Karen Bosher is Managing Director of Premium, Urban and Venture – a diverse range of pubs, many of which are in cities and town centres – and all greatly impacted by the pandemic.

City pubs survived terrorism, wars and plague, but the virus closed our doors

My job means I predominantly lead on our city pubs, but also work with more entrepreneurial pubs across the country to develop new ideas. This includes Metropolitan Pub Company, which is owned by Greene King, but runs independently. Consequently, I knew by January 2020 that something was sweeping towards us; tourists started to disappear from central London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Tour parties cancelled pub bookings and tour companies warned we wouldn’t see a return for a long time.

People started working from home. Tubes emptied out. Big Thursday nights in the City diminished. Shopping stopped. There was a nervousness about travelling into city centres. It was dramatic and alarming. The capital rapidly became a ghost town as life as we knew it stopped.

Boarding Up London

We decided to shut London pubs just before the government announced national closures. It was very, very emotional. Some of these businesses have existed for centuries; some were here in Shakespearean times. They’d survived plague, wars, acts of terrorism… and never shut. And yet a virus meant these historic properties had to be boarded up. Even getting beer out of city centre pubs was difficult.

Some of our drops are tiny and the hatches hundreds of years old. They’ve never pulled full casks back through those holes in the floor, so all credit to the dray crews, because physically, it was probably the most difficult aspect of closing. It was a team effort; managers got up before dawn to help push the beer back up.

Pub people are amazing... they’re the salt of the earth, and it’s a joy and privilege to work with them

Traumatic Impact

We have more than 1,600 team members in London who live above the pub and many are overseas workers. In April 2020 they were living in deserted pubs while worrying about friends and family back home. News reports from southern Europe showed the devastating impact the virus was having there. Some team members had relatives who were seriously ill, or worse. But they couldn’t get back to their countries; we were locked down and borders were closed. It was distressing.

We had a particularly traumatising situation where a highly regarded team member lost her mother and needed to get back to her country. The logistics and costs of doing this were significant and it really made us reflect on what we were facing with Covid-19. We asked: have we got enough provision to help those in desperate need? Meanwhile, the issue of hardship came to the fore really quickly in London because people have very high living expenses. They also depend on us for their homes, some rely on table tips...

the unique difficulties the virus was causing needed special consideration. So when the entire leadership team signed up to contribute to the Support Fund, it felt like a big moment for the business.

It was difficult to get some of our London pubs reopened when restrictions started to lift. Small, atmospheric, historic pubs were not built with social distancing in mind. They might have 20 seats inside, but on a Thursday or Friday night in normal times they could have 400 drinkers outside, thanks to the City of London’s vertical drinking rights that permits outdoor drinking within a certain area. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant this was suspended by parliament for the first time ever, and until that suspension was lifted, those pubs were not viable, so they were sadly mothballed.

In fact, it was tough on all the pubs I oversee, because city centres were slow to revive. People didn’t return to offices and tourists kept away. Few had gardens so they couldn’t reopen on 12 April 2021 and social distancing rules made the 17 May reopening difficult, too. Most were holding out for all restrictions to lift and 30 pubs were closed long term.

Brilliant Takeaways

In spite of all the difficulties, I came away thinking that pub people are amazing – they are the salt of the earth and really stepped up during the crisis. For example, the Metropolitan team were trailblazers, figuring out really quickly how to get takeaway services underway and offering our customers alternative services.

We also saw remarkable examples of people pulling together. Business development managers kept teams connected with singing competitions, painting contests, jogs in parks, cookery sessions… people did all they could to help others with their mental wellbeing.

It was a special time of bonding. It wasn’t easy for those who continued to work long hours to keep the business on track, either. But there were many examples of people taking time to care for each other. Mine is a new team and the pandemic bought out the best in people working under the worst conditions.