Jonathan Schofield talks to Esther Maylor of the Eagle Inn and William Lees-Jones of JW Lees Brewery
Hospitality is in crisis and the government isn’t helping matters.
Take a walk around the city centre and so many food and drink places are closed permanently or at present show no sign of re-opening. ‘Wet’ pubs, in other words ones with little or no food offering and which depend on drink sales, seem especially vulnerable given the requirement to provide table service. It’s sad to see the Salford Arms closed on Chapel Street. There will be other casualties.
It’s hard for people to remember not to go to the bar when that’s what they’ve done all their adult lives
We spoke to Esther Maylor, the landlady of the charming little pub, The Eagle Inn, on Collier Street in Salford. This classic Joseph Holt pub comprises three small rooms, a fabulous island bar and an events’ room. Its charm lies in the fact it was designed for intimate human mingling not alienated social distancing.
Esther is not happy over Thursday’s statement by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. We ask her if the provisions announced have helped her.
“No,” she says firmly. “Cutting out our most profitable hours can’t be soothed by VAT staying at 5% for an extra quarter. The new scheme for paying some of the staff wages is a joke for our scale of operation with the type of work needed here. The government has stuck up two fingers to this industry. The new measures don’t help anyone who actually needs it. Winter was already a threat to the Eagle and other hospitality businesses, this week’s announcements have massively increased the pressure and the worry.”
How has Esther been operating such a small pub under the Covid 19 regulations.
“Currently we are opening Thursday through to Sunday,” Esther says. “Unfortunately with the new restrictions it’s financially unviable for us to be open during our more quiet times early week because of all the extra costs involved with compliance with the regulations. The most obvious challenge is the extra staffing costs required to be able to operate safely. Obviously if you’re limiting your hours and your turnover is diminished then doubling up on staff costs is only squeezing things further.”
She pauses before continuing.
“The latest news regarding the 10pm curfew feels a bit like being kicked while you’re down because that’s profitable opening hours being taken away,” she says. “As for the heavier fines and extra police presence that will put off people coming out to socialise. A really major change for us is the one household per table rule and the spacing of tables and seats. In a pub the shape and size of the Eagle this has reduced our capacity by over 50% inside. The solution has been to move most of the pub outside. This was easier to do over the summer, but in autumn and winter it won’t be such a viable option.”
How have the customers behaved?
“Obviously the experience of ‘going out’ has drastically changed,” Esther says. “It’s hard for people to remember not to go to the bar when that’s what they’ve done all their adult lives. It’s also tiresome for many having to use various apps for every different place they frequent. For us having to ask people to remain seated, not sing along or dance to music or mingle with friends, is a challenge. Yet, people do try their best and on the whole everyone is willing to live with the changes if it means keeping pubs open.”
Given part of the Eagle’s strength was live music how difficult has it been without gigs and private hire of the event space, we ask.
“Really difficult,” says Esther. “We make a lot of our revenue through gigs. Live music is the main way we get people to come to us, being a little off the beaten track. So we’re having to think differently, such has hosting outside vinyl events where people have been able to come and hear a live DJ play music at a COVID safe volume, and it’s been wonderful to see the buzz of people enjoying being at an ‘event’ again, even if we have had to curb people’s desire to dance and mingle.”
The good news for Esther and the Eagle is that Collier Street is closed and there are no neighbouring residents, so the ‘terrace’ of the pub can span the road.
“That’s been our lifeline, we wouldn’t have been able to manage otherwise,” says Esther. “We have been in talks with both Joseph Holt Brewery and Salford Council about the coming colder months and received support. So we are adding to our outside area every week and soon we will have four large marquees covering the area directly outside the Eagle’s front door, with smoke free coal burners, plants and music being piped at a sensible volume.”
Esther goes thoughtful for a moment.
“I have tried to be really positive about the future,” she says. “I’ve considered how best to serve our local community and how we can attempt to use this terrible time to plan a fresh start. We really hope next year we will be able to bring live music back to the Eagle, but our big news is this autumn we have decided to branch out into providing food. We’ve installed a new kitchen and we’re really looking forward to offering something different here.”
Then the frustration kicks in again.
“We just have to look at ways to carry on because at present the government are doing very little to support this industry especially in pubs of this size,” she says. “The announcement by the Chancellor has done absolutely nothing to increase our chances of survival. Our towns and cities will be culturally poorer without the wealth of interesting but struggling little places to eat, drink and socialise. Think about the increased unemployment too. This winter will be the most difficult many of us have ever faced in hospitality.”
Esther Maylor is not alone in these concerns. The hospitality industry is generally furious. William Lees-Jones is the boss of north Manchester brewery JW Lees who has been on air saying, “We'll just keep fighting to protect jobs and to keep making pubs safe places to go.” He’s appealed to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to stop “killing pubs and creating unemployment.” Lees-Jones thinks that after the Eat Out to Help Out Rishi Sunak thinks he’s done his bit and abandoned the hospitality sector.
“That was a scheme that made lots of people feel confident about leaving their own four walls and now the government has put the fear of God back into them,” William tells Confidential. “Thursday 24 September, the day Rishi was announcing measures which do not help us out in the slightest, was the worst trading day since we re-opened on 4 July. The subsidy rule simply doesn’t work for the employment model of pubs where people might work different shifts, an evening here an afternoon there.”
“As for the 10pm closure rule that’s ridiculous,” William says in exasperation. “It puts everybody on to the streets, public transport and into kebab shops at the same time. This increases the risk of spreading the virus. And increases the risk of trouble.
“All of this this week because two scientists apply compound interest to Covid 19 infection rates,” says William with a sardonic laugh. “Then politicians who only visit suburban pubs in the afternoon to take their children for carvery meals run scared and blame the hospitality industry which has demonstrated how effective it is in keeping people safe while moving the economy forward.”
What is curious with the 10pm closing time and the further restrictions upon hospitality is that they don’t appear to follow the science. As Sasha Lord, the Night-time Economy Advisor for Greater Manchester, said on Radio 4 this week, “The latest research reveals restaurants and bars are responsible for just 5% of Covid 19 outbreaks so why target hospitality?” Care homes, workplaces and education are many more times likely to be locations from which the virus spreads.
“We’ve abided by the rules, we’ve looked after our customers and staff, been flexible and responsible,” says Esther Maylor. “We have a controlled environment. It’s hard to understand the government’s attitude because if you are going to venture out of your house, pubs such as the Eagle are just about the safest places to visit.”
The Eagle Inn is at 19 Collier St, Salford M3 7DW
*images were taken before the current social distancing and mask-wearing measures were announced for Greater Manchester