The Bristol Post has produced a rundown of local food and hospitality businesses “that didn’t survive a year of lockdowns” – but is that a fair way to describe what’s going on?
For starters, there are several businesses on the list that haven’t actually ceased trading, as the article itself acknowledges.
The excellent Gopal’s Curry Shack, for example, has closed its retail unit, but is still operating as a delivery business, and will be attending markets and events when those start up again later this year.
Of course what particularly interests us is the fate of bars and pubs, and there are a few on the list. Again, though, we’re going to quibble – not least because lazily blaming lockdown means ignoring the long-term causes of pub closures:
- Economics – you need a reasonable amount of disposable income to go to the pub regularly, and fewer people have this.
- Demographics and shifting trends – where are those that do have money going? Are new generations of pub goers coming through?
- The ongoing persistence of the leasehold model for pub ownership, which makes it hard for publicans to make a living.
- The value of pubs and the land on which they sit to developers.
To start with, one, Alchemy 198 on Gloucester Road, isn’t a closure but something of an upgrade, at least as far as beer lovers are concerned, because it became the Sidney & Eden craft beer bar last autumn.
The Windmill in Bedminster was actually put up for sale by its owners in the spring of 2019 and when we visited for our #EveryPubInBristol project in the autumn of that year was already the subject of a sadly unsuccessful local preservation campaign.
Another pub on the Post’s list is The Swan, not far from where we now live in Barton Hill, which closed for good in May 2020 and has now been bought for conversion by the community group next door. We never got to visit or, rather, chickened out of visiting because as we approached the door a very drunk bloke blocked it and made it clear we weren’t welcome. Now, perhaps we’re reading this incorrectly, but it looked like a pub on its last legs every time we walked past and even if lockdown was the final trigger, it’s hard to imagine it would have lasted much longer under any other circumstances.
The Three Blackbirds, one of the last pubs we visited before lockdown kicked in, is also on the list of supposed lockdown victims listed by the Post. But even their piece includes a statement from the landlady suggesting that the pub was in trouble before lockdown – and that’s certainly how it felt when we dropped in, and whenever we passed.
To be clear, we don’t doubt that there will be casualties from the last year once government support dries up completely – along with publicans’ savings and credit lines.
The Downend Tavern, also on the Post’s list, is perhaps one example. Famous as a pub rock venue and home of the Bristol Blues Club it always struck us as a lively local and seemed in passable health before 2020 came along. But that’s hard to package as a takeaway experience, especially if your clientele skews older and has less disposable income.
One pub not mentioned by the Post is another Barton Hill local, The Rhubarb, which may or may not reopen and is currently without tenants.
We’re still optimistic that people will be so hungry to go to pubs post-lockdown that there might be something of a renaissance. Closed pubs might reopen. Pubs that were limping along and scraping by under an old business model and veteran publicans might come alive with a new approach and new owners.
But the point is, really, that it’s too soon to tell how COVID-19 will affect the overall number of pubs. Let’s just wait and see – and, in the meantime, do what we can to support the pubs we love, either by ordering beer for delivery or donating to crowdfunders.