Local heroes: What the northern hospitality scene looks like during covid-19

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

28 May 2020

In the second of our regional series, we caught up with the on-trade in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield to see what they're up to during the coronavirus crisis

It’s been two months since the UK hospitality industry went into shutdown (a milestone none of us thought we’d be reaching as we came into 2020). Pubs, bars and restaurants across the country have closed; some boarded up to deter thieves, and some with notes to their customers adorning their doors, explaining that, until further notice, they will not be operating as normal.

But there is a new ‘normal’ emerging as businesses try to adapt to the coronavirus crisis. From deliveries to community hubs, pub, restaurant and bar owners are constantly innovating to protect their businesses, staff and the industry at large.

And while the capital has been the focus of a lot of these initiatives in mainstream media, businesses large and small across the country are doing their bit to combat the pressures they now face.

In the second of a regional focus series, we (virtually) headed north to hear about what our friends from the home of The Beatles, Arctic Monkey as Coronation Street have been up to.

Public, Sheffield

James O'Hara, owner of award-winning speakeasy-style bar Public in Sheffield, decided to close its doors before the government called venues to close back in March. 'We took a decision that it was coming anyway, and trade [had already] dropped off a cliff, but the main reason was for the staff, it just didn’t feel right.'

Although the team worked quickly to get takeaway services up and running, O'Hara decided that it just wasn't for them. And while recognising that the RTD movement is something that will no doubt continue to grow as more and more bars rush to bottle their cocktails for delivery, his reasoning is that the essence of Public is the bar itself. 'It’s not an experience that is to takeaway, it's a bar that is all about being there, half the experience.'

There was already a thought in Sheffield that times felt a bit tougher in terms of the trade – maybe it had grown too quickly to sustain it, so this will make that more difficult

James O'Hara

Current measures that may have to be in place for pubs and bars when they reopen is a worry for O'Hara, especially if social distancing has to be observed. After getting the plans of the building out, he realised that their maximum capacity would be six – and that's including the staff. 

And when venues can reopen, O'Hara is worried that Sheffield might not recover. 'It already felt like we were in a tough environment,' he laments. 'There was already a thought in Sheffield that times felt a bit tougher in terms of the trade – maybe it had grown too quickly to sustain it, so this will make that more difficult.'

The problem, he believes, isn't the initial reopening process but six months down the line when venues realise they just aren't making enough money to stay open.

It's not all doom and gloom though: 'What I would say is within hospitality you have a lot of hard-working, creative people.' He also hopes Sheffield's love of independents and friendly relations between bars will help keep their doors open.

'We’re not a very competitive city – there’s not enough of us – but there isn’t enough competition for us to be arsey with each other. Sheffield is small, but it has a real love for its independents. People will value independent places more than they ever had.

Northern Hospitality, Manchester

Brand development manager, and Northern Hospitality founder Nate Booker finds himself (like most of the industry) on furlough. And between painting his house and 'getting interested in DIY' he and his fellow northern bar cohorts have been trying to keep their communities together and streamline information.

'Among the Facebook groups' organisers [including Tom Lord and Drew Mallins], we set up a group chat and that way we could communicate between us about the best way to tackle the information overload, to have a more succinct and unified voice in our message,' he explained. 

A lot of bartenders live hand-to-mouth, they live on the breadline all the time, so assuming they can rest on their savings is just not going to happen

Nate Booker

For Booker, the situation has really exposed how fragile workers in the industry are. 'A lot of bartenders live hand-to-mouth, they live on the breadline all the time, so assuming they can rest on their savings is just not going to happen,' he explains of the problems with the government's Job Retention Scheme. He also worries about how long it will take the industry to recover which, in turn, will see some of its best people drop out.

It extends to bar owners too, some of whom have spoken to Booker about wanting to keep their team but are worried about taking out loans and being lumped with a lot of debt while trying to pay their staff in the short term. 'They're wanting to pay [their staff] fairly and then [as a result are] dying by their sword. Even if the good operators want to survive, they can’t.'

Booker has, however, been impressed with the members of the trade who have been fast to adapt and how supportive local communities have been. 'A lot of the time on the Facebook groups we see people saying "we want to shop local this week". They miss us, but they know that we’re here for them.'

And he sees this as being a change in the times for the off-trade, citing consumer confidence in drinking better at home since being in lockdown. In turn, the on-trade and spirits world will benefit from their new-found knowledge: 'It’s what we’ve wanted people to be doing for a while now.'

As for the Manchester Bar Awards, Booker is hoping an October ceremony will go ahead although it is still too soon to say. If it does, we'll be making the trip north.

Berry & Rye, Liverpool

Danny Murphy, who owns multiple Liverpool venues including Berry & Rye, admits he was quite lucky going into lockdown having just sold one of his businesses.

With a much needed injection of cash, being admitted to the Hospitality Union group, free-flowing conversations with landlords and minimal outgoings, Murphy feels like, 'we’re living in the same world, but more of a parallel one... it helps you when you aren’t fighting [any of] those fires'.

It’s made me realise what I’m doing this for. I don’t know if I’m a glass half empty or a glass half full guy, but I’m willing to keep topping it up

Danny Murphy

Since his bars have been closed, his team have been working hard to do, like many bars, cocktail deliveries. Luckily, bottling cocktails was a project that was already underway. 'We had been working on a project called Bottled by Berry so we were able to scale that up and put a menu of eight drinks together.'

For Murphy, like Sheffield, Liverpool was also facing difficult times when the pandemic hit. 'In the 10 years we’ve been in business, Liverpool has been a fiercely tribal city. We opened in 2010 just off the recession, and [the bar scene here] was a burgeoning thing – now, I don’t know.' He cites 'copy and paste' venues, as part of the reason for the scene's decline. And he hopes, when this is all over, that said venues won't be as prevalent compared to other 'phenomenal' venues with key USPs. 

When it comes to the future, Murphy is more glass half full than empty. For his staff, he is primarily concerned with how he can give them a purpose – 'you don't want them moth balled' – which is something he's yet to find an answer to.

He's also over the panic phase – 'I did all my panic in my first week, crying to my team on a conference call' – and is instead spending his time diligently planning. 'We’re modelling everything from how many days we open, to how many people we have when we open – prudent planning,' he explains. 'If you have a bunch of sites which one goes first? I’m not bullish in thinking people will bounce back into the bars, so the next year is going to be tough. But it’s made me realise what I’m doing this for. I don’t know if I’m a glass half empty or a glass half full guy, but I’m willing to keep topping it up.'

Mission Mars, Manchester

One of Manchester's largest operators, Mission Mars and its CEO Roy Ellis have also been busy navigating the ever-changing landscape.

First steps, have included securing their sites, 'to make sure the sites were not going to be problematic when they were closed', talking to contractors about easing back on payments and communicating with their team.

The first issue to battle for their employees was money. 'The team were concerned with the furlough,' Ellis tells Imbibe. 'Some people are contract employees, so they were very concerned, so we came up with our own internal schemes.' A cash for credit initiative was set up internally, setting up hardship funds for those not able to access furlough payments, as well as top up schemes.

Some people are contract employees, so they were very concerned, so we came up with our own internal schemes

Roy Ellis

Next, they turned their attention to staff wellbeing. Their own chefs started creating recipes and photos to share, which was followed by wine club, cycling club and a mental health line.

Once all of this was set up, they turned their attention to increasing their cash. 'We’re fortunate we went into this with a bit of money. We had lots of discussions and negotiations with all of our suppliers, we started talking to landlords, and then we got cracking with our government loan and all the different scenarios. Since then it’s been more about reopening. We want to be at the forefront of providing some of the safest [venues] and instil confidence in our people and our guests.'

When it comes to predicting how they can reopen, Ellis has been looking at Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia to see how they are navigating guidelines. 'Going cashless is going to be one small thing we might change,' he says of one of the first things that could change in their sites.' The situation has also allowed for some business testing. 'In our pizzarias, a challenge we’ve always had has been how to be really efficient... One of the things we’ve been allowed to do is open up on a trial basis for delivery, doing time and motion testing, get our pizzas per hour increased while also reducing our number of people. This should stand us in good stead for when we reopen.' 

Ellis is also optimistic about the future. By the time we get through Christmas and into early 2021, he is confident that, based on scientific progressions, there will be a way of socialising again and might be at a 'break even situation'. Does he think the Manchester bar scene change when that time comes? 'The brutal answer is no. It will look bad for a season, and then the world will keep spinning, new people will pop up and they will offer a great product... it will be great again.'

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