‘The world upside down’: How curfew is affecting the on-trade

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

01 October 2020

We caught up with owners, operators and managers to learn how curfew is impacting bars

After the government announced its plan to implement a nationwide 10pm curfew for hospitality venues last week, the trade immediately began to voice its concerns about the detrimental effects of the new rule. Since the curfew was officially implemented last Thursday, the industry's denouncement of the policy has grown even stronger – particularly as it came to light that the curfew was not recommended, or even modelled, by SAGE, the government's group of scientific advisors.

Businesses, organisations and individuals alike have called for a U-turn on the measure, and yesterday, hospitality professionals across the country joined forces to launch an organised Cancel the Curfew campaign. 

So what has the first week under curfew actually been like for venues? We spoke with a panel of owners, operators and managers to gauge the effects of the policy and learn how bars are adapting. 

Panel 

Adam Wilson, The Liars Group, Manchester/north 
Imie Augier, Nebula Pizza, London
Richard Wynne, Callooh Callay and Little Bat, London
Stephen McGonigle, Heads + Tails, London
Tom De Santis, Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun, Manchester

What has your experience been like since the curfew was introduced?

Imie Augier: We opened just about a week before curfew. It’s been tricky. It’s hard to be able to figure out which times are busy and which are quiet, because we haven’t had a chance to get the flow going. Are we doing something incorrect or is it the climate? You have to be ready to adapt. But we’re not being defeatist about it, we’re very thankful.

Tom De Santis: When we were allowed to reopen after lockdown we waited three weeks so we could assess what mistakes [other businesses were making] so we could be 100% confident in safety and staff procedures. We had an inspection from licensing who said it was all brilliant, and we’ve spent significant money making everything as safe as humanly possible. When I look around I just feel like the guys trying the hardest are taking the biggest hit. There could be a more tailored response [from the government].

Adam Wilson: The whole situation has given us so much to consider – impacts and risks and benefits and how things will operate. Will there be a backlash? Will people be put at risk? All of this is on top of normal stresses of this industry. We’re immersed in all of this all the time, and people are beginning to struggle with it.

How have footfall and revenue been affected?

Stephen McGonigle: We’ve lost our three busiest hours of trade on Friday and Saturday nights. Our guests do have the opportunity to come earlier – we started opening for breakfast and coffee before curfew. But we’re not that fortunate. We really felt the loss of those hours on Friday and Saturday in particular.

Imie Augier: Footfall has definitely decreased. It’s weird because we were closing at 11pm before, but curfew has still definitely affected people coming in. It’s reinforcing the idea that drinking is bad, that it’s dangerous to drink in these times.

It’s reinforcing the idea that drinking is bad, that it’s dangerous to drink in these times

Imie Augier

Adam Wilson: We’ve been affected pretty substantially. We lose six hours a day at Liars Club and Crazy Pedro’s with curfew, and the hours we’ve lost are the busiest times as well.

Tom De Santis: We’re still seeing good demand, but we’ve cut back our opening hours overall. We’re only trading when we know it’s hot. Some businesses are opening earlier to make up for the lost trading hours, but I know if we went to opening at midday we’d be taking a massive hit. We’re down about 40% on our revenue compared to before lockdown, and since implementation [of the curfew] we dropped another 15%-20%. A lot of our trade is late night from 10pm-2am. We’re seeing people coming out earlier, starting earlier and cramming in as much as they can. I think this week we’ll see the real effects on our trade.

Richard Wynne: We’ve got three different locations in Islington, Shoreditch and Chelsea. Islington hasn't been too bad because it’s not been too much of a late night venue, but the weekend was hit pretty hard. Shoreditch has been really tough. We’re 50% down on the business we had re-opening since lockdown and 75% down pre-Covid. Chelsea doesn’t get going until around 9pm, so business there has been decimated. It’s been tough going.

How have customers reacted to the curfew?

Tom De Santis: For the most part, customers have reacted fairly positively. It’s not the curfew that’s provoked negative reactions. It’s more the change in wearing masks when you stand up. We anticipated that getting people out would be a nightmare, but people just kind of got it.

