Indies cautious about on-trade reopening

Some merchants are happy to play a waiting game rather than jump back into serving drinks for on-premise consumption. Others feel they have little option but to reopen

Wine bars are allowed reopen in England on July 4, and Scotland on July 15. But many have already taken the decision to stay closed.

Independent operators are taking a cautious approach as they balance the wellbeing of staff and customers with the practicalities of social distancing and PPE.

Four in 10 independent merchants are set up to sell wine for consumption on the premises in normal times, and last year this sales channel accounted for around 13% of the sector’s revenues.

For some of these merchants, the lost income from drink-in sales has been replaced by booming online business and a surge in orders for local delivery, meaning there’s no rush to reopen bar areas – or even traditional retail space.

Others are struggling to cope with rent demands because the loss of on-premise sales has resulted in a dramatic fall in takings.

Guidance published by the government for on-trade operators insists that risk assessments must be publicly displayed. Businesses are required to keep a temporary record of customers and visitors for 21 days and to police a social distancing system that many members of the public find confusing, or easy to ignore.

The Wine Merchant spoke to a group of independents about their plans to reopen their wine bars.

Yannick Loué
Le Vignoble: “Financially, I have to open”

Le Vignoble has three branches in south west England, which operate primarily as wine bars.

Owner Yannick Loué says: “I will be reopening Plymouth first, following by Bristol and Bath.

“I am going take it very slowly, with reduced hours and days, and making sure it is safe for everyone. I will only open on nice days to start with.

“In Plymouth and Bath, I will be mainly using outside areas to minimise the frequency of people inside the site.” Loué believes the Bristol branch is large enough to organise a traffic system to keep staff and customers safe.

“I think we all should be very nervous about reopening,” he says, “and this is what will keep us on top of everything in terms of cleaning and safety.

“People will have to understand that, for once, the costumer is not king – my staff will be kings.”

Loué argues that “financially, I have to open”. He adds: “I could delay – but delay until when? When will be the right time? No one knows. Online and local delivery have grown – but it is not sustainable enough to carry on trading only like this.”

Vindinista: “We are feeling a bit pressured by customers”
Paola Tich

Paola Tich, who owns Vindinista in west London, describes the decision to reopen for on-premise sales “a really tough call for us”.

“We are planning to do a very limited service on the apron outside the shop,” she says. “We’re having some planters with benches built that creates a bit of distance and is controllable – people can’t move loose chairs and tables to where they want to sit.

“We’ll do glasses of wine from kegs and a handful of easy cocktails -– people are nuts about Negroni around here. If people want food, they can order from a little place that has opened next door, and their diners can buy wine from us.”

Tich says the reopening is something she hopes will be “a good thing for the community”, but admits it is “a bit of a bother”.

She adds: “We’ve still to decide how drinks should be ordered and delivered – I’m not sure about table service at the moment.

Bars are required to display risk assessment notices

“On the other hand, how do we manage people coming and picking up their drinks from inside with people coming to buy wine to take away? What about managing the queue for seats? Do we do bookings?

“And what about the NHS test and trace system? Taking names of people in a small place is more admin – and what if a customer becomes infected and has to give our names to the NHS? This could happen repeatedly. How could we run a business with that happening?

“In a way, we are feeling a bit pressured by customers who, understandably, want life back to normal. And it’s good that they are keen to come to us again.

“A lot get it, of course. But quite a few think it’s just easy to serve drinks on top of retail and find it hard to understand why we are not jumping straight to it. And it’s not just younger customers. They just don’t get the logistics of it all.  

“We’ve also rather enjoyed just doing retail again. Shorter hours, less washing up, less clearing up at the end of the day. Making the same money – and, for a while, a lot more – without the hassle of drink-in.

“The downside is, of course, people not getting to try new stuff. ‘Try before you buy’ is a powerful tool. And with pubs and some restaurants opening – and more takeaway drinks and cocktails being sold – we may be at a disadvantage simply doing retail.

“We’ve been proud of the place we created. The hybrid has worked well for us in terms of marketing and selling through the range. It’s not a huge revenue stream for us, because we are very small – and at times like this we forget that, in quiet retail weeks, drinking on site is a definite boost.”

