By Paddy Morgan
ONE of the main economic victims of the Covid pandemic has been the hospitality industry.
As an industry that relies on socialising, pubs and restaurants across the country faced an unseen dilemma during lockdown when all hospitality was closed and only reopened sporadically.
Shane Denham, owner of The Balgriffin Inn, spoke to Northside People about the impact of the pandemic on his business.
“When we first closed in March 2020 we thought it would be only be for a few weeks but we soon realised that we would be closed for a while. I opened the pub late 2019 so it was challenging because when even though we closed, bills were still coming in.
“Worry set in because we were not sure when we could reopen. A lot of suppliers were good banks, were good for loans and Sky stopped their fee, but there was still huge uncertainty about your business stopping overnight so I can say that the first lockdown was definitely the most challenging.”
Like a lot of business owners Shane had to find a way to adapt to the covid restrictions and like many he turned to the internet to reengage with his customers.
“I knew bingo was a crowd pleaser because I had done it for before in other pubs. So we did a trial online bingo run in May 2020 and it was a disaster.
“I was excited at the time but it didn’t work because we didn’t have the right software. So one of the staff came to me in January this year and said that there is a big demand for online bingo so we went off for six weeks and worked with software and tried again. Since then it has been a huge success.
“The weekend just gone we gave away 2 American holidays and every night we do it there is a jackpot of €14,000.
“I am delighted in how well it has gone.”
While bingo is great for getting people online and interacting, pubs and restaurant rely on food and drink sales to stay in business and many pub owners including Shane discovered a market they didn’t envision during lockdowns.
“When the government said that pubs were closing I sat down with the chef and said it’s either sink or swim. The day before closing we came up with a menu and we had to be competitive because we knew we’d be in competition with others.
“We closed on a Friday night and we had the staff paid for a couple of weeks so we trialled it.
“We brought the staff in that weekend and we put the phone number up for people to order on the Saturday at 1pm and sat there until 5pm with only 1 phone call. We thought it wasn’t a runner but we closed that night at 10pm and we did 90 deliveries in the last 2 hours.”
Like many Shane was surprised by the take up of delivery orders as lockdowns continued.
“If you said to me 12 months ago before covid that people would order 4 pints, wait for them to be delivered and be quite happy with it in a plastic glass on a Saturday night I wouldn’t have believed you at all, but it’s been really good.
“With reopening we’d like to keep the takeaway business going because there is a market out there for a mix of both. We are getting ready to reopen weekends but the culture has changed a bit.
“People are comfortable at home and if they want to stay there we don’t mind because we have a well established takeaway business now. We could do 200 dockets and 70 deliveries whereas when we open we may only get 80 people in.”
So does the online approach for engaging customers help with the sale of food and drink for delivery?
“It does. We advertise deals on screen so we noticed that when bingo was happening we’d get a burst of business. They sort of went hand in hand.”
While delivery and online has been a moderate success, Shane is eager to get people back in the door as soon as is possible.
“We’ve had no luck with opening outdoors. The council won’t allow us to do it. We’ll be seating 94 people indoors but we’re hoping to push it out to 100. Pubs down the country are down to 20 people so we are lucky.
“The challenging part is that you need more staff to serve less people. You need reception staff and floor staff because people can’t come to the counter. Pubs are crying for staff, a lot of people have left the pub trade.
“People are turned off working in a pub with this open and closed nature.
If someone working in a pub for 15 years went to get a job in a warehouse instead, they are happier, they’re home earlier, you can’t blame them.
“I managed to keep the majority of my staff through lockdown due to food and drink collection but it will be tough offering people a job because people can getting more money for being unemployed.
“I’m lucky that most of my staff stayed but a lot of restaurants, pubs and barbers are looking for staff because all the people started doing other jobs when their own job was closed due to Covid-19 I’d say 30% of bar trade left because of this.”
Despite the challenges, Shane is one of many within hospitality who is determined bring people back together as soon as possible.
We can drink to that.