Pub owners tentatively say trading has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but with the cost-of-living crisis, there are fears it will be short-lived
It’s been a full year since beer taps began flowing again and pubs across Northern Ireland are seeing profits bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, but they are braced for a new storm being wreaked by soaring inflation.
The public health crisis, which began in early 2020, inflicted deep wounds on the hospitality sector at large with pubs bearing the brunt of the economic burden.
Despite ongoing challenges — exacerbated by a talent drain resulting in decades of experience being leaked out from behind our favourite bars — it appears pub culture has been fully restored.
Yet another crisis is looming. The Bank of England expects inflation to reach 9% this year, blaming global shocks including supply chain problems as the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Consumer confidence has already fallen here with the most recent Danske Bank survey showing a sharp drop in the first quarter of 2022 as a direct result of rising living costs.
It also revealed more than 40% of people expected their financial position to worsen over the next year.
Nigel McNeely is operations manager at Wolf Inns which operates five different bars, including the Bellevue Arms in Glengormley and Roma’s in Newtownards.
Whilst there are differences in the geography, the accounting books all tell the same story.
“We are now back to 2019 trading levels but it has taken a bit of time to get there — it was very tentative initially,” he said.
“However, we are forecasting that we need to be at a higher level so we’ve been doing bits and pieces to try and expand capacity.”
The company has invested a significant amount of money refurbishing some of its most popular watering holes in Bangor.
By installing a brand new outdoor bar he was able to triple the number of seats available at the The Goats Toe which bustles with revellers lured in by the sound of live music.
The group also rejuvenated its Hop House pub in the Co Down seaside town but struggled to find extra space in its cosy Ava Wine Bar.
“We also did a big job in the first floor restaurant of the Bellevue Arms during lockdown too,” Mr McNeely explained.
However, with estimates suggesting it could take 12 months to yield financial fruit, he’s now crossing his fingers for a scorching hot summer.
“There’s no doubt that good weather brings people out and puts everyone in better form. The sun definitely helps fill up our beer gardens.”
Like many other pub operators Wolf Inns is acutely aware that new problems are brewing as a result of the cost-of-living crisis which has already sent overheads sky high.
Mr McNeely admits the tab will inevitably be picked up by customers. “I’m very concerned that a night out for drinks is going to become a luxury or a perk that people restrict to once a month,” he said.
“I know our bills have spiked quite sharply, but that’s also true for everyone else which means we all have less disposable income.”
The coronavirus outbreak, and crippling restrictions that followed, triggered an exodus of bartenders which has left a gaping hole in the industry with employers struggling to find new recruits.
“There’s been a massive drive, but it’s tricky because the experience isn’t there — it’s difficult for those trying to get their first job because I can only take a limited number of inexperienced workers,” Mr McNeely explained.
The frustrated manager believes some drinking habits may have been permanently altered as a result of lockdown which saw people create their own beer gardens at home. “Trade is later to start but goes on later,” he observed.
“But a birds-eye view suggests things are back to where they were. It’s been a slow burner but the focus must be on pushing forward and driving through.”
Meanwhile the owner of The Square bar in Dungannon mirrors a similar success story, but echoes the same concerns.
Philip Woods fears that consumer confidence is returning too slowly but admits the emergence of fresh faces propping up the bar of the town centre haunt has been a silver lining. “We have lost our older trade but gained a whole new batch of younger customers — there’s been a big bounce there,” he said.
“We are getting a lot of 18 and 19-year-olds, but our older crowd just hasn’t returned.”
The landlord blames a number of issues including the chaotic ritual of scrambling to get a taxi home after last orders. “There’s not many in Dungannon and you won’t get one if you haven’t pre-booked,” Mr Woods said.
“I think a lot of people have discovered home comforts and are happy to order food and stay in — that compounds the impact of cafe culture which has already shown people don’t meet over a pint like they used to.
“But last weekend we had a real feel good factor in here. It was a buzz I hadn’t experienced in years.”
Mr Woods praised the local council and Dungannon Enterprise Centre for a range of initiatives aimed at drawing more residents and visitors onto the streets. “There’s a new farmers market with craft stalls going to be starting right beside us, so hopefully that will bring more trade over the summer,” he said.
Maddens Bar in Antrim has also seen trade return to healthy levels after the forced hiatus and associated restrictions ended. “It really sort of took off straight away, people were chomping at the bit to get back out,” owner Eugene Madden recalled.
“The beer garden has really done the business for us. Lots of people got used to drinking at home when we closed up, but they got fed up and piled in as soon as they could.”
The publican, like many others, was aided by Guinness which gifted a free bar and outdoor equipment to help quench thirsty customers who packed into the rejuvenated outdoor space. He’s also weighed down by worries about the impact of rising prices which is already starting to spill over.
“Everything is just going up and that means profit margins will go down — it’s a real concern,” Mr Madden said. There’s also rate hikes coming down the line.
“We had help from the government to get through Covid, but there won’t be help for these new challenges.”
A shortage of bodies behind the bar is forcing early closure of the lounge area and causing headaches when it comes to working out rotas and catering to the needs of part-time staff.
A split in attitudes toward the ongoing risks posed by Covid-19 is causing a generational divide in many venues with young people much less worried.
“Our older customers are back, but they are much more cautious because they know Covid is very much still alive,” the owner of Crosskeys Inn said.
Despite regulars flocking back to the 17th century pub, turnover has not returned to 2019 levels.
Landlord Vincent Hurl says that’s because his business is inextricably linked with the travel sector. “The number of buses coming is starting to pick up again but there’s a bit of a backlog — people coming now are on trips that were postponed in 2019.”
With his electricity bill quadrupling in recent months Mr Hurl knows that even if the pub does fill up, restoring trade to its pre-pandemic peak will not be enough to fuel the fires which provide the perfect ambiance.
“Customers are already seeing their disposable income shrink,” he acknowledged. “Hospitality is price sensitive and there’s a tipping point where people will just think: ‘I’ll not bother going out’.”
Mr Hurl warned the impact of the industry being “robbed of years of experience and knowledge” coupled with rising prices means hospitality could still be ensnared in the vicious cycle of another perfect storm.