Our first hard lockdown devastated the hospitality industry, with hundreds of restaurants and bars having to close permanently. Now, with Covid cases climbing again, rumours abound that we’re headed for another

Our first hard lockdown devastated the hospitality industry, with hundreds of restaurants and bars having to close permanently. Now, with Covid cases climbing again, rumours abound that we’re headed for another. 

We chatted to Iain McPherson – Co-Chair of the Business Education Committee at Tales of the Cocktail and Imbibe Magazine’s 2020 Innovator of the Year – to find out how he’s kept his Scottish bars Nauticus, Hoot the Redeemer and Panda & Sons (#32 in The World’s 50 Best Bars) afloat during both the UK’s first and second waves.

Here’s what we learned.

Covid proof your bar 

If you can scrape the cash together, it’s worth investing in your venue to make it safer for both guests and staff. Of course, things like sanitiser are essential, but partitions between tables, and on the bar counter, are worth looking into.

“Even though it’s costing us money, we realised we could actually increase our capacity by 10 or 15% [with partitions]. In theory, these would pay for themselves over the first four weeks. And we can keep people sat at the bar, and still keep that bar feel as much as possible.”

Ensure compliance

It’s critical to gently but firmly ensure guests and staff comply with social-distancing regulations, no exceptions. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it cultivates an atmosphere of safety.

“We found lot of bars were not taking it seriously. Because of that, they started getting a lot of distrust from consumers, who were like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable going out’. We found that if we created a safe environment, even if it was a bit overboard from what was expected, we generated a good following.”

Make sure your surrounding venues are complaint too.

“Bars that don’t take it seriously paint a bad picture for all of us, with hospitality being punished. Have a respectful conversation; tell them they need to up their game, or we’ll all be closed down again.”

Explore other revenue streams

Now’s the time to get creative, to expand your repertoire and keep the cash coming it. Iain took advantage of relaxed liquor-licence laws, which allowed on-consumption venues to sell off premise, to not only start selling takeaway cocktails, but to initiate Edinburgh Booze Delivery

This entailed some upskilling, as Iain had to figure out how to set up a Shopify site. It was worth the effort, however, as it enabled him to sell and deliver ready-made cocktails, alcohol, bar equipment and merchandise to consumers at home. 

Iain invited other bars around the city to use the platform, for a small handling fee. Not only did this benefit his peers, but it improved the consumer experience through an extended offering and it helped offset his own costs. It also meant that, as a community, the bars worked together to minimise the overall scope of human contact.

“[It’s] like an orchestrated delivery service, reducing human contact by having a couple of delivery drivers delivering to multiple homes, to keep that social distancing going.”

Collaborate

Find ways to collaborate with other struggling businesses, to your mutual benefit. When his bars weren’t allowed to operate, but food outlets were, Iain teamed up with local food vendors, who usually operate out of food markets for a fee.

“None of our bars had any kind of cooked-food capacity. So what we started doing with our space, with our bars being closed, was to give it to food vendors We said, ‘Hey, you can use our space, no rent, but we’ll take a cut of what you make’.” 

He even built a takeaway hatch at one of his bars to attract foot traffic, and to allow for social distancing.

Iain made sure this was an attractive option by charging the vendors a lower percentage than the markets. “It’s a win-win situation.” 

Stay fresh

After the first month of the Edinburgh Booze Delivery, Iain found that his regular customers started tapering off. With some analysis, he came to the conclusion that the key was to keep mixing things up.

“With consumer behaviour right now, the main thing is boredom. You know, everyone’s stuck at home. There’s not a lot to do. We kept the same cocktails for the first four weeks and we started seeing a real decline in terms of people buying, so we changed a few, or added a couple in, and then we saw a spike again. We found we had to keep regenerating our offering, to keep people coming back.” 

Iain applied this insight to his food collaborations too. “We’ve got about seven or eight [vendors] that we rotate now, so that way people keep coming back … they’re excited about what’s happening next week. We tailor our cocktails to each week, as well.”

Tighten up on stock

Many bars are guilty of letting stock sit around, for whatever reason. 

“Rather than buying a lot of booze in, we’ve really been thinking outside the box, to try generate cash [with what we have]. We’ve become really good at streamlining our stock control. By doing new cocktails every week, it’s allowed us to use it all. We’ve learnt from that; we won’t ever hold onto stock like we did before.”

This post first appeared on Eat Out on 17 Dec 2020.