… on how things are now, why we should be doing more about it, what we should be doing – and to be nice whilst we try and get there.
This August Bank Holiday just gone has helped us to finish off the summer school holiday period of trading. The great unlocking. The first 6 weeks “restriction free”, wherein everything would go “back to normal”. How do you felt that went for you?
It was an interesting time, certainly. But was it the reopening that so many in hospitality hoped for?
I think that for nearly everyone – this inbetweenland has been pretty underwhelming…
When I spoke with Nick Law from the Hop Forward podcast way back in March 2020 in a brief segment on #payitforward and the early impact of Covid: Neither he, I, or anyone else I would imagine, had any idea that the “pivot” we all undertook would be just one of perhaps 8 such seismic reorganisation required to get us from March 2020 to July 2021 alive and trading… And both words there are key: Alive, and trading.
Naturally, the severity of covid-19 wasn’t truly understood way back when. We’d spent a lot of time joking about the way the world was going. At the trade session of beer festival BrewLdn in early 2020, we were well and truly into the ‘hurrhurr, elbow bump’ phase of pre-lockdown. Doing what the Brits do best under adversity: Keep calm and carry on. Make a joke of it. Make do and mend.
Less than two months later, my Father-In-Law died of covid…
April 2020 was an incredibly tumultuous, challenging time for everyone. We know our story wasn’t unique. Tens of Millions of lives in the UK alone have been impacted by the shock, the wrenching loss, the constant anxiety inducing stress of not being able to plan. Up is left, down is east. For someone who suffers with anxiety, obsessive tendancies and a short attention span: The not knowing, as much as the initial upheaval and loss, is what’s been so difficult to deal with.
For us all, it’s been a tough time.
But for me – my hardwired need to pivot from task to task on a quarterly (that’s quarter of an hour, not year, by the way… ) basis has also given me the strength to continue to plan. To get us through this time. From then, the 18 months that were, to now. this… inbetween.
The mainstream media is often these days a confusing mess of clickbait. Fashion based political opinion, revenue-linked reporting. The rise of social media to the heart of the strategic planning of every media company on earth has exacerbated it to the extent that it is really incredibly difficult to tell when you’re being manipulated. At times I find it’s very hard to understand which opinions were truly mine in fostering. How I really feel, versus opinions that have come from someone else – either directly, or algorithmically because of my interactions with customers, friends and businesses.
A consequence of that is I spend a lot of time thinking to myself: What do I want to do now? But even more so: What do I think my customers want me to say I want to do now.
I do not think I am alone in this. A huge swathe of hospitality businesses are treading the difficult path of working out how to vocalise their stance without ostracising or polarising their customers. You really can’t win. It’s just such an inflammatory subject. We’ve all suffered. We’re all quick to anger. Especially if we feel that our struggles are undermined. Not heard. Whitewashed. That we should get over it.
So let’s not pretend this is fine.
Within hospitality, I believe that as a result of a fear of saying the wrong thing, or of dividing our customers, far too many of us are saying nothing. And silence generates the most uncertainty of all.
The challenge is that we don’t want to divide what custom we do have. In all matters there’s a danger of thinking that if we say nothing we can’t offend anyone. Or if our stance is middle-of-the road we’ll manage to appeal to both sides. But silence can be deafening.
One thing that I am certain of – is that this ‘great unlocking’ has been far from that… To be quite frank, it’s been pretty shit.
Against 2019, pubs were officially down over 10% in product sold this August Bank Holiday weekend just gone (https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2021/08/26/How-many-pints-will-be-sold-over-this-August-bank-holiday-weekend). It should also be taken into account that small businesses like ours will not be reflected in those numbers in most cases. For many of us, especially wet only places, it’s likely far worse.
Numbers are clearly down in a big way.
I think we should be talking about what’s left of our pubs – and what we need to do to recover things. I think we should be talking about how hundreds of breweries are cutting their noses off to spite their face. I think we should be talking about the damaging shift in consumer habits and how we should absolutely not be encouraging them. I think we should be talking about making all of our spaces as inclusive as possible, for everyone. Even, nay, especially – if they disagree with eachother… Pubs are after all places to come and put the world to rights. That shouldn’t have changed. Discussion, even heated argument: Is OK, if there’s understanding on both sides.
