Is Alfresco Hospitality the Answer to Reopening the Drinks Industry?

As Lithuania’s Vilnius’ recent adoption of outdoor hospitality caused speculation as to how UK hospitality businesses could reopen amid the COVID-19 crisis, we explore whether alfresco drinking is a viable option in the not so distant future.

Drinks trends for 2020 have been given something of a shakeup since our pre-COVID 19 speculations. We’ve seen how some bar teams have begun providing high-quality deliveries – a service likely to stay – but the one that might be about to explode is alfresco drinking.

Pubs and bars across the UK took advantage of relaxed Government rules last week, allowing those with the correct license to serve takeaway food and drinks. It was perfect timing for the sunny bank holiday weekend. 

You need to be 70%-80% full to make any money

ALLAN GAGE

New research suggests we’re itching to start drinking again. According to a poll of 2,000 UK adults by Caterer.com, 31% plan to go to a pub within a week of their openingWhat’s certain, though, is that drinking in crowded indoor spaces won’t be an option.

But this, as Allan Gage, owner of London cocktail bar Nine Lives, points out, poses a problem: ‘We’re going to be allowed to reopen, but with a vastly reduced capacity – probably 50%. You need to be 70%-80% full to make any money.’

Premises, then, are likely to stay closed unless they can think of other places to safely accommodate their punters.

Take it outside

Two weeks ago, Imbibe reported that Alan Lorrimer, owner of Piano Works, was busy recruiting operators to support his #UKGrandOutdoorCafé initiative, which aims to turn the UK’s public spaces – from city streets to village greens – into outdoor bars, restaurants, and cafés from now until September.

‘We’re asking the government to give people the chance to re-emerge safely and enjoy a drink in the sunshine, just the same as any major European city,’ said Lorrimer.

He now has over 70 operators onboard – including Barrio Bars and Camm & Hooper – and has sent a requesting open letter to Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities & local government. On 17 May, the Sunday Telegraph reported that ministers are ‘considering blanket permission’ to make Lorrimer’s plan a reality.

Amy Lamé, London’s ‘night czar’, wants to know more: ‘By closing their doors, pubs and bars have played their part in tackling this health crisis; they will need support now and in the future. A range of innovations and ideas will need to be considered to help the industry, and I have asked Alan Lorrimer for more details about how his proposal would work in practice.’

Those who already have space outside their licenced premises will be able to proceed without too much fuss

MICHAEL WATSON

The initiative was inspired by Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, where they’ve given the green light to a similar scheme, effectively turning the city into a ‘giant open-air café’, allowing operators to attract a sufficient number of people to turn a profit, while adhering to social distancing rules.

Lorrimer has recruited Michael Watson to advise on how to make sure the operators involved stay compliant and respect minimum safety requirements. He’s behind Lorrimer’s idea but concedes that relaxation of all the usual rules ‘will take some doing’. ‘Those who already have space outside their licensed premises will be able to proceed without too much fuss,’ he said. But those without will most likely have to set up a temporary bar. And that’s where things get tricky: accessibility, noise, traffic disruption – the list is long.

Temporary fixes

Watson feels the best-case scenario would be to create large designated areas with a streamlined application process. ‘What’s been quite clear with corona [virus] is that where there’s a will there’s away. It would be a great boost for public morale,’ he said.

Fingers crossed local councils relax licensing requirements for outdoor eating & drinking – it could save the day for so many in this business

ALLAN GAGE

Allan Gage at Nine Lives is crossing his fingers and making tentative plans. The pedestrianized street outside the front of his subterranean cocktail bar is well-placed to host outdoor drinking. ‘The challenge will be to make sure we deliver the tropical atmosphere we’re known for downstairs on a street behind London Bridge station.’

Gage is keen on installing food and drinks trucks – ‘so that nothing permanent has to be built’ – along with a sound system, festoon lighting, and furniture to encourage ‘dwell time’ while keeping capacity under control. ‘Fingers crossed local councils relax licensing requirements for outdoor eating & drinking – it could save the day for so many in this business,’ he says.

Good for service

With respect to the service people can expect, Gage’s mind is fixed on quality, European-style table service. Whether staff will be clad in PPE masks and gloves remains to be seen, though it’s something he’s keen to avoid. ‘There needs to be some sort of innovation so it doesn’t look quite as surgical.’

For ordering, he references the success of Joe & The Juice’s app: ‘It’s such an easy user experience; definitely a route worth considering – having everything ordered and dispensed via simple tech would make the process smooth and safe,’ he said.

All eyes on Robert Jenrick’s next announcement then. And let’s pray for good weather.

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