The COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in several pubs being on the verge of closure. Now, in their aftermath, the growing cost of living crisis and rising energy bills pose the biggest threat.
Tucked away in the shadow of the railway bridge, my local pub has, for decades, been a fixture of the neighbourhood. It has an eclectic cast of regulars and a staff of ten, of which, for nearly a year at this point, I have been a member. And, like every hospitality establishment in the country, it has had a tough couple of years.
Much as we all hate to be reminded of it, the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll, and continues to do so. Successive lockdowns depleted the pub’s staff and exiled a good deal of regular customers, leaving the place in disarray when it finally reopened for good.
More recently, climbing energy bills have forced more changes. When I began my job last February, the pub shut at midnight each and every night of the week. Over the summer, that model simply ceased to be profitable, and it now closes at 11pm every day, save for Friday and Saturday. Hours were further cut down for the month of January. These measures, while cost-effective, have led several customers to drink elsewhere, a blow to the pub, especially when considering the vast numbers of people who simply can no longer afford to go out at all.
In an attempt to boost profits, our parent company, Greene King, has been trying to diversify our offerings. We’ve seen a jukebox added, the idea of a snooker table has been bandied about, and we will soon be serving a limited amount of pre-prepared meals.
One thing that unites each of these ideas, as both staff and clientele will tell you, is the seemingly baffling lack of thought behind them. The jukebox has had to be repaired at least twice, and some contentious football songs have led to more than one altercation between customers. All of this while it fails to yield any substantial increase in custom.
The upcoming addition of a food menu, beyond the perfunctory offerings of peanuts and crisps, has also only served to annoy both myself and my co-workers. Unlike our bosses, we can see that our kitchen, if it can be called such a thing, is hardly spacious enough to accommodate dozens upon dozens of frozen pizzas, nor is the pub as a whole even remotely designed to be a convenient place in which to serve food. Nevertheless, we wait in nervous anticipation, as Greene King demonstrates that even they do not feel entirely secure right now. Like every other hospitality business in the country, they are worried for the future, and trying to do whatever they can, even if their proposals may be ill-advised, to keep their profits up.
That said, it would be dishonest to claim that my pub’s position is anything other than a comparatively fortunate one. It’s in a good location, and is in no danger of closing its doors anytime soon. Other pubs, however, are not so lucky. While mine closed two hours early in January, other establishments were forced to shut outright for the entire month, due to the rising expenses. Many will not reopen, just as many never recovered from past years’ lockdowns.
Similarly, while my pub has the backing of a multimillion pound company like Greene King, others will have nothing of the sort. Independently owned pubs have been forced to either shut permanently or be subsumed by some homogenous hospitality corporation.
This is to say nothing of the people who work in the pubs whose success or failure is so often spoken of in such clinical terms. Again, I find myself in a privileged position. I live at home, so, while my job offers me some handy extra cash, I’m by no means dependent on it. Other students, who perhaps rely on an income to finance their studies or living situation, are not so advantaged – not to mention the scores of working people, already hit hard by a skyrocketing cost of living, who now face reduced wages or even unemployment.
I recently read about a nearby Wetherspoons location that is set to close. To my surprise, what few comments the article had were fairly happy, smug even, that the company’s C.E.O. Tim Martin would lose money. Martin’s cavalier attitude towards the pandemic and eager embrace of Brexit have made him quite an unpopular character, and while I’m certainly no fan of his, these comments failed to recognise one crucial detail. Wealthy business mogul Tim Martin would hardly be affected by the closure of a single Spoons, nor would he likely be affected by the closure of thirty; rather, the employees of those stores, many of whom may even have to take on second jobs to support themselves and their families, would be the ones to suffer.
It’s hardly original to point out that workers are, and have been, persistently and deliberately devalued, but it bears repeating all the same. Even as wages stagnate and decline, and more and more businesses are left with no recourse but to shut down, the loud voices advocating for better are routinely presented, both by the government and by many facets of the media, as unrealistic, entitled, and, perhaps worst of all, dangerous. Options indeed seem bleak, when even the current commanders of the Labour party are urging their MPs to avoid picket lines like the plague.
The simple truth is that pubs will continue to close. They will continue to be swallowed whole by the Tim Martins of the world. They will continue to be cold and draughty because their energy bills are simply too steep. This state of affairs will continue because over a decade of austerity policies have driven thousands into poverty. It will continue because Brexit, cited as a major cause of labour shortages in the sector, continues to be embraced. It will continue because, despite major strikes occurring close to every week, the plight of working men and women in Britain still goes unheard.