Speaking of, we reopened restriction free on the 19th of July to an incredibly different landscape to that in which we closed… And I want to talk about what this means.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (uh, ish.. ).
We reopened to a muted, but very enjoyable, restriction free relaunch of about 25 people each night. Our bar is only very small, a seated capacity including the garden of 30 and standing room for perhaps 20 more at a squeeze. So this wasn’t so bad. But what was stark was how quickly this fell away..
Although our events have saved us, and we thank our loyal regulars from the bottom of our hearts for their support: It’s been quiet. I know A Hoppy Place isn’t alone in that.
Things are not “back to normal”. There are a lot of reasons why things are different. Here are a few:
- Not everyone is comfortable going out yet
- Sadly, not everyone is still with us
- Plenty of people are worried about their spending, be it due to job losses, dependents, a general sense of anxiety beaten in over time, or other reasons
- People have gotten used to drinking at home, much more on this anon.
- Competition is the most cut-throat it has ever been
- Costs are higher than they’ve ever been
- Breweries are cutting out their supply chains, chasing verticles themselves. For better or (in this writer’s opinion) certainly for worse.
Let’s focus in on a couple of these…
The supply chain, it’s impact on home-drinking and our health, and the spaces we are creating.
At the beginning of the pandemic, nearly all of the small breweries we dealt with did not do direct to consumer. They sold to bottleshops and pubs, and let their customers do the selling for them. They couldn’t be bothered with our jobs! We did them well enough. The craft beer revolution in the UK using this model has gotten us to a point where craft beer is 11-13% of our industry, and was the only part of the overall pub market in growth, not decline. But as pubs and bars were forced closed, small breweries with low liquidity faced a conundrum: Close, and try to ride things out, or pivot.
Just as A Hoppy Place pivoted to websales for the first time, and later to online beer events (our work in this space winning us SIBA’s accolade as independent craft beer retailer of the year!), the majority of craft breweries pivoted hard into direct to customer sales.
What was a frustrating inconvenience to them pre-pandemic was now their main route to market. Whilst places like A Hoppy Place still took their beer in can and bottle, their outputs were decimated. We hold no ill will for their actions. They had to pivot to survive. Many did not survive.
But now – I think these breweries should to a large degree – stop. I think it’s irresponsible and shortsighted in equal measure…
Why do people go to a pub?
An age old question. Is it for the beer? For the 87-89% of the market who only drink conglomerate lager, the answer is almost certainly no. I’d wager it’s for the community. Friendship. Meeting old associates and finding new people to spend time with. Getting out on a Friday night after a tough week at work and unwinding, putting the world to rights whatever the matter of the day is. The drink helps kickstart the endorphin boost that tells the drinker they’ve arrived at the weekend. That they can relax, and enjoy themselves in a safe space with good people.
During the pandemic, Zoom replaced this for some. We all started buying beer to drink at home. As I’ve mentioned, A Hoppy Place really championed this. But now that we don’t need to drink at home, I question why we should choose to.
I think for many, they’ll be won on price. Why go to a pub and pay £5 or more a pint when respected London Craft Breweries are knocking out cases of their beer cheaper than my business can buy those cases for, wholesale.
And it only takes so many repetitions for patterns to be established. Research (https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-form-a-habit) would tell us that it takes on average 66 days for behaviour to become automatic. In the near 500 days between March 2020 and the time of writing, clearly, people have gotten used to something different.
Unfortunately that something different is something we should all be working to call into question. It’s not healthy. Not for our customers, not for the breweries selling beer and certainly not for bottleshops. Businesses like mine.
Breweries: Let me ask you a question. How did you find most of your customers? Was it costly Facebook, digital or traditional print media campaigns directly to them? Or was it organic reach. Was it word of mouth. Was it your getting a tap or range of cans at a bottleshop and having people help sell your beer: The dealers of your trade. Was your job before to sell your beer and brand to a trade customer, or to chase individual can sales. Why was that the case?
Now that you’re cutting them out: How are you selling your brewery? Not the individual sales to existing customers. That’ll go on for a spell, zero sum game or otherwise. That’s not the question. How are you finding new customers? That is the question.
Without the network of indy beer shops up and down the country spending hours on the ground convincing our customers to buy your beers, how would anyone new find out about you, and not just the bigger brewery owned by someone with the bigger still ad budget. Without pubs open to take your lines, how do you get your product out there in the long run?
Because if your main marketing strategy is now direct to consumer, cutting out the salesman and casting aside the pub lines, you’re doing it wrong. You’re giving the market to those that can do it better. To brands owned by the conglomerates. To Beavertown, Fourpure and the like. They have resources you don’t. That’s why you never used to do it this way before. That’s why breweries, freehouses and bottleshops fostered the pre pandemic relationships they had. Your fight should be to get more lines. To push against the pubco model and the Oligopoly of conglomerate beer forcing tied publicans to buy inferior product and eschew yours for fear of legal action.
But besides the damage you’re doing to yourselves and those to whom you previously owed your success: You’re seriously hurting your customers to boot…
Let me ask you another question.
Do you think it’s healthy for the people drinking your beer to routinely do so, alone at home?
The model of brewery to customer sales is one that on the whole convinces customers to stay home. In their kitchen or lounge. Most often alone, because as we know craft isn’t so widespread a hobby. And drink…
Not only that, craft beer is often far stronger than our peers in the more mainstream brands. Selling cans of imperial stouts in singles to be drunk at home alone is at best foolhardy, at worst deeply irresponsible. Aha, that’s not to say I don’t sell such things at A Hoppy Place for take-out! But I’d always champion on-site drinking, sharing these together, where possible…
The breweries that make this their main focus then are not only hurting the pubs and bottleshops that built them to where they were pre lockdown, plus losing their trade market as said venues close due to the disruptive market impact of this horrible little self-fulfilling prophecy, but to top it all off they’re hurting the public too.
Look, this market always existed. But is making it a much bigger part of what we do really the way to go in the long term? Most of us drink responsibly – but some don’t. We are an industry with a social responsibility. We all get licenses based on our action plans to promote public safety and sell alcohol responsibly. I just think regardless, a prime strategy should be to get people out not keep them in.
We should be encouraging people to find not the new normal, but just normal. To go out. To drink in public. With friends. With potential new friends. To have a craic. Not to sit in the dark supping imperial stouts and shouting at strangers in Facebook groups…
We should all be focusing as much energy as possible on improving the pub offering. On getting people out, feeling comfortable. On paying premium money for premium product becomes it comes as part of a premium experience.
On living their lives whilst we run our businesses.
This “have your cake and eat it mentality” so many breweries are aiming for at the moment will only have one result. That month on month, the collective cake we in craft all have a share of is getting smaller and smaller: As they lose pubs, lose advocates for their product – and in time lose their fans who eventually stop buying that crate of craft, not understanding why they’re still paying for an experience they no longer get whilst simply sat at home. Your beer is cheaper to them if they buy direct than drink it in a craft bar. But it’s still a lot more expensive than plenty of others. And for each customer you lose, again, how do you replace them?
A novel concept. Let’s pull together and champion the pub! Make them the spaces we want them to be. Filled with people who enjoy a shared experience, who aren’t scared to be in that space. Who see a benefit to being there and paying the price. Who understand it’s not cool to drink home, alone, when other options are available.
And maybe we’ll eventually start moving back to where things used to be. Normal. Actual normal.
My final point would be that none of this is to say we should be blasé about the risk that our shared spaces still hold. The pandemic has personally hit me in a very acute and traumatic way. My relationship with my wife and business partner was stretched to near breaking point. We lost family. It has had extreme lows, but also some life-affirming positives.
I want more of those and I want a world where customers are comfortable to enjoy it with me. Where it’s the ‘right thing to do’ again. Let’s continue to pull together. Let’s unpivot. Stop doing silly things for diminishing returns because it’s what we’d learnt to do in the past 18 months. Let’s get out of this weird inbetweenland: Breweries, pubs, bottleshops, customers and friends all…