub in Adderbury, Oxfordshire.
Nine months after he bought the pub, trade had just begun to take off in the local community when Boris Johnson ordered people to stop visiting watering holes amid growing fears over the spread of coronavirus. The Pickled Ploughman lost more than £10,000 in sales in just a fortnight and was eventually forced to shut under lockdown rules.
“The biggest hurt was at that point we didn’t know about the furlough scheme and all I could see was having to make 15 people redundant,” Brown says.
Thousands of pubs will reopen on Saturday after more than three months of closure and virtually no revenue.
Emma Shepherd, landlord of the Blue Ball in Worrall, Sheffield, will welcome back customers following an even longer leave of absence. The pub, owned by Admiral Taverns, closed in early March for a major refurbishment that gave it a kitchen for the first time.
“On March 23 we had a pub full of contractors that had to be sent home, so devastation is probably how I’d describe what I was feeling at the time,” she says.
“We didn’t have any idea of when things would change and if they’d come back at all and whether we’d survive it. The first two weeks [of lockdown] were probably the most anxious I’ve ever been.”
Ashley McCarthy, who runs Ye Olde Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire, was forced to think quickly when his pub closed on March 20.
“It was Mother’s Day on the Sunday which we had about 400 people booked in for,” McCarthy says. “We closed on the Friday night but I couldn’t sleep. I woke up at 5am and took all the chairs and tables out of the pub and took all the produce we had, be it beer or fresh veg, and set a shop up there and then. The demand was so good it became a lifeline.”
At the Blue Ball, with its cellars already emptied for the renovation and no working kitchen to speak of, Shepherd was unable to offer the takeaway and delivery services many watering holes have relied on to keep the till ringing in lockdown.
She says the financial support from the Government and Admiral Taverns, which cancelled rents for its tenants during the lockdown, has meant the newly renovated pub is ready to welcome customers back in.
“This little pub probably hasn’t had any money spent on it in about 50 years apart from some decoration, so to get this done for the locals and see them will be emotional.”
Brown says the Government’s support has provided a vital lifeline for the pub industry in lockdown. The pub qualified for a £25,000 business support grant, which he has used to invest in safety measures such as perspex screens at the bar and revamp its outdoor drinking area.
“Rishi Sunak has done a brilliant job,” he adds. “So much so that we’ve got a marquee on our terrace which we’ve called the Sunak Pavilion because he basically paid for it.”
Landlords have spent the weeks running up to reopening finding creative ways of ensuring their pubs are safe for customers to return to this weekend.
McCarthy, who is delaying reopening Ye Olde Sun Inn until July 16, says it’s important that his pub retains the same atmosphere when punters return.
“It will still be that warm welcome that you expect from a pub,” he says. “It may look slightly different but that difference won’t be impeded by anything that will make people feel uncomfortable. I’m quite confident that pubs can and will fight back on this.”
Brown says of his pub: “We’ve tried to keep the barrage of signs to a minimum. In the ladies’ loo we’ve filled every other hand basin with flowers to enable customers to distance from each other.
“We are trying to be creative with the regulations rather than making the place like a hospital. It’s about hospitality not hospitalisation.”
The Pickled Ploughman will welcome 120 guests back through its doors on Saturday and Brown will run an open house-style event over the coming weeks in a bid to put customers at ease about visiting.
“The next challenge to overcome will be to overcome FOGO – fear of going out,” he says.
“We have launched an initiative whereby we’re inviting people to pop in between 11am and 12pm, have a look round, see how safe we’ve made it for them and we’ll even throw in a free tea or coffee.
“In the same way that you might like to go and view a house, there are no obligations and you wander around. We see that very much as part of our social responsibility duties.”
Shepherd says she expects to be an “emotional wreck” when the first customer walks through the Blue Ball’s door.
Brown agrees: “It’s a mixture of excitement, a little trepidation and fear of the unknown but excitement is the key. It’s been a very long 100 days and tomorrow I’m going to crack open a bottle of champagne.”