IF IT'S FRIDAY AT NINE IT'S TIME FOR WINE!
Tony and The Guru leads you to the vineface
A NEW WAY TO VIEW THE WORLD OF WINE
Please remember to approach the world of wine responsibly
I was born in Hampshire, grew up in Cape Town where I went to University in 1985. I had a hankering to go into hospitality and my grandparents at the time lived in Christchurch Dorset, so I flew over here in January 1986. Walked the streets of Bournemouth and got a got washing dishes in a hotel. After a few months I went into a management training programme, and then worked for them for about four years up to becoming a deputy general manager. I then worked for a went private company in Winchester. From there I moved around a couple of GM positions. Got my first general management position at the Devils Punch Bowl Hotel and then progressed my way up to ultimately working at the Marks Tey Hotel near Coclhester. I went there as a general manager when I was 26 years old. I subsequently became a director and shareholder of the company and by the time we sold the company 2008 we had various hotels around the country. We sold in 2008, just before the financial crash.
I took a few months off and then was asked to do some consultancy for hotels and rented offices in Braintree. At the same time I was trying to purchase my own hotel and in 2010 I found a hotel in Birmingham called The Plough and Harrow Hotel which is a very well known hotel from the 80s. It was once the Forte flagship hotel. We've now had the hotel in Birmingham for 10 years and in that time we also took over a 10 bedroom inn called Queens head at Nassington which is between Peterborough and ourendel (?).
Then in 2016 this pub came on market and having lived in the village for 18 years we bought it. We were renting office space locally and hence we decided to buy the pub put the office upstairs and our intention has always been to keep this as a village pub. It's the last pub in the village. There were three and the idea was just to keep it as a village pub, serve good beers, what I call classic British good pub grub. Since that time we’ve invested in the pub redone various areas, we’ve got planning permission to do a bit more. We’ve completely gutted the kitchen. We’ve still got to do the toilets. That was supposed to happen this year but Covid came along and ruined those plans.
I think it’s fair to say that in all my time in hospitality I’ve worked in a variety of positions and places from four star 100/150 bedroom hotels down to this, and I just have a love for hospitality and now it's being destroyed.
There are certain people at the top of the it who are more property people than hospitality, but the chap who stands at the bar and serves you, that is his home and his livelihood. That is the British pub but the same applies to independent hotels.
This year I’ve had to make redundant 18 people. Never made anybody redundant before in my life. This year was the first time and it’s been a real shock to us in terms of how to run businesses successfully to have an unseen virus come along and destroy it, and then this has been compounded by a government who don't seem to be able to make it their minds as to which way we could, or should manage the situation.
How can you go from having a situation in July where it was safe for families to go to the pub but not safe for them to have people in each other’s houses, to the situation, in three weeks time, at Christmas where you can now safely go to other people's houses but you can't go to the pub. It's a complete turnaround in five or six months with no evidence to support it.
WHEN YOU REOPEN, WILL THIS REOPEN AS A PLACE THAT SELLS FOOD?
We will reopen as a place that's here to serve food and it's been a popular discussion point in last couple of days on my Twitter feed and other people. How do we actually implement this rule concerning what is a substantial meal? If you go back to the 1960s there was a famous law case at the time where a judge, who was far more sensible than me, decreed that a sandwich was not a substantial meal but if the sandwich in question had Pickles and beetroot on the side it therefore constituted a substantial meal. I think pickles and beetroot could be could be making a come back fairly soon.
But, in all seriousness, what is a substantial meal? Does it mean you can't serve somebody a drink until they got their meal? Does it mean you can't serve them a drink when they finish their meal. This is the problem with trying to make laws which are realistically not thought through.
A government spokesman said that when people finish their meal they must leave or buy another meal. It’s like if we go back to the 80s we used that Sunday opening hours (12 till 2 and six till ten) So we will reopen but this is an immense struggle and people must realise that the livelihoods of the people working in this industry have never been threatened in this way before. We’ve all got to find new ways of doing things and I think you will find that the hospitality operators are quite a entrepreneurial bunch and will come again, but I think that's also one of the reasons why the government are offering us up as a sacrificial lamb.