We’re trying to mitigate blame for ongoing socialising. We don’t want to be seen as encouraging irresponsible behaviour

Adam Wilson

Adam Wilson: It’s not been too bad. People are pretty understanding, so we’ve been quite fortunate. We’re trying to mitigate blame for ongoing socialising. We don’t want to be seen as encouraging [irresponsible behaviour]. A lot of it is down to staff training and our teams are pretty good with that but I’ve seen reports of people heading off to house parties, getting fed up with following the rules.

Stephen McGonigle: The public have been obedient all told, and we’ve got local support from our regulars, but just as we’re finding the rhythm of the night we’re getting cut short. It doesn't feel hospitable.

Richard Wynne: Shoreditch has been an industry bar for awhile, and lots of our customers are people who take note of stats – like the government data that states that less than 3% of outbreaks come from hospitality. Those customers are like, we’ll do whatever we can to help. Brand reps have also been great. They bring people around to do some work during the day.

What is closing time like? We’ve seen photos of crowded streets and public transport – is it as bad as the media coverage suggests?

Tom De Santis: During service there was a mutual understanding, but afterwards it was a different matter on the streets. Around 10pm the first thing I did was leg it out to the square nearby to see what was going on. There were crowds and crowds of lost-looking people trying to get taxis, but they couldn’t because it was so busy. I saw a tram where social distancing just completely went out of the window. And it was clear people weren’t going home – they were talking about going to one big apartment to carry on: ‘We’ll meet you there, we’ve just got to pick up booze’ – that sort of thing.

Stephen McGonigle: Everyone is leaving all at once, gathering from ours and other venues as well. We’re opposite a pub and restaurants, and on busier nights you see how dangerous it is. If the mission is to slow down the spread it’s entirely idiotic and counterproductive. Another thing I’m seeing is people trying to make the most of that last hour of trading. Last rounds are pretty punchy, and I’ve seen other venues with people who have over ordered and are carrying pints out, who look like they’ve already had too much.

At 9:45, we had police come in just to remind us that we need to get people out – as if we need reminding. What planet do you think we live on?

Richard Wynne

Richard Wynne: [Kick-out time] is an absolute nightmare. We’re calling last orders at 9:30, and also doing bottled cocktails to go with last orders. We are kicking out at least 50 people per venue at one time. There’s a congregation outside, and bars around us are kicking out even more – hundreds of people all at once. Some people are in a party mood, but some are scared. For us operationally we go from being professional and hospitable, to having street marshals coming through looking in our window, prepared to issue fines. At 9:45, we had police come in plainclothes and in uniform just to remind us that we need to get people out – as if we need reminding. What planet do you think we live on?

Imie Augier: We haven’t had masses of people leaving at once, but if you’ve got a good vibe going it’s a shame to have to kick people out. So often it’s that one last drink that makes a difference for take.

Have you changed your approach to bring in more customers?

Stephen McGonigle: Before curfew we started opening earlier for breakfast and coffee. Our licence is super late, till 3am, so we decided to flip it on its head. We don't have a kitchen so our bartenders are making hot bar snacks. We’re using skills we didn't have before as well as offering something new to our customers. Before lockdown, our aperitivo hour was popular, so we're bringing that back and tying it in with London Cocktail Week with drinks for £6.

We’ve basically had to adapt from a late-night, high-volume cocktail bar to a daytime and early-evening, low-volume cafe that sells cocktails. It’s been like spinning the world upside down

Richard Wynne

Imie Augier: We’re going to introduce brunch soon, so that will bring people in earlier. We open at 12 but our busy times are after 5, so we have all you can eat pizza and a Negroni for £10. We’ve also just launched click and collect for food and takeaway Negronis, so we’re trying to adapt that way too.

Richard Wynne: We’ve had to adapt. Before curfew we’d start getting busy from 9pm-1am. Now we open at 12pm. We’re playing on the rule of six doing a lunch menu for £6 at every venue. Throughout London Cocktail Week we’re doing £6 drinks as well. We’re also promoting Frasier Campbell’s Work From Bars initiative, and we’ve boosted our wifi to make it easier to work from the bars. We’ve bought toastie makers and have a coffee machine running at every venue. We’ve basically had to adapt from a late-night, high-volume cocktail bar to a daytime and early-evening, low-volume cafe that sells cocktails. It’s been like spinning the world upside down.

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