With growing week-on-week sales, no redundancies and a new outlet on the horizon, Derek Mallon has realised the good, very good and great of locking down and reopening with his two Glasgow venues - bourbon bar Van Winkle and the provenance-led eatery Mharsanta.
A focus on the fundamentals, honed over a 30-year career in the hospitality industry, has been vital to the independent operator weathering the storm Covid-19 has inflicted on the trade and Derek is positive that any potential choppy waters yet to come from the global pandemic can now be navigated fruitfully.
Whilst doing an “awful lot” of listening to the news and to government has helped him make business decisions carefully and plan for the coming months, Derek has been busy ensuring that his food and drink offer has been as in-demand both in venue and out, raising service levels with cautious guests in mind, planning ahead and taking a winning approach to social media whilst always staying vigilant to the risk Coronavirus still poses to both businesses and consumers.
However, small daily victories as substantial as they now are were not part of Derek’s outlook at the beginning of 2020 when his venues were set to have an “absolutely stonking” year. One example included having a six-figure sum worth of bookings at his restaurant, all of which and more were naturally wiped off the slate with the onset of lockdown measures.
“It might be tempting for us to cry over what might have been, but we can’t do that, it’s not going to change anything,” said Derek. “This hasn’t just happened to us and there are much sadder stories than ours.
“The industry has never been easy but what we can do is make decisions carefully. The last thing to do would be lots of rash decisions. Take little steps, understand what’s going on to the best your ability and plan ahead for any eventuality, including a localised lockdown.
“What has always applied in hospitality is to get the key elements of your offer right no matter what is going on. We put a lot of effort into making sure our guests thoroughly enjoy their experience, making sure our food and drinks are right, the level of service is right and while it’s something people think about continuously it’s never been more important to really encourage repeat custom in uncertain times.”
Doing what you can to increase takings leads inevitably to thinking about food. Great margins, prolonged dwell-time leading to subsequently larger drinks spend. A strong food offer, underpinned by quality products and in-demand flavours, is the licensee’s not-so-secret weapon to come roaring back in their communities.
At Van Winkle, the bar’s BBQ-focused menu is enjoying great favour amongst both returning and new consumers who have been looking to eat out after months of state-sanctioned home cooking. But this is no accident. Derek has been fine-tuning the offer before reopening and is reaping the rewards now.
And going forward, this is being built on.
“We opened with a slightly reduced menu and that was the right thing to do,” he said. “It allowed us to keep things simple in the kitchen and deliver better service initially. But as our sales are growing we’re starting to reintroduce more dishes and new specials to keep things fresh.
“As a proportion of our takings food is becoming more and more important [now accounting for 60% of total sales as opposed to 40% in the first quarter]. We’ve taken a comprehensive approach to integrating technology into our venue so that we can increase takings from food.
Working with tech provider Flipdish, Van Winkle can now process orders from tables as well as for collection or delivery and this will be now be kept on permanently as a means to raise revenue.
And as Eat Out to Help Out continues to bring new guests in to sample menus (with 10.5 million customers using the scheme in its first week according to the UK Treasury), there’s an opportunity for publicans to really garner a new band of fans for their own outlets with a winning food offer.
However, if your outlet does not have a food offer to fall back on there’s still plenty that can be done to fine tune your offer.
“In a wet-led environment, price-led drinks promotions have always worked well as a means of improving trade”, said Derek. “And there’s plenty of examples of operators enjoying success with cocktail deliveries, which we are working on just now, that will incorporate unique bottled cocktails and should be interesting. We’ll also be looking at delivering mini kegs to consumers’ homes.”
Consumer service expectations have been rising for some time, particularly amongst younger and less price-sensitive guests. Millennials are known to be far more likely to accept higher prices for food and drink than they are to accept poor service.
Fighting back from Coronavirus has effectively seen this stance doubled down, where the age-old tradition of taking care of patrons, providing them with a pleasurable and safe experience out of home and making sure they want for nothing is vital, according to Derek.
“As we continue to move through the current crisis, it’s really important to make sure that you look after your guests. People have been saying that forever, but it’s been a massive emphasis for us since reopening our doors. I think it’s absolutely central now and true that they really will remember as they take tentative steps back into bars and restaurants.
“With almost all outlets having reduced covers but either with the same or a greater number of staff on, you would expect guests to receive more attention and a better level of service and that’s been what we’ve been working on - albeit from behind face masks. The feedback we’ve had from consumers in that regard has been really encouraging.
“There’s a growing trend that’s in favour of smaller, independent outlets and that is the focus on the local, whether it’s ingredients or friendly staff. There’s a bigger emphasis on the people that make the venue what it is and give an element of uniqueness to it.
Examples of reintroduced lockdown measures are not hard to come by. Every time this occurs it’s reasonable to expect a slight dent in consumer confidence in the wider community with regards to visiting bars and restaurants.
And with medical experts quick to warn against any assumption that this crisis will be over quickly, continuing to remain vigilant and placing a sustained importance on safety procedures is crucial for outlets looking to carry the trust of customers.
At Van Winkle, the attitude by Derek and has team has been to do as much as possible to ensure confidence in the outlet’s set-up and processes. From the introduction of custom-made bourbon-themed screens between each table and utilising OpenTable to help ensure contact-tracing to the more expected actions like reducing covers and going big on hand sanitiser for both customers and staff, every effort has been made to guarantee guest’s safety.
He said: “Not too many places have really gone for screens in the way I thought they would, but I would still recommend doing it if you haven’t already. We had our designed with images of distilleries and bourbon barrels on them just to reduce the feeling that you were in a pharmacy while making our guests feel safe.
“We have lost covers inside and out, 99% of outlets will have, but what we have gained from all our efforts to improve safety and follow the guidance as much as we could was customers saying to us that they feel safe, particularly older customers. They know we are taking their health seriously. We know they’ll return and in part it’s because of that.”
Recent news an undercover teams in Greater Manchester finding that a majority of venues were not following government guidance by asking for customer contact details has heightened fears of second localised lockdown.
And the case of Aberdeen, where all the city’s pubs and restaurants have been closed due to a Covid-19 spike related to poor social distancing in bars, is not one which any operator will want to see repeated in their locale.
There’s little doubt that the threat of further lockdown restrictions have the potential to throw more than a spanner into the works of hospitality businesses.
But the experience of this spring can be utilised to help publicans prepare for a similar situation should it arise, believes Derek.
He said: “Firstly, I’d suggest that operators who aren’t operating as responsibly as they can be get their house in order to prevent this becoming a reality.
“I do think lessons have been learned from March around employee retention, premises management and stock control for example which will assist licensees should it happen again. It’s absolutely crucial for all businesses to stay alert and aware of what’s happening around the country.”
The increased significance social media has in the lives of consumers since March has been difficult to understate. A growing reliance on platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, has led Derek and the team at Van Winkle to focus almost all of their post-lockdown marketing efforts on them.
With competition fierce between outlets to have the most eye-catching photos of drinks, videos of food and engaging content online, Derek has enlisted the help of a professional videographer and photographer to truly get noticed on a crowded newsfeed.
And this approach has helped achieve growth now and will continue to do so in the coming months, he reckons.
“We’ve been creating several high-quality videos and we’ve done a lot of food and drink photography,” said Derek. “The first thing we wanted to use social media to do was reassure customers about coming to us. Although, we’ve also managed to successfully push our food and drink offer, both in-venue and for delivery.
“People may think getting external people in to help with marketing is prohibitively expensive but it doesn’t have to be and it really does help your business to stand out.
“We’ve also been spending money on platforms themselves by promoting the posts and we know that that been successful in getting our message out to the wider community.
“There’s no live music or events that we can really target at the moment, it’s the same for targeting offices with most of them still closed, so there is a limit on what we can physically do at street level. Many operators will be able to relate to that. The right conclusion to draw is that social media needs to be taken as seriously as ever before.”
After months of lockdown and disruptive, yet necessary, new operating conditions initiated, there’s no one in the trade who will look back cheerfully at the tribulations Covid-19 has inflicted upon it. The challenges presented this year have been ones which all businesses would rather have done without.
But by concentrating on the core principles that have made this country’s pubs and bars great operators have a strong starting point to overcome the hurdles put before them.