It’s been a whole year since beer taps started flowing again and pubs across Northern Ireland are seeing profits bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, but they are poised for another storm wrought by rising inflation.
The public health crisis, which began in early 2020, has left deep wounds in the hospitality industry in general, with pubs bearing the brunt of the economic burden.
Despite ongoing challenges – exacerbated by a talent drain that has leaked decades of experience from behind our favorite bars – it seems pub culture has made a full recovery.
Another crisis is looming. The Bank of England expects inflation to reach 9% this year and blames global shocks, including supply chain problems, as the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Consumer confidence has already fallen here, as the most recent study from Danske Bank shows a sharp drop in the first quarter of 2022 as a direct result of rising cost of living.
It also revealed that more than 40% of people expected their financial position to deteriorate in the coming year.
Nigel McNeely is an operations manager at Wolf Inns, which operates five different bars, including Bellevue Arms in Glengormley and Roma’s in Newtownards.
Although there are geographical differences, the accounting books all tell the same story.
“We are now back at the 2019 trading level, but it has taken some time to get there – it was very cautious at first,” he said.
“However, we predict that we need to be at a higher level, so we’ve been trying bit and bit to expand capacity.”
The company has invested a significant amount in refurbishing some of the most popular watering holes in Bangor.
By installing a brand new outdoor bar, he was able to triple the number of available seats at The Goats Toe, which is buzzing with revelers lured in by the sound of live music.
The group also revamped its Hop House pub in the seaside town of Co Down, but struggled to find extra space in the cozy Ava Wine Bar.
“During the lockdown, we also did a lot in the restaurant on the first floor of the Bellevue Arms,” explains McNeely.
However, with estimates suggesting it could take 12 months to pay off financially, he’s now crossing his fingers for a scorching hot summer.
“There is no doubt that good weather gets people out and everyone in better shape. The sun certainly helps to fill our beer gardens.”
Like many pub owners, Wolf Inns is well aware that new problems are emerging as a result of the cost of living crisis that has already sent overheads skyrocketing.
Mr. McNeely admits that the bill is inevitably picked up by customers. “I’m very concerned that a night out for a drink will become a luxury or perk that people limit to once a month,” he said.
“I know our bills have gone up quite a bit, but so have everyone else, which means we all have less disposable income.”
The coronavirus outbreak and the crippling restrictions that followed has caused an exodus of bartenders that has left a gaping hole in the industry, with employers struggling to find new recruits.
“There’s been a huge drive, but it’s tough because the experience isn’t there – it’s hard for those trying to get their first job because I can only hire a limited number of inexperienced workers,” explained Mr. McNeely.
The frustrated manager believes some drinking habits have changed permanently as a result of the lockdown, with people creating their own beer gardens at home. “Trading starts later, but continues later,” he noted.
“But a bird’s-eye view suggests things are back where they were. It has been a slow burner, but the focus must be on persevering and driving on.”