Old Town resident Ed Dyer has found his working life tranformed by the coronavirus epidemic. He is a part owner of The Tuppenny on Devizes Road and also works for West Berkshire Brewery in Newbury. Here's his 'voice'.
For those of us whose livelihoods depend on the Hospitality trade, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has been significant and potentially life changing. I work for a local brewer (West Berkshire Brewery) and co-own Old Town bar The Tuppenny, so have seen this impact personally from both a local and regional perspective.
Things had already been slowing down significantly at both businesses, when, on Monday 16th March, the Prime Minister announced to the nation that nobody was to frequent pubs, bars and restaurants. That was all he said. No mention of any help or anything., we were just left to worry, stress and panic about how we would survive as a business with no custom and no back up available. Overnight we lost all but our hardcore regular customers at the bar and the brewery’s draught sales (cask and keg beer) dropped off an absolute cliff as nearly every order already on the book was cancelled and nothing new was taken. None of the brewery’s’ customers, whether part of a bigger chain or independent, had any idea what to do. Should they close? Should they battle on? Would we take our beer back?
Immediately bars started becoming the target of online warriors venomously accusing businesses such as ours of selfishly staying open and purposefully aiding the spread of Coronavirus. We did not wish to remain open just for the sake of making money. We were happy to shut our doors until it all blew over, and then be part of the process of healing when we are all safe again. However, our business supported two families as well as employing 4 other people and we appeared to have been thrown under the bus by Boris, with the onus put on us to make the decision to "do the right thing" and close voluntarily, with no recourse to any assistance or guidance, or face what was becoming some form of witch-hunt if we stayed open in an attempt to support our families and protect our livelihoods. Our savings are all tied up in our little business, if it went under, we would lose everything. It was incomprehensible that the government seemed happy to throw an industry worth over £70 billion to the UK economy and that employs upwards of 3 million people, to the wolves, but here we were, stressed, upset, and struggling to understand what was happening.
Jump 24 hours later however and things changed. Following on from the PM dropping his bomb on the hospitality industry up pops the Chancellor like a weirdly unexpected superhero with some impressive sounding figures and promises, initial examinations of which looked reasonably positive. The bar would have a year off business rates, could qualify for a grant, apply for a loan with 12 months interest free, and the government were taking steps to force the insurance industry to pay out on business interruption policies. Of course, this is providing your policy covers pandemics or government ordered closures. I couldn’t help wonder, as I sat in the bar with tears of relief in my eyes, could these announcements not have been made right after the PM’s the day before rather than give us all 24 hours of agony?
However, these measures all relied on the speed and co-operation of local authorities, banks, and insurance companies and there was precious little detail made available at the time regarding this, so we were in a wait-and-see situation (which we still occupy in a few areas). Additionally, the bigger numbers were all structured as loans, which, unless longer term fiscal help was to be made available (which was hinted at), meant that getting in debt was the likely course of action for most businesses.
Jumping forward a fortnight from this, and the PM’s subsequent total lockdown announcement and things have indeed moved forward, in many ways positively. I have been furloughed by the brewery, which means I get at least 80% of my salary paid and keep my job if the business survives to make it out the other side. The bar had its grant paid earlier this week, which will cover immediate bills and other payments for a while, although we are still working our way through the whole furlough process to enable our staff to have as much money coming in to them as is possible whilst they wait this out at home. Of course, directors are not able to benefit themselves from this scheme, nor, as a limited company, from any of the Self-employed benefits, so we have had to find other ways to bring money in to maintain mortgage and rent payments and meet domestic bills.
This has led to us transforming our business into a home delivery service, after discovering off trade sales were considered an essential service. We deliberated long and hard over this decision. We view ourselves as a very moralistically minded and ethical business (if we wanted to be rich, we wouldn’t have opened a bar) and didn’t want to appear like we were profiteering or similar. But simple economics meant we needed to do something to both keep some money coming in and to prevent the wastage of a lot of our already paid for stock (we don’t withhold payments to suppliers like some much bigger pub operators). The alternative was to face financial ruin or be totally beholden to the loans the government are setting up. So, some form of retail operation was the way forward.
The brewery already had this in place, having a bricks and mortar shop on site and an already successful online retail side. Take up on this since lockdown however has been mind-boggling and it is helping keep the show on the road along with our small-pack trade sales to traditional retailers. At the Tuppenny though, to protect our customers, our community and ourselves, we decided not to open as a bricks and mortar retailer. The risks were too high and we were not set up to be able to do this safely, so we decided to limit our sales to home delivery only, where we were able to totally control areas of potential infection and contact. Initially this service was run via email and social media with payments being taken over the phone, but after two long days at a laptop we had a fully functioning and secure online shop bolted to our website with over 100 products on it.
The end result has been a real surprise. Our customers have been very supportive and embraced what we are trying to do, and it has been successful in its own way. Yes, we are only hitting sales at 30% of what we would normally be doing at this time of year, but it is crucially keeping our heads above water and meaning we will hopefully avoid getting into debt whilst trying to survive this and ultimately means people still get to drink decent craft beer from small independent brewers instead of resorting to the mainstream tosh from the supermarkets (customers also get to buy premixes of some of our favourite cocktails plus wine, non-alcoholic drinks and our snack selection).
It has also kept us in touch with our customers and the lines of communication are more open than ever before with them, which has been wonderful. We have also got to see where everyone lives (and what pyjamas they favour), which has been great fun. We managed to run our oddly popular monthly music quiz online last weekend, which was a challenge but good fun and have plans in the pipeline to do something about the live music programme we have had to tear up. We aren’t going down without a fight and hope to be around to host and fuel the party when this all blows over.