Last orders

Is this the end of the hospitality industry?

Artillery Row

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a paean to the great British pub. Coming out of a three-month lockdown that had denied us all the opportunity to sit in the company of our fellow man, I had missed going to the local hostelry. Still, I believed, as many of my peers did, that the combination of good will from punters, furlough support by the government and the relatively contained nature of the shutdown would ameliorate matters. Things would get back to normal, and it would be a glorious summer ahead. And look! There is that kind Rishi Sunak, offering us money to eat out, and practically telling us that it’s our civic duty! Don’t mind if I do, Chancellor.

It seems as if the industry will be forced to stagger on in its current form for some time, with no clear end in sight to the restrictions

Now, the industry feels as if the carefree carousing of yore has been replaced by the simultaneous arrival of a crippling hangover and a staggering bill. Across the country, thousands of bar and restaurant staff have found themselves unable to return to their old jobs in hospitality because of the sheer length of the most recent lockdown, meaning that many places — as many as a quarter of all licensed venues, numbering around 25,000 — have been unable to open at all. With the proposed 21 June full reopening date looking unlikely, it seems as if the industry will be forced to stagger on in its current form for some time, with no clear end in sight to the restrictions. 

In the past week, I have been in both Soho and the West Country. It was incumbent on me as an intrepid Tintin-esque investigative reporter to visit pubs and restaurants in both places. The contrast between the two could not have been more striking. Central London has pedestrianised streets that were packed, on a Wednesday night, with young people sitting outside, eating, drinking and enjoying themselves. None of the places that I visited were remotely deficient in service or hospitality, and I can only imagine that the businesses were all doing well. 

In Bath and Somerset, it was a woefully different tale. In one of my favourite gastropubs — which shall remain nameless — the warm and brilliant staff had been replaced by an incompetent-looking child, who kept bringing us the wrong bill and then did not know how to take payment. One waited for aeons to be served food or drink, and then it was often mediocre when it arrived. Staff in cafes were edgy — not in an East London hipster fashion, but nervous and snappy. It did not make for a relaxing trip.

Under usual circumstances, I would have vowed not to bother going back to most of the places that I visited, but I suspect that the coming cull of hospitality venues will make such a principled stance irrelevant. Once furlough support ends, an increasingly beleaguered industry will find itself dealing with staff shortages, a high degree of residual caution from diners and drinkers, and the ever-present threat of future lockdowns. Once, one went to the pub or local restaurant to relax and have a good time. Now, it feels rather as if one is making a political statement of solidarity with the workers. So I tell myself as I order my £6 pint of Hackney IPA.

Solidarity is something that has been sorely lacking from the country’s best-known craft beer company, Brewdog. A scathing open letter from disgruntled former employees, named and anonymous alike, has accused the business of “lies, hypocrisy and deceit”, of nurturing a culture of bullying and of “a residual feeling of fear”, all of which rather undercuts the company’s brash but ostensibly good-natured publicity stunts and ubiquity in the bars and supermarkets of the country. The letter directly attacks Brewdog’s founder James Watt, claiming “it is with you that responsibility for this rotten culture lies”, and the whole shebang has been a hugely damaging PR disaster. It has not been helped by Brewdog’s boilerplate response (“on many occasions we haven’t got it right…we aren’t going to make excuses, we are going to take action”), which seems to be a toned-down version of a more combative reply, complete with glowing testimonials from happy Brewdog staff. Its continued non-appearance suggests that these testimonials have not been forthcoming. 

Under normal circumstances, what is happening at Brewdog might be seen as another culture wars issue, where a self-professed “swashbuckling” company gets caught up in talk of microaggressions and inappropriate language and the like. But now, it seems to be yet another symptom of an industry heading towards crisis at speed. Over the past two decades, Britain’s eating and drinking scene has gone from being comparatively unexciting to arguably the best in Europe. In most towns or cities of any size, there are interesting independent breweries, excellent and inexpensive restaurants and pubs that serve a rich variety of food, along with a good selection of wines and beers. This now seems to be imperilled. The recent closure of the excellent Good Food Guide, after 69 continuous years of publication, seemed symbolic. Things that we have taken for granted may be on the verge of extinction.

Over the past two decades, Britain’s eating and drinking scene has gone from being comparatively unexciting to arguably the best in Europe

What can be done? My colleague Olivia Hartley’s suggestion that the government appoint a Minister for Hospitality is as timely now as it was when she made it in January, but there are few figures in the highest echelons of the Conservative party who seem to have a deep and sincere love of going out. For obvious reasons, neither Sunak nor Priti Patel drink, and even the Prime Minister, despite his photo opportunities clutching pints, is said hardly to indulge at all. As his biographer Andrew Gimson said, “where others might reach for the bottle, or the needle, he is more likely to embrace some warm and attractive woman.” One misses the convivial, glass-raising presence of a Ken Clarke.

Few are unaware of the government’s desire to raise much-needed taxes from the hospitality sector, but they have been going about it in the same unfocused, inefficient way with which they have pursued many of their other aims. What the whole industry now needs is its very own Kate Bingham, who can pursue the task of rescuing the nation’s places to eat and drink with focused vigour. If such a figure does not emerge, I fear that we will come to regard pubs and restaurants as curiosities along the lines of Lyons’ Corner Houses, once-ubiquitous places swept away by this particularly unwelcome tide of progress. And this would be yet another tragedy for our beleaguered nation. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover