Flashback to any warm, bright afternoon in the UK during 2019, and you'll likely recall an afternoon spent in the beer garden or patio area of your local pub. Surrounded by friends from multiple households, you all enjoyed refreshing drinks and basked in the sun, shared a snack, and stood shoulder to shoulder with other revellers. You probably didn't think about using hand sanitiser after walking inside to order another round, let alone worked out how to open the door without using your hands.

These once commonplace gatherings at local pubs, restaurants and bars now feel like a distant memory since COVID-19 spread across the globe. In March 2020, the government forced every pub, restaurant and bar in the UK to cease operating in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Only takeaway and delivery service was permitted. The closure affected approximately 3,500,000 jobs associated with the industry. The closure of pubs, bars and eat-in restaurants has been tough to bear both economically and emotionally. It's quite visible across the entire country. For months, citizens went out on their daily allotted one hour of exercise and passed by their closed-up local favourite. This scene was a rather stark contrast to the country's usual friendly neighbourhood pub culture.

In May, bars and pubs were able to sell takeaway alcoholic beverages. The Anglesea Arms, a favourite haunt of the swish crowd (like Lady Kitty Spencer, the niece of the late Princess Diana) in the South Kensington neighbourhood in London, started selling basic groceries as well as to- go versions of their best-selling cocktails. Before COVID, the Anglesea was heaving on most weekend nights. Young social butterflies crammed into the bar, on the front patio, and attempted to jockey for more space by spilling onto the pavement and into the street. The pub always had to employ security personnel to keep everyone within property boundaries and off of the road. Visiting this neighbourhood institution on a gloriously sunny May bank holiday weekend during lockdown was a bit of a shock. There were no crowds. The tables usually teeming with 20-somethings had been replaced with bags of pasta and flour available for purchase. One customer from each party was permitted to enter the bar one at a time to buy groceries and order cocktails or beer in a plastic takeaway cup. Once the drinks were poured, staff scooted everyone down the road. Lingering or lounging outside the bar was strictly forbidden per government guidelines.

July 4th 2020 was a joyous day for the United Kingdom. Pubs and restaurants were finally permitted to reopen, albeit with government-imposed restrictions. The restrictions are necessary measures that allow shuttered businesses to resume operations safely. The UK is making progress in battling the pandemic, but there's still a long road ahead. The food and beverages industry has been particularly hard-hit, and the next few months will truly test the operational chops of innovation of business owners in the sector.

Support for the sector

Pub, bar and restaurant owners are undoubtedly eager to restart their business and move forward. The double-whammy of months of zero or decreased revenue and has affected cash flow. Social distancing measures make it difficult to hit pre-COVID covers. The government is supporting pubs and restaurants in their recovery through several initiatives.

What's changed for pubs and restaurants?

A lot. At the moment, the constant changes can feel somewhat overwhelming. It's essential always to remember that this too shall pass. Innovation and improvements will evolve from this situation. Also keep in mind that while the human species continues to change, grow and adapt, old habits, such as stopping by the pub or eating at a restaurant, die hard. These age-old, treasured, and beloved pastimes aren't disappearing.

COVID secure guidance

The UK government has published comprehensive guidance for all restaurants, pubs, bars, and takeaway food service providers about operating during COVID-19. The practical guide covers the following:

  • Assessing and managing risk
  • Conducting a risk assessment for your business
  • Guidance about how to minimise the risk of infection
  • Advice for communicating new guidance to your employees
  • Protecting vulnerable employees
  • Cleaning and sanitation guidelines and procedures
  • Social distancing procedures
  • Inbound and outbound goods procedures

The new rules

We'll cover some of the newly implemented rules and procedures for restaurants and pubs that are most visible to patrons. We’ll also provide some ideas about how to make the best of these restrictions as well as the general pandemic situation.

Household limitations: Currently, Britons are permitted to meet in groups of up to two households indoors. This rule applies everywhere, whether you're meeting in someone's house, in a restaurant, or in a member's club. "You are able to meet indoors in groups of up to two households (anyone in your support bubble counts as one household). This includes inviting people from one household into your home or visiting the home of someone else with members of your own household. You should continue to maintain social distancing with anyone you do not live with or who is not in your support bubble when doing so. If you are in a support bubble, you can continue to see each other without needing to maintain social distancing."

As a restaurant or pub owner, this means you can accept reservations for parties consisting of two households as long as the two households can maintain a distance of one metre.

Household limitation tips: Best practices to make customers feel comfortable include taking contact details of each party (which should be securely discarded after the required period to maintain contact details has passed) and temperature checks upon arrival. Temperature checks can be taken for each diner in a non-invasive manner with laser thermometers. Many restaurants have been limiting reservations to parties of no more than six people, although parties of more than six people are able to meet indoors as long as they are only from two households.

Face coverings: On the 14th of July, the UK announced that face-coverings or face masks would be required when visiting indoor shops and supermarkets or getting a haircut. This rule does not apply to restaurants or pubs for apparent reasons; customers can't eat while wearing a face mask. As a pub or restaurant owner, you'll have to decide as to whether or not you require your staff to wear a face-covering while they're working. They are undoubtedly a bit uncomfortable and can become quite warm. However, as the scientific community continues to study the virus, it's become evident that masks can help reduce transmission indoors.

The official UK guidance for restaurants, pubs, and bars regarding the use of face masks still states that the evidence around wearing a face covering is flimsy and is optional for employees. Recent polling shows mixed reviews regarding Britons feelings about wearing a mask themselves. That said, seeing staff wearing masks is likely to provide some level of comfort to restaurant patrons. For both the safety of employees and customers, it seems prudent to ask employees to wear a mask. Masks are still required indoors in many neighbouring countries, such as Italy. In New York City, a face covering is currently required when you're inside any building. Many businesses have adopted a simple "no mask, no service" policy.

Face covering tips: When it doubt, brand it. Put time and effort into designing custom reusable and machine-washable face coverings that align your business's aesthetic. Place your logo in a visible but not too obvious location (would not recommend front and centre). Custom face coverings can be designed for reasonable prices through many online design platforms. Provide workers with enough face coverings so they can pop them in their weekly wash. Keep extra facemasks on hand and give them to customers if they ask for one, or perhaps charge a nominal fee for a mask. Alternatively, show some goodwill by partnering with a charitable organisation and pledge to donate one cover to those in need for every face-covering purchased by customers. The branded face mask is nearly free advertising for your business the next time your customer wears your mask around town or on the tube.

For some inspiration look to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. Sturgeon now proudly dons a rather befitting tartan face covering while out and about.

Minimise touchpoints: Menus displayed in reusable plastic covers are a thing of the past. The slightly sticky, plastic surfaces are a potential transmission point if they're handled by customers and then reused by multiple parties throughout the day. Some restaurants have been printing single-use menus on recycled paper. At Annabel's, a flash member's club in Mayfair, after a paper menu is used the staff shred, recycle and discard it with a bit of dramatic flair for member's comfort (and entertainment).

Touchpoint tips: A less traditional and elegant but paper-free option that's kinder to the environment is digitising your menu and creating a QR code. As customers enter your restaurant or pub, they can scan the QR code with their smartphone and review your menu from their device. The use of phones during a meal is rather impolite, but exceptions are acceptable in these trying times. Another way to minimise contact is by only accepting contactless and card payments rather than cash.

Invoke positive emotions rather than fear

The rules are a bit of a downer, and anxiety levels are still high. The requirements such as personal protective equipment and plexiglass look quite clinical and are unfamiliar to most. The COVID-19 situation is ever-evolving, but it seems we'll be living with our "new normal" for quite some time. Ensuring both employees and customers understand and adhere to social distancing guidelines may be a long-term battle for businesses. "Super Saturday," originally coined by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to mark the reopening of pubs and restaurants was soon renamed "Suicide Saturday". Media outlets plastered photos across their front pages showing intoxicated (and not distanced) patrons flooding the streets in popular hubs from London to Manchester. While this blatant disregard for social distancing rules was not the case across the board, it was nonetheless concerning.

The question still remains: how will pubs and restaurants get everyone to follow the guidelines? Airlines faced a similar problem when it came to in-flight safety videos. Apparently, fliers have zero interest in spending three minutes to learn simple but potentially life-saving information.

For examples about why passengers should always watch in-flight safety briefings, google:

  • "Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 life jackets"
  • "US Airways Flight 1549 life vests"
  • "Kegworth brace position"

Similar to the unlikely chance of falling seriously ill from coronavirus, the possibility of experiencing an aeroplane crash or emergency landing is not likely. For these rare situations, practical but not necessarily apparent guidelines are reviewed in every airline's safety video. One example is the case of a ditch landing, where the aircraft lands on water. If the aircraft is submerged, you need to be able to dive down to the door. Diving is not possible if your lifejacket is inflated. The likelihood of being in this situation feels about as likely as catching COVID-19 by picking up a restaurant menu. Nonetheless, it's crucial to ensure everyone is apprised about how to proceed as it's not readily evident. While we're all aware of coronavirus, we can't literally see COVID-19, and it's hard to visualise transmission amongst the population.

This brings us to the next question of how to communicate COVID-19 safety measures. Airlines won't say in their safety videos that you should only inflate your lifejacket once you have exited the plane because would-be survivors of past aeroplane ditch landings drowned themselves by inflating their life vests while still in the cabin. It's simply too morbid, and airlines don't want to panic passengers right as they're about to take off.

The second issue is how to encourage patrons to follow the rules every time. Frequent fliers may be less inclined to watch safety briefings as they believe they already know the rules. However, there's a sound rationale to pay attention to safety briefings each time you're on a plane. For one thing, life jackets could be stored in different locations. That same seasoned flier is probably in a different seat position on each flight, so their proximity to the nearest exit varies. If you're genuinely a thorough flier, you should always count the number of rows from the exit to your seat, as the row numbers likely won't be visible in an actual emergency. Similarly restaurant patrons are probably less inclined to familiarise themselves with each restaurant's one-way entry and exit system and are therefore likely to walk the wrong way and potentially bump into people from outside their dining party.

In 2007, Virgin Airlines were the first to tackle unattentive passengers by creating an entertaining yet informative safety video that included quintessentially British deadpan humour. Many airlines have since followed suit to increase passenger engagement and help everyone recall vital safety procedures through funny anecdotes.

Similarly, for pubs and restaurants, fear-mongering is probably not the way forward. It won't help cultivate a safe yet welcoming environment for customers. Finding a way to communicate the required guidelines by evoking positive emotion, whether it's through humour or another sentiment may prove beneficial in enforcing the new rules. In terms of making customers aware of your safety measures such as one-way systems, try to create unique and exciting signage rather than bog-standard arrow signs. This requires a bit more effort, time and money, but will likely pay off. Customers will undoubtedly remember the additional effort, and it can provide a unique talking point about your restaurant or pub. It worked for a cafe in Germany that made customers wear hats attached to pool noodles to enforce the two-metre distancing rules.

Social distancing guidelines are different in practice but similar in concept to airline safety. Distancing measures are a long-term effort for the greater community, rather than saving just yourself in an emergency situation in an aeroplane.

Funding moving forward

Getting back to business during a global pandemic requires some "outside the box" thinking on many levels. In addition to developing creative and friendly ways to implement government safety requirements, many businesses should take a fresh look at their finances. Cash flow is vital to resuming operations and paying business expenses. If you're awaiting payment of invoices or need to make some significant purchases in the near future, it's worth exploring if funding solutions such as invoice finance can help meet these needs. Invoice finance may be structured through confidential invoice discounting, or selective invoice finance. Obtaining feasible funding solutions for your business needs, a healthy dose of optimism, and willingness to accept change will bring the food and beverage industry to the other side of this pandemic. Core convictions are now more than ever vital to success. Your customers are yearning for something that no longer exists, strive to get them acclimated to our new existence while providing reminders of happy memories from the past.