LOKI: “trusting customers to follow the rules”
Phil Innes at Loki’s branch in the Great Western Arcade

Owner Phil Innes is opening both branches, in central Birmingham and in Edgbaston, on July 4 for on-premise sales as well as retail.

“There is a bit of nervousness from our point of view,” he says. “However we are working on the premise that we are going to try to implement everything sensibly, and also trust customers to follow the rules, rather than plaster the whole place in acrylic.

“There is a little concern with GDPR,  with keeping people’s contact details. However we are currently running bookings-only and people have to give this information when they book online via Resy, which is GDPR compliant, so for the time being I am pretty happy with this.

“I am looking forward to getting moving again, and I know most of the staff are keen to get going again.”

Marchtown: “Wait and see”
Marchtown is happy to focus on retail for now

Marchtown is based in the south side of Glasgow, where in normal times it operates as a wine bar with a small retail area.

This year it’s been doing a roaring trade with online sales and local deliveries and owner Anthony Reynolds is not planning to revert to the original business model just yet.

“My plan is wait and see,” he says. “We’re doing quite well as a shop, so I don’t want to put all the eggs in that [on-premise] basket and be closed down again in a couple of weeks.

“There are ethical concerns involved. Obviously it’s incumbent on a business to do well for its people and make sure they have jobs to come back to. That’s the nightmare situation for the hospitality industry right now. The level of sackings from larger chains is going to be brutal.

“You have to make sure you have work for people but also make sure you don’t give everyone the coronavirus, so I’m not gearing up for the 15th.

“I do worry that the government is making rushed decisions. Things like opening the pubs on July 4 and calling it Independence Day – and choosing a Saturday – is just madness. I just don’t understand that.”

Carruthers & Kent: “Closed for another month”

Mo O’Toole and Claire Carruthers are proud of their enoteca in the Gosforth area of Tyneside. But they will not be bowing to customer pressure to reopen on July 4.

“We did a comprehensive three-phase return plan and, boring though it sounds, a risk assessment and practical implications for each phase, combining government guidance and some research,” explains O’Toole.

Opening the shop for on or off-premise business just isn’t viable, the couple concluded, due to the shape and size of the premises.

Mo and Claire are doing good business from their hatch

“We are continuing to deliver in our little van: we flipped the business to a delivery service on lockdown, so we have managed to survive at least.

“And now we have the hatch at the front door with the screen and it allows us a much better ‘clean’ interaction with the customers. We can give them a really good selection and talk them through the stock, so it makes it all interesting.

“As long as people are prepared to queue, and the weather is OK, it’s not a bad way to service spontaneous buying.

“The shop is cleaned daily and we make good use of sanitisers. Surfaces and card machines are cleaned after use.

“Opening the enoteca will be a fairly big move. We will lose the majority of seats downstairs because there is not enough room for simultaneous retail/drinking in, and that was part of the atmosphere. We can seat six maximum and they have to be in a bubble.

“Upstairs we only lose one table and six seats – but policing it will be an issue, we imagine. Hospitality is not easy when one might have to be constantly restricting people’s movements.

“But it is all the other stuff, in addition to all of us wearing PPE.

“Changing the wine and food menu; changing the format of menu; intensive and repetitive cleaning regimes – for instance all tables and chairs will have to be cleaned between sittings; changing the nature of service – one person on the floor and others remaining behind the counter … the list goes on. We already have a booking system so that is the least problematic element.

“We have therefore decided not to open on July 4. We will probably keep the property closed to the public for another month and during that time we will make it all Covid secure and publish how we are doing that so that our customers can have a certain amount of confidence when they do return. We will monitor further how other people are doing their post lockdown service and just prepare.

“As soon as the government suggested that July 4 was to be officially re-opening day, we started getting calls asking about booking, which in one way is lovely. Our customers have been tremendous throughout this – they have been utterly fantastic – but I don’t think people fully realise just how different our enoteca/wine bar/hospitality and small retail experience is going to be after Covid.”