Artillery Row

Confessions of a bar owner

The Government’s 10pm curfew runs the risk of decimating small, family-run establishments

The imposed 10pm curfew on the hospitality industry runs the risk of completely decimating many of the country’s independent, family-run venues. Many larger chains are also struggling but let us not forget those smaller establishments, many of which were already a dying breed before the coronavirus pandemic.

One such venue has belonged to my family for nearly three decades: an eccentric, tiny wine bar where I waddled around when I was a toddler. I worked there myself as soon as I was old enough. Even now when I return home for a visit, I still bump into regulars who nostalgically profess how they’ve known me since I was “this tall”, as they gesture to their knee. Someone needs to fly the flag for such establishments so that they don’t slide into the ether.

The financial implications will burden future generations for many years to come

It all began nearly 30 years ago, when my father transitioned from a career in investment banking spanning spells in London, Hong Kong and India to being a bar owner in Horsham, West Sussex. How, you may ask? Well, over a few late-night beers with colleagues in the Bull & Bear pub in downtown Hong Kong, my father and his friends would often speculate what they would do once they managed to escape the rat race that was banking, and whimsically reflect on the pleasures of owning a bar on a beach in Thailand. My father was the only one who came remotely close to achieving this dream, although he did have to compromise and swap Phuket for a traditional market town in the heart of Sussex.

My father had always kept a base in Horsham, and so that’s where he returned in 1990 to set up shop. Shortly after, he met up with an old friend who was looking to set up a local business and, whilst walking down an alleyway (known locally as a Twitten) in the centre of town, they quite literally stumbled upon this oldie worldie little bar. Six months later he bought it, and it turned out to be the best thing he ever did.

Our family bar is called Piries: named after a Dr Pirie who was a somewhat eccentric mid-nineteenth century headmaster of the local grammar school. He was renowned for driving around town in a pony and trap and a bronze statue depicting this adorns the adjacent Piries Place. We recently discovered his grave in a local cemetery and, with the help of a couple of customers, were able to restore it; bringing a key figure in our town’s local history back into public consciousness.

The origins of the bar are uncertain but parts of it have been estimated at over 400 years old, with exposed oak beams and wattle and daub construction. Over the years it has metamorphosed from a tobacco warehouse to a cobblers, ladies’ hairdressers and, finally, a bar.

Our bar is something of a local institution and is fondly referred to as “the best little bar in town”. Being independent, it can respond quickly to trends and, at the height of the gin renaissance, stocked 115 different varieties (supplemented by 45 rums and a fine collection of malt whiskies). Our real ales are in the CAMRA good beer guide and our Guinness was recently described by an exile from Limerick as the best he had tasted outside of Ireland. All this was not achieved overnight and took many years of hard work, due in the main to a small team of dedicated staff led by a steadfast manager.

Sadly, however, as of today all that has been achieved over the years is in danger of unravelling due to the ludicrous imposition of government guidelines and regulations on the hospitality trade.

While they may be academically gifted, very few of these decision-makers have worked at the coal face

When the lockdown was first imposed, we initially thought we were looking at two to three weeks of closure and took immediate action to batten down the hatches. It soon became apparent that this was going to drag on for much longer although – due to Rishi Sunak’s interventions – we were able to retain our staff and just about keep our head above water. Prior to reopening in mid-July, we fully engaged with the local regulatory authorities, completed risk assessments and spent a lot of money adapting the bar to meet social distancing guidelines as well as purchasing extra signage and PPE for our staff. We also had to employ extra staff to provide an efficient table service.

As a consequence, our licenced capacity was reduced from 120 to under 40 and we voluntarily brought forward our closing time from a permitted 2am to midnight so that they were staggered with other adjacent outlets. Despite this we were able, thanks to the heroic efforts of the staff and a strong loyal customer base, to just about break even.

Then out of the blue came the nonsensical decision to restrict our opening hours to 10pm (which in reality means last orders at 9.30pm so that the bar can be locked up by 10pm with no additional drinking up time permitted).

I have been struggling to understand the logic behind this decision which, as we have seen from the pictures of Soho and elsewhere, has resulted in a mass exodus onto the streets and a boom for off-licences who have provided the wherewithal for massed groups to continue drinking for as long as they like in uncontrolled environments.

Where has this come from? Apparently, it was not even discussed at Sage and repeated attempts to ascertain the science supporting it have not provided any further clarification beyond the totally fatuous comment yesterday by Robert Jenrick that the measure was “commonsensical”.

Our bar is part of our family’s DNA

My father’s suspicion is that “some jobsworth public servants sitting at home on full pay” have concocted this plan based on what other countries have tried. The problem with this is that while they may be academically gifted, very few of these decision-makers have worked at the coal face, so to speak, and are clueless as to how the hospitality industry operates on a day-to-day basis. Sadly, the same applies to the majority of our legislators who may have had stellar careers in banking and the law, but by and large have never had a career in hospitality and are therefore reliant on their similarly out-of-touch advisers.

My family are, as you can imagine, angry and upset about the situation we now find ourselves in. My father met my mother through this bar, as did my sister and her husband. It is part of our family’s DNA and our livelihood; the risk is now that it could all come crashing down.

Come what may, my father is determined we will survive, but I fear many won’t and that many talented young people will be dumped on the scrap heap as a consequence. Our town centres and social activity in general will be decimated and the financial implications will be a millstone round the necks of future generations for many years to come.

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