Ultimately, when it gets back to normal people will want to go out and socialise and somebody will be there to open the door and say come on in, and that will happen. I think the government are counting on that and we are a very easy way of controlling the virus. When you look at all the charts hospitality appear on the charts at more than 3% of the causes, yet when you look at the education sector; schools, the universities. Why did they make those decisions to send them back.
When students are going to finish their University education in three years time they’re not going to find the hospitality jobs that have always been there to help them get started in the working world.
DO YOU SEE AN END TO IT IN THE SHORT TERM OR DO YOU THINK WE’RE LOOKING AT A RECOVERY PERIOD OF TEN/FIFTEEN YEARS?
The government has got a choice. The sector survive in the short term if this goes on and it’s been reported with in some national papers that they do not expect it lift the restrictions until after Easter. The next four months, the Christmas trade is what gets you through to the next year. So the government are going to have to accept masses businesses going under and what that means for unemployment and what that means for future taxation rises. There’s not going to be the money there.
The support they’ve given so far. The furlough scheme has been a great success for the individual, but it’s been a cost to businesses because this month we furloughed our staff but I've still got to pay the National Insurance and the pension contributions to government, yet I’m not allowed to open. The grant that we were given for this lockdown was 1334 pounds which is not a lot of money and goes very quickly when you have to pay to have your utilities connected and your insurance bills.
They close us down within three days and expect us to be open within three days. They have no idea about the supply chain, they have no idea about breweries needing time to brew beer weeks before. For government it's too much of a risk so I think we will reopen but the support package from the government has to change. The VAT cut did help, while we were open. While we’re closed it was no help.
WHAT WOULD YOUR MESSAGE TO THE GOVERNMENT BE IF BORIS JOHNSON AND RISHI SUNACK WERE SITTING HERE?
they have got a chance to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, but equally they could grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
We can see the vaccine. We can see the light could be in the tunnel in the spring so you’re talking about four months you need to support businesses in the hospitality sector. There were people furloughed and there were a lot of big companies who took a tremendous advantage, so it the helps needs to be more sector specific. They’ve got a chance to involve us in the general recovery. If you look at the amount that the hospitality industry contributed to the general economy after the first lockdown. That’s not going to be there in April if they don’t support us. Are they going to chuck that all away? Those employees are going to end up on Universal Credit because we won't be here in February to pay the furlough. If we go under they’ve no chance of getting the VAT back that they are still owed from last year. Government has to make some real deep decisions here.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE HSOPITALITY INDUSTRY IS BEING USED AS A POLITICAL TOOL?
I think it’s being used as sacrificial lamb because it’s a very easy thing to blame. I don't think it's a political tool because I don't think the Labour Party don’t appear to be supporting the other side of the argument.
My question to Boris and to Rishi Sunak is that having come so far why don't you just go that little bit further support the sector which can make a massive contribution back to the general economy. You can't hope to protect the NHS in the long term if you haven't got the taxes to pay for the NHS. Hospitality brings in a lot of those taxes.
DO YOU THINK THE GOVERNMENT ARE VIEWING HOSPITALITY AS SOME SORT OF FRIVILOUS INDUSTRY?
I think it's fair to say that anybody has travelled the world and seen how Europe deals with hospitality, and American values what it brings and how valued staff are over there, there is no doubt that we've always been seen in this country as JUST the hospitality sector. It’s never been seen as a serious career. It's always the one where if you’ve having trouble getting a job when you’re 18 you can always work behind the local bar and do some waitering.
They don't take us seriously this is country but they need to because when you look at the figures of what we contribute, it’s massive. We provide so many jobs to 18 to 24 year olds. They may not be fulfilling lifelong jobs for everybody but they will be for a few. Not everybody can be a doctor or dentist or scientist or a hospitality worker, but for people with the right personality, the right kind of charisma and passion we can provide jobs and we can help, but there’s a danger that we won't be here. The government need to support us as an industry and they need to be decisive and help us now. Our business rates start again in April and how are we supposed to pay those on the 1st of April?
IT ALL SEEMS A LITTLE BIT PIECEMEAL?
There’s no joined-up plan and they’re making it up as they go. It’s all big announcements. When they announced this lockdown they announced it the Friday and they announced a grant system, and at this time, this pub has had support from Braintree District Council and they got it sorted within 3 1/2 weeks. I also have a business in the Midlands and Birmingham City Council and I’ve only just managed to lodge the application this week, because each council (I deal with three) want different information. Birmingham want to know my National Insurance number as an individual. Braintree only asked about five questions. Braintree paid out, but Birmingham is still going on and their website went down for two days.
SO THERE’S NO UNIFIED APPROACH TO RECEIVING HELP?
Give us the support that will allow us to open under normal conditions. Of course they should protect the vulnerable first, but they’ve I spent billions on track and trace and it doesn't appear to work. Why not protect the people who need protecting.
Allow publicans to run the pubs and the hoteliers to run the hotels. I think that the government feel that we just entertain drunks and we do no such thing. We can survive without loud music and we don't need to be told to turn the music down. Can you please give us some practical guidance and supportand let us get on with running our businesses, because we at a point now where if I had the facts I would seriously look at taking a restraint to trade action against the government in court, because it is a restraint of trade.
DO YOU THINK IT’S A ONE SIZE FITS ALL APPROACH?
you can't get much more sensible than the Swiss and they’re telling everybody to be sensible. I’m not going to let people run riot in my pubs or my hotels. We will be sensible because it is in our interest to be sensible. They should trust us but they don’t.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST LYTH ABOUT THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY?
That it's an easy business. Serve a bit of food and serve a bit of drink. Running pubs and hotels and hospitality businesses you are not the master of any trade, but I'm certainly a jack of all, because I have to understand finance, I have to understand law, I have to understand people, I have to understand employment law and I have to understand the hygiene regulations. There are massive amounts. We’re not necessarily masters of it all but we do it all and anybody who thinks that running a hospitality business is easy not even in this day and age, but in general is sadly mistaken. Of course you can get the same bottle of wine down the road or you can buy the food cheaper, but you can't have somebody cooking for you, serving you with care and attention, and then removing washing up afterwards, buying the crockery.
Now, one of the things I have to ponder is should a glass of water be free in a pub? Do I pay a water bill? Yes. Do I pay for effulent to leave the building? Yes I do. Do I pay for the glass? Yes. Do I have to pay for the ice machine which produces the ice which goes in the water? Yes. Do I have to pay the member of staff who cleans and delivers the glass of water? Yes. Should water be free? No!
DO YOU CHARGE IN HERE FOR WATER?
No, because it’s goodwill but it irritates me when people take it for granted, thinking they are entitled to a free glass of water. You are not entitled every glass of water otherwise nobody would get a water bill.
WHAT STRATEGIES ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPLEMENT TO SEE YOU TO THE END OF THIS CRISIS?
We've had to innovate and diversify in many ways. Now, we’re not just a pub. When will the 1st lockdown came it bashed us around and for the first 6/7 weeks I was just dealing with the finances of running three companies in three different places, and trying to get things sorted. That took a lot of time.
When we got to May I decided that I wanted to start doing something practical, so we opened as a takeaway and we took advantage of the takeaway scenario. What surprised and pleased me was that the takeaways took off and it took me back to the floor. we were doing knocking out 45/50 meals on Friday and Saturday night. I never thought I'd be back on a fryer section in the kitchen but I was at 54 years. Back in front of the fryer sweating cob but I enjoyed it because I’ve got a passion for this business. We made sure that we did it properly and we started marketing the fish and chips on social media so takeaways and I thought I checked that we were doing it right according to the laws of the government, and it turned out that I needed one form to serve as a takeaway and another to operate as a pub, and I was looking for that magical form that would cross both boundaries.
They actually sent me a form asking how many houses I wanted to build!
There is no form that actually exists within local government. I applied to change the classification of my business but it doesn't exist and you’ve got to go through the full planning.
WHAT DID YOU DO?
I’ve just lost interest. They wanted to try the £450 to have a zoom conference call to discuss my planning application. Luckily, because of the situation we’ve got another year and I’m hoping that somebody will bother to actually tell somebody in the know that they actually need to sort it out. Boris himself said that at some point they’re going to restructure the whole thing. He’s very good with big words and grand gestures. Maybe it’s just hiccup but I couldn't believe I they wanted charge £400 for a zoom call and be asked how many houses did not want to build.
So we carried one with the takeaways, even when we reopened in July. We also introduced an afternoon tea box service which has carried on. There are about seven or eight afternoon tea boxes about to go out. We’ve delivered an awful lot of afternoon teas that people can have in their gardens while they communicate with their neighbours over the fence, or by delivering a box to somebody who is worried about the situation. We've reinvented ourselves as an afternoon tea business on one side. A couple of weeks ago we launched something we’ve called ‘Dine With the Vine at Home’. We will deliver to you a three course meal on a Friday or Saturday afternoon. You simply have to follow the instructions to reheat. Then you dish it up, post a picture and you get entered into a prize draw to win a voucher. It’s £25 per person for a three course meal that is cooked and delivered to your house.
IT SOUNDS AS THOUGH YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY HAS BEEN REALLY SUPPORTIVE?
They have. I think the community has been exceedingly helpful. There's some people we haven’t seen but we don't know everybody circumstances and some people all shielding and isolating, but we have had tremendous support. One of the things we would love to do, if we can ever afford it, is to throw a party to say thank you.
WHEN YOU OPEN AGAIN IN THE TRADITIONAL SENSE, WILL YOU KEEP DOING THESE THINGS?
We’ll keep doing whatever we can do because not everybody will be comfortable coming out, but we also have to be mindful of other businesses. For example there is an Indian restaurant at the other end of the village. I’ve always said that I’m not putting curry on our menu because I like the owner and he does a very good curry. Why should I try and step on to his patch? He doesn't do pies or fish and chips.
WHERE DO YOU THINK THE INDUSTRY WILL BE IN A YEAR FROM NOW?
I think we’ll be open. I think we’ll be forever changed and I think people will have both short and long memories. I don’t know where we’ll be as a business. I would hope that we here and I hope that we can be hospitable and people can enjoy going out for a meal or pint without being told what they can and can't do by central government.
I’ll give Braintree District Council credit because they’ve created a Facebook business group which is a good source of information. Unfortunately, local government don’t have the answer either because they’re hearing about things the same time as we hear about it. It all sound like it’s getting made up on the hoof.
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR YOU TO PLAN A FUTURE STRATEGY WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT WEEK?
I wake up in the morning and don’t know if somebody is going to kick me where it hurts. I can’t plan beyond a day or two because the government will change it and they expect us to simply deal with it.
We’ve started the takeaways, the afternoon teas, Dine with the Vine we've introduced online ordering apps for both food and drink. I'm doing three course Christmas Day meals as a takeaway delivered to the home in the morning, but will they let me open on New year’s Eve? I don’t know. Nobody has told me yet.
HAVE THERE BEEN ANY POSITIVES TO COME OUT OF THIS WHOLE SITUATION?
Yes. The biggest positive in relation to the pub has been getting closer to the community. It’s really brought the pub and the community closer together. From a business perspective gave me time to look in minute detail through every single aspect of the business, and if we come through this it will be as a leaner, more efficient operator. It’s allowed us to study and question some of the things that we do. It’s been a good reset and something you wouldn’t have been able to do while you were fully operating. It's also demonstrated how supportive friends can be, and family.
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