The New Normal
Staring deeply into my imaginary crystal ball I'm sorry to say I can see nothing but thick fog, balanced on ice cold mud, beneath dark, menacing clouds. Think Harry Potter's Dementors circling Hogwarts late at night.
The vision of the 12-strong bar business I've spent over a decade building is in doubt, as we prepare for the "new normal" I contemplate what we know, what we don't, and paint in my mind the picture of the future. Today however life is in fact, anything but dire, quite the opposite.
As I write this sat in the countryside in my mom's garden with my wife and daughter happily playing "splish splash" in her paddling pool (I'd say it was my daughters...though Mrs Goodman bought it, and is getting more than her fair share of pleasure out of it), the sun is beaming down, the grass freshly mowed, ice cold beer in hand, the summer has very much arrived, early at that! We're aligning our food menus for the week, ready for the big shop. Sunday will be a full roast, Monday fajitas and Margaritas, Wednesday we will have another go at making pasta (practice very much needed, the last lot looked like roadkill, narrowly saved by bathing it in truffle oil), Friday fish and chips, etc. etc. You get the picture, life's great! I'm happy to say what many of us are thinking, and no one seems willing to say, is that ... I'M ENJOYING THE LOCKDOWN!
I feel better for saying it too. The weight of guilt and shame has lifted from my shoulders. 11 years of London Cocktail Club topped by a fab year of marriage and babies has been up and down, but undeniably tiring, as any business owner would agree. And slapping a giant red pause button feels a little like calling in the UN for a peace treaty in the middle of a devastating world war. I'm not celebrating, let me make that very clear! But for the first time, in a very long time, I have the time to breathe. And the freshly cut grass smell wafting through the local meadows is making it glorious. You see this is the irresistibly delicious filling in what the world's greatest thought leaders and intellectuals call a "SHIT SANDWICH", and we're currently, for a few months at least, nibbling away on the middle bit. My advice is simply...savour the taste.
Yes, my friends, we're eating our shit sandwich whilst binge-watching the car crash everyone is talking about "the shit show". Over time it's gone from drama to thriller, and I've even arrived, more than once, at comedy, often a black one.
2019/20 started with promise at the arrival of the Greggs vegan sausage roll, before the reality of the bar industry's "favourite", now national, holiday, dry January set in. A massive year for Brexit, and its nuclear path added to the haemorrhaging of UK businesses including patisserie Valerie, HMV, Thomas Cook, Debenhams, British steel, even the whiter that than white Jamie Oliver became victim to rising prices and staff shortages as Jamie's Italian went bump.
Costs went up as the recruitment pool went down, with special thanks to Preti Patel aka the UK's Carol Baskin, who decides as home secretary she wants to kick all "unskilled" (under £25k a year) workers out of the UK. Not just for import costs, we also welcomed the late-night levy (bars have to pay extra tax to councils if they are open after 11pm...yep), business rates doubling, rising rents, 10% as standard, minimum wages up 15%, pension schemes (those last 2 I actually endorse), insurance premiums for insurance you'll never claim for, and if you need to, good luck trying. Perhaps we should learn from the country's top talent in how to deal with all of this? Maybe even save a few quid to help us along? We could all move to Singapore like James Dyson, or maybe Monaco with Topshop boss Sir Philip Green or British racing "hero" Lewis Hamilton, the weather I hear, is great year-round! Perhaps some tax advice from Amazon owner Jeff Bezos might lead you to sipping Guinness in Dublin alongside some equally lucky execs from Barclays bank. But where would the desperate funds required for our beloved NHS be then? Clapping alone won't keep them in business.
Ok, so it's obviously not all that bad, we have each other. Something that Covid has reminded us of. The scars created by Brexit have healed, with families talking again as we remember, we are all we have. London Cocktail Club and its army of 120 bartenders are of course my second family, and everyone can rest assured I'll not be going down without a fight to the death if that's what's required. As a frugal businessman, I'm lucky to say that at least my rents are low...For now. If our landlords are to call in their rent for the total time we have been legally forced to close by the government, rightfully so, we will go bankrupt...and we have small rents as I said. 11 years 6 months down the drain. That's a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Enough for each to fill a swimming pool I promise you. Opening 14 bars in that time has taken from my head and my heart, I've got the scars and wrinkles to prove it. Thankfully we have an industry that leans on each other in moments like this. My 3rd family.
Our own Dark Knight has risen in the form of bad boy bar boss, now street food king Jonathan Downey, who rallied to create the Hospitality Union, and most recently the Press Pause campaign for a #NATIONALRENTFREE, that's demanding 9 months' rent to be deferred to the end of our lease agreements, at a time we will be able to afford them, if the killer wasps don't get us first (landlords need the banks to give them the same holiday or 2 million staff will be laid off permanently). I'm sure Boris Johnson has to negotiate with some fairly hostile people, but I'd take a foreign dictator over "JD" any day. He's fighting for all 2 million of us (3.2 million employed in hospitality in the UK alone), and we're indebted to him.
Next on my list of avengers is Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer who's furlough scheme has kept us off the street, literally. The fact that there's been no looting and rioting in the country is down to that man. How long and to what effect he can keep that up is yet to be seen. If he ever pops in to your bar please do me a favour, comp his order or send me the bill.
My money on a return for bars and anyone else who encourages social gatherings will be August, yep, you heard that right. With the government making it clear that furlough will be available till the end of October I'm left wondering if they know something I don't. Could it possibly be that long? Maybe it's best if we do, certainly anyone without an outside space in this heat would want to keep it going a little longer. If our rent and wages are covered we can survive. Rishi is about to ask businesses to contribute to wages, and take on debt; can he possibly include bars in that plan? The bars that were forced to close first in all of this, probably last to reopen? From what I've seen from him I doubt it, but on the one time a week I have my "wobble", I question it along with the meaning and relevance of time itself to be fair.
After a five-month break, we will be back, but how? If any form of social distancing is in place it'll be hard to keep hold of a full team of staff that's for sure (where will my moral "family" compass sit then?). We could well ask everyone to work four days (on 80% pay) to afford to keep more people in the boat. That's even assuming we trade seven days a week; four might be more appropriate if we choose to avoid falling off a cliff after all of this. It's said that without a vaccine we will have to keep some social distancing measures in place, and that could be until next summer. (I've watched far too many zombie films recently to think it's a good idea to distribute an untested vaccine too early.)
What would the measures look like? Green wrist bands for those who have immunity? Temperature testing on the door? Bartenders in gloves and masks? Plastic screens in front of bars (this one I could never bring myself to see in an LCC) Seated only...depressing isn't it.
Or maybe it isn't. The strong will survive and that means adapting. Creatively as an industry we are incredible to see, relatively incomparable to any other trade. As long as I can still sip cocktails and listen to Avril Levine with my mates I'll be OK (90s punk rock is currently booming thanks to Alexa). Human nature is pretty predictable, and the bar industry has survived more recessions than any other, why is now different? It isn't. I look forward to seeing you all soon, and my advice is stop and smell the flowers, we'll be back in the trenches in no time, you'll need the energy, people will be thirsty for human contact. Use the time to read some books, learn some specs, write your business plans, learn an instrument. As for me, I'll be spending the rest of my lockdown splashing in the paddling pool, a moment I know I'll miss next year when we find ourselves living in the "new normal".
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.