Noel Anderson, Managing Director of The Bridge 1859 and Lemon & Duke, has a story quite similar to many bars at the moment. Whilst his predicament is not unlike most in this frightening time, his outlook is more focused on long term issues than the immediate obstacles that stand in the way of bars opening again in Ireland and how, in fact, this would be sustainable.
Even when the immediate threat of the virus has passed, all signs point towards a serious economic downturn, the extent of which remains to be seen. We spoke to Noel about what he considers to be some of the major present and future issues, as well as the steps that he has taken to protect the business and its staff.
“I’ve never seen anything move as fast in my entire life,” Noel said when talking about how the virus and closures suddenly registered as an imminent threat. “I don’t think you can prepare for something like this.”
Noel could see the virus approaching Ireland, and knew it was only a matter of time – preparations had been underway with pulling back on orders approaching St. Patrick’s Day and talking to staff – but in the end the announced closures were still very abrupt. “We called a staff meeting on the Thursday,” he said, “But over the course of the week until the Sunday the talk changed four times.”
70 staff are employed across Noel’s two bars. Now with their doors closed, the bars are only costing money to keep afloat. “We did our level best to look after staff,” he said stating that they paid staff over €35,000 in holiday pay in recent weeks.
The future is uncertain for the staff, as it is in many establishments. In months to come, it may not be possible to take all them all back on or indeed pay them what they previously earned.
Noel believes that as the pubs were the first establishments to close they will probably be the last to reopen, and the way that they do business will have to be restructured to reflect the economy and attempt to recoup the previous months’ losses.
There are several obstacles that Noel believes are in the way of bars being able to survive this crisis. One thing that needs to happen is the minimising of costs that are accrued during their downtime.
Landlords of leased premises will have to rethink their approach to business tenants, or Noel warns that if landlords do not ‘play ball’ many of them will be ‘getting their keys back,’ with limited potential to find new tenants in the middle of an economic crisis.
While he feels that their suppliers have been excellent to deal with, he also believes that rates should be completely stopped and not simply deferred, so that businesses do not have to come back to a negative balance and added pressure. “VAT should be at 0%, not 9%,” he said. “We will be on our knees.”
Sky Sports was another company initially uncooperative with deferring payments for a period of three months, but recent campaigns to stop fees have succeeded.
Noel is currently in an awkward situation with an insurance broker that is refusing to pay out on an insurance policy that he feels should be covered by the title of ‘business interruption’. “We have been paying it out for an eternity and they have basically said that there is ‘nothing to see here,” he said.
He continued to say that only some of these policies cover for instances such as the pandemic, but the ones that do should pay out or they will be faced with many bankrupt pubs. He also thinks that the Central Bank and Minister for Finance should “Step in and make them [insurance companies] pay up”.
The future is very uncertain for the bar and indeed the wider hospitality industry. When it does come to the time to reopen, whenever that may be, the shape of the economy will prove to be another hurdle to overcome.
“Pubs are in for a rough ride,” said Noel. “I do think we will get out of it but the landscape will have changed.” Tourism will be drastically down for the foreseeable future and Noel thinks there needs to be a two-year plan in place for businesses in the hospitality industry that is particularly reliant on this as a source of income.
Ultimately Noel believes that other than wait, the only thing that businesses can do is plan on how they can reshape themselves to survive the next two years.