From heartbreak to hope: Scottish operators gear up for the ‘new normal’

Operators across Scotland are putting plans in place as they prepare to reopen their doors to the public

A protective screen has been installed at the front desk Siberia Bar & Hotel in Aberdeen

By Dave Hunter and Catherine Sheridan

THIS has been a year unlike any other for Scotland’s bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels.

In the space of a few weeks COVID-19 went from a curiosity on the other side of the world to a pandemic that had forced the closure of licensed premises across the UK.

While some venues have been able to offer takeaway food and drink to customers over the past three months, others have been forced to wait and watch, their doors shut and their staff furloughed, with very little idea of when things might be able to get back to normal.

Now, finally, with an indicative date of July 15 for the opening of pubs, bars and restaurants – and July 6 for outdoor areas – and guidance from the Scottish Government on required safety standards, there could be light at the end of the tunnel.

After what has been a deeply frustrating – and even frightening – three months for the on-trade Scotland’s entrepreneurial operators are now planning for the future.

Nic Wood, owner of Signature Pub Group, which operates venues in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews, said he had been “gutted” when the Scottish Government delayed the opening of outdoor areas, but said the team is now “really excited” about reopening its venues in the coming weeks.

Signature has installed Perspex screens in some of its venues, though Nic said this has been expensive and has been limited to a few of the sites. A new app will be introduced to allow customers to order and pay for food and drink and for less ‘techie-minded’ customers there will be disposable menus. Hand sanitiser will be available throughout each venue and cleaning will be stepped up during every shift.

After such an extended period of lockdown consumer confidence, said Nic, will be “one of the big challenges”.

“When the time is right and it’s safe to do so, I hope the Scottish Government’s message changes from one of fear to one of hope,” he said.

“Coronovirus has devastated this country with such high numbers of deaths and we remain in a precarious place in our fight but when we have successfully reduced the R number to manageable levels I hope the message is ‘go out and enjoy yourselves, go and explore, have adventures and most of all, have a pint!’”

In Aberdeen, operator Stuart McPhee of Siberia Bar & Hotel said the lockdown has been “extremely challenging”. He and his team have spent the period keeping up to date with best-practice from hospitality sectors in other countries. And the team has even launched alternate ventures to keep them busy.

“One of our chefs has used the time to start her own little chocolatier business, for example,” Stuart told SLTN.

Operators of Cold Town House in Edinburgh, Signature Pub Group, say the installation of perspex screen has been limited to a few of their sites

“They are all now turning their focus to getting back to work and are really eager to do so.”

In preparation for reopening Siberia has installed a protective screen at its front desk, added a temperature check and hand sanitiser station at the entrance, spaced out its tables and created a separate outdoor space with dedicated heating in its carpark, for which an occasional licence has been applied.

The venue has also invested in PPE and is in the process of creating an ordering and payment app in conjunction with its EPOS supplier.

Stuart said that, although an absence of clarity and communication from government is making the reopening process unnecessarily arduous, the team is “buzzing” to get the doors open again.

“From the get-go we have emphasised that we will only do so until we deem it safe for our staff first and foremost, and we will continue to go above and beyond to ensure this,” he said.

“There’s a lot to do, and there’s a lot of things that are date-specific that need done, ordering in stock for the bar and kitchen, recommissioning cellar systems, rotating, marketing you name it.”

Elsewhere in the granite city, St Machar Bar has been one of the venues operating a takeaway service throughout the lockdown.

But owner Darren Murray said he is “counting down the days” until the venue can reopen to the public.

St Machar Bar has installed new, larger benches in its outside area which will allow customers to safely maintain a physical distance and a new one-way system inside will help the flow of traffic. Staff will wear facemasks at all times.

Darren said: “We have gained a lot of loyal customers by working hard throughout this to keep providing a service with food and takeaway drinks and I think it will really pay off when they are allowed to come back to the bar.

“We still have a few things to sort out but we really can’t wait to be able to be bar staff again.”

Buzzworks Holdings director Kenny Blair is confident the two-metre rule will be relaxed before the opening date of July 15

Further north, the Dornoch Castle Hotel has been able to keep its head above water through a successful crowdfunding campaign, business interruption loan and a grant from the Scottish Government’s Pivotal Enterprise fund.

While the venue’s restaurant area is sizeable and so lends itself to social distancing without too many alterations, owner Colin Thompson said dinner menus will be limited for the immediate future, with an emphasis on “less fiddly” dishes that can be prepared quickly, and guests will be taken straight to tables rather than waiting in the smaller bar area. Customers will also be able to check in and pay online and employees have been trained in new codes of conduct and furnished with PPE.

The hotel has a ready supply of hand sanitiser from its on-site distillery, which is operated by Colin’s sons Phil and Simon.

Colin said reopening will be “both daunting and exciting”.

“We have to open and we have to build up the customer base again,” he said.

“In summer we are traditionally strong with North American golfers, but that is gone, so we are focusing hard on the UK market and have some great deals on. This isn’t about building the balance sheet, it’s just about having enough income to get to next year.

“Many things will change from a customer point of view and from an employee point of view. However we have to adapt and adapt fast.”

Adaptation will also be the name of the game at Fuller Thomson.

Director Gary Thomson said the group, which operates venues in Dundee and Edinburgh, may have to open its sites at different times depending on social distancing requirements. He said the company’s smaller venues “will struggle” if the social distancing rules aren’t reduced from the current two metres.

“We’re planning to open the outdoor area at Duke’s Corner (in Dundee) as soon as we get the go-ahead,” said Gary.

“We’ve used every bit of outdoor space we can and we can get about 100 in at two metres. We’re going to have to be quite strict: asking people to wear a face mask if they have to go into the building, to use the toilets for example; hand sanitiser stations; and we’ve also got till screens.”

However, Buzzworks Holdings director Kenny Blair is confident the two-metre rule will be relaxed before the opening date of July 15.

“We’re going on the assumption that it’ll be one metre,” said Kenny.

“England’s just reduced it and I’m not quite sure what science is lying behind the difference between Scotland and England.”

Kenny said Buzzworks, which operates 12 venues across the central belt, will be keeping Perspex “to a minimum” in its sites, with several of the units already well suited to a one-metre distance between tables.

Getting staffing numbers right will be a challenge, said Kenny, with a “tricky mix” required that will match staffing with customer demand while continuing to make use of the Job Retention Scheme.

And with the provisional opening date of July 15 just under three weeks away, Buzzworks will be getting the word out to its customers that it’s safe to come back to the company’s venues.

“We’ll certainly be waving the flag and making sure that our customers are confident about coming back to a safe and hospitable environment,” said Kenny.