A man walks into a pub…

By Blackdog - 3 years ago

Posted: 10/07/20

No joke. Pubs, bars and restaurants are reopening.

Blackdog’s retail & hospitality guru Dave Shrimpton visited some of them to see what’s changed.

Hot on the heels of non-essential stores opening recently ( see my review here ) I braved the streets of Cambridge to see how bars and restaurants are coping with the hordes of thirsty punters, desperate to have a pint and a pack of pork scratchings. Just me?

I wondered, given the debate around the pub and restaurant re-opening post-lockdown, can alcohol consumption and safety/social distancing co-exist? And even if they can, how can brands make the new experience engaging and appealing to customers?

I thought I’d check it out by looking at some of the leisure and hospitality hotspots in Cambridge on ‘Super Saturday’ and in the days after. And yes, first impressions are that many of the older generation take the safety measures seriously, while some of the young appear oblivious.

As ever, I scored each venue out of 5.

The Hoops – local pub & restaurant in Bassingbourn

Russell the landlord had staffed up the pub for a busy opening Saturday, but sadly it just hadn’t turned into reality. The bar area was empty despite considerable expenditure on screens, with some customers drinking outside and but no diners either inside or outside.

There were plenty of safety measures on display, though it was interesting that much of the language focused on ‘common sense’ – not always a top-seller among drinkers. The removal of tables and bar stools inside, though sensible, might also be unsustainable once autumn arrives and people no longer want to sit outside.

The balance between a traditional pub and the new normal is a tricky one to navigate. Like other locations, The Hoops will need a way to bring back that ‘night at the pub’ social theatre that customers still want. Russell was hopeful that business would pick up post the hype of ‘Super Saturday’.

Overall score – 3 out of 5

Browns restaurant

A delightfully large, bright and airy restaurant that’s always popular with tourists and locals, and we immediately noticed excellent distancing messaging outside and inside – with floor stickers, posters and tabletop ‘tent cards.’

Browns seems to have captured the need to be welcoming. Not just by the staff, though they were delighted to be open again, but with their signage. If brands are glad to see customers back, they shouldn’t be afraid to say so. And even before customers set foot through the door, the website celebrated re-opening really well, telling customers that it ‘couldn’t wait to see them’ and offering a complimentary cocktail.

But Browns also communicated its COVID Safety restrictions clearly online, on its app and in-situ. This is another area that brands will have to ensure they get right, as more and more customers will want to know what they can and cannot do.

The balancing act between celebration and safety is a tricky one to get right, but Browns was doing it pretty well. It made me feel like I could easily spend a couple of hours there without any safety concerns and post Covid, that’s an achievement!

Overall score – 4 out of 5


We visited the pubs in Cambridge and Royston. The latter was the better of the two, but I’m afraid to say that neither one impressed us much. They were dark, grubby and filled with loud male drinkers, both young and old, to the point where both my daughter and I felt uncomfortable and left without eating. At least we saw regular cleaning and sanitising.

Both venues had plenty of signage, actually too much and there didn’t seem to be much thought put into what to put where. Instead there was a barrage of instructions and directives. Even worse, they looked like they’d been printed off and laminated at the last moment. The words might have read, ‘Welcome Back’, but it didn’t really feel like they meant it. The general amateur look and feel and almost bureaucratic, barking tone of the communications, using words like attention, adhere to and limited to, with barely a ‘please’ to be seen, had no place in the hospitality sector.

Although instructions to use the Wetherspoon app to order and pay were clear enough, the Cambridge site had no information on NHS Track and Trace at all, and Royston only offered a crayon to fill in the form! Yes, there’s table service and some distancing measures, but if you’re not a stereotypical Wetherspoon customer who just wants to get lashed, I really don’t see the appeal.

And just to say it again, the NHS’s Track and Trace service is in place at pubs and restaurants for a reason. If brands don’t ensure customers use it, what’s the point? That said, if most customers are using the app to order, then that should do the job.

Overall score – 1.5 out of 5 (Cambridge) / 2 out of 5 (Royston)

All Bar One

This one really surprised me and was a signpost that the new post-Covid dining experience could be great for both staff and customers. A highly engaging store manager at the front explained how tables have been removed for a more relaxed atmosphere, with customers capped at groups of six and required to fill in the Track and Trace forms. There’s no standing at the bar and the staff are loving the fact that they can really take care of the seated customers.

By having Pre-booking only, means the team know the numbers they are catering for and can easily turn away late, drunk customers with no arguments. The manager said they had been fully booked all weekend and couldn’t have taken any more money.

So how did they accomplish this? Well-designed signage, welcoming language and highly engaged staff, to begin with – not to mention clear online details of the restrictions and policies in place with a short video.

All Bar One also showed that they understand the social experience of drinking and dining out and has created it anew. If you’re a group of up to six, you can have an evening there that’s much like the old days. Let’s face it, eating out is not going to be like it was for a while yet – spontaneity is no longer an option; but by operating on a booking only basis, All Bar One has made eating out feel special again and the way the restaurant has been reconfigured builds on this special feeling.

All Bar One provided an experience that was at the other end of the scale to Wetherspoon. They showed that they understood how to captivate their customers at every touchpoint. Truly an example of best practice.

Overall score – 5 out of 5

So what lessons could be learned for other leisure and hospitality brands?

  • More than any other sector, it’s about the big warm welcome. Show how glad you are to see your customers again and work hard to captivate them at every touchpoint
  • Remember, if your venue is operating with new procedures in place, then your former approach to in-venue comms and touchpoints is unlikely to work. Think about how customers move around the new layout so that you can plan how to communicate to them and where. You can expect to see new behaviours so make sure you understand what these are and build them into your planning
  • Use the ‘new normal’ to your advantage – if groups are capped at six, or there’s a booking only policy, create an experience that’s specially tailored to these new circumstances
  • Keep your distancing signage and messaging clear, both in-store and online – a no-brainer! And avoid the trap that Wetherspoon fell into – clarity doesn’t mean rudeness. Instructions need to be balanced with language and visuals that are joyful and celebratory
  • Try to leverage technology – payment apps and online ordering are going to be important tools over the coming months. It’s also a brilliant way of building engagement and loyalty, so don’t waste the opportunity to entertain and bring some joy in consumers’ lives
  • Finally, remember the theatre of a night out. Do whatever you can to retain that special spark that separates your location from its rivals – or create a new one!