A month after the lockdown, what Cork businesses are doing to survive the Covid-19 crisis

There will be no normal return for pubs and restaurants proprietors tell Áine Kenny
A month after the lockdown, what Cork businesses are doing to survive the Covid-19 crisis
Tessa and Beth Haughton getting their orders ready at Dockland Restaurant on Lapps Quay, Cork. The restuarant is opened every Friday and Saturday evening for pre-ordered takeaway collections. Picture: Dan Linehan

There will be no normal return for pubs and restaurants proprietors tell Áine Kenny

With restaurants, pubs, tourist offerings and hotels shuttered for over a month due to the Covid-19 lockdown, Cork business owners are working on strategies to keep going.

Some are pivoting to new ventures, while many still visit their closed pubs and restaurants to check up on their once-busy premises.

None believe that they will be returning to businesses as usual in the short term because they say social distancing is incompatible with small and cosy pubs and the ambience of a small eatery.

Ernest Cantillon, who owns Sober Lane and Electric in Cork City, said that the week before closure was very tough.

“Sober Lane has been there for 15 years, Electric has been there for 10. They were always fairly solid,” he said.

The weather warnings and storms that battered Cork during January and February already damaged the start of the season and then corporate bookings had dropped off well ahead of official coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Cantillon said the last few days before shutting up for the foreseeable future were “heartbreaking.”

“We were starting to lose 30 or 40 people from bookings each day. Thursday and Friday were very quiet, and we closed on Saturday, March 14,” he said.

You try to put a brave face on it, but 61 staff members are all laid off. I took a deep breath once we closed.

Mr Cantillon said that with off licences and supermarkets still open, his Kinsale Gin business is still doing well, and he has moved into developing other whiskey ventures.

However, he still goes into Electric and uses it as an office.

“It is a bit sad, sitting in an empty restaurant,” he said.

Yet he doesn’t see pubs or restaurants being fully reopened anytime soon.

“It’ll be September. Bars and restaurants are not suited to social distancing. You don’t go into a pub to sit across the table from someone with a mask on,” he said.

Michael O’Donovan of The Castle Inn in Cork City is the chairperson of the Cork branch of the Vintners Federation of Ireland. He hopes the industry will get back on its feet, but is uncertain when that will be.

“We closed Sunday, March 15. We had the social distancing aspect on Friday and Saturday, but it became difficult to operate in a pub scenario," he said.

People weren’t used to it at that stage, it was a new concept and the severity of the situation hadn’t sunk in.

All of the taps were cleaned, flushed out and emptied ahead of the full lockdown measures, but Mr O’Donovan said a lot of publicans would still go into their premises.

He says it was very difficult when staff had to be let go.

“People have been with us for 20 plus years. Under the circumstances, we had to let them go. We are just waiting to get the go ahead, to come back and for everyone to be safe,” he said.

He was concerned when Health Minister Simon Harris, said that social distancing could be in place for many months, especially in the absence of a vaccine.

Mr O’Donovan wondered how social distancing can be maintained in a pub setting.

“People will have learned how important it is, but in a pub scenario, is it economically viable to open the pub?” he asked.

However, Mr O’Donovan thinks the industry will prevail because pubs are a part of Irish culture, and are important for the community and celebrations.

We [Irish] are social people, and Cork people are very social.

Mike Ryan, who owns the Coqbull and Cornstore restaurants in Limerick and Cork, said his restaurants shut on Sunday, 15 March.

“It wasn’t an easy decision but we had to weigh up the concerns. All of our staff had families to go back to, and some of their family members were vulnerable,” Mr Ryan said.

“Custom had dropped off so much there was no point in continuing on, town had deserted. The writing was on the wall at that stage,” he said.

Mr Ryan plans to offer a cold takeaway service, whereby customers can order a meal and receive instructions on how to cook it.

He said this is preferable to a hot takeaway service, as delivery times at the moment are too long and the food would be ruined by the time it arrived.

“We never thought of doing that before, it wasn’t on our radar,” he said.

However, he is concerned that when the restaurants reopen they will have to operate at a reduced capacity to enforce social distancing.

If we are spacing everyone out by two metres, we will be using a third of our capacity, and less staff will be required to cook and serve the food.

"The government will need to top up their wages somehow until we can reopen fully,” he said.

Mr Ryan also wonders whether people will still come to restaurants if they can’t eat with people outside of their household, or have to eat with a mask on, which is virtually impossible.

“We are going into a new world. You hear sayings like ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘the cream will always rise to the top’. That’s not true in this case if a business fails, it’s purely due to the circumstances,” he said.

For example, if a café only has 15 seats in it, and now they can only use five of those [due to social distancing], how will they survive?

The hotel and tourism sector has also been badly affected by Covid-19 and the lockdown.

Fergal Harte, general manager of The Kingsley Hotel in Cork city, who is also the chair of the Cork Irish Hotels Federation, said the hotel closed on March 18 -- but that the staff knew it was coming for a few days.

“We were increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our staff and guests. Business was in decline, it was a somewhat unreal situation,” he said.

The Kinglsey, unfortunately, is no stranger to closure.

It shut its doors for a few years after it was severely damaged by the 2009 floods, with the premises reopening in 2014.

“We are conscious of the bigger picture. We are hoping we can get through this, and we will keep following government advice," said Mr Harte.

Everything has changed, in relation to physical and social distancing. Our main focus will be to get some part of the hotel reopened.

It is uncertain what the industry will look like once the dust settles.

A reduction in business travel and international tourism will undoubtedly put a dent into profit margins, and Mr Harte said Government support in the form of capital grants, a reduction in the Vat rate to zero, at least initially, and a restoration of the lower 9% rate thereafter, would be ideal.

Another Cork hospitality business that has been severely affected is the Cronin Travel group, a Cork family business.

Derry Cronin, managing director of Cronin’s Coaches, said its 75 coaches are parked up.

Cronin’s mainly caters to international tourists, as well as providing day tours to West Cork and the Ring of Kerry, a Cork city hop on hop off tour, private coach hire, and school and corporate hires.

“This is the first time we can genuinely use the word ‘unprecedented’. The overseas market will be slow enough to recover, it probably won’t be until 2021,” said Mr Cronin.

However, he is hopeful about the domestic market, as he thinks most Irish people will opt for a staycation rather than traveling abroad, as well as school and private hire returning.

“As difficult as it is, I think the Government and the financial institutions have acted very responsibly. There is a great sense that this is a problem we are all facing together and we will find the solution, and when we get into the [economic] recovery stage the whole country will work together,” he said.

“The tourist industry will need support. It is the second largest indigenous industry and we know how important it is as an employer, for Revenue, and for communities. We have to protect the assets and gains made in tourism,” he said.

Mr Cronin also thinks this will be a time for the country to reflect. “I think people will re-evaluate what’s important," he said. "There will be lots of taking stock.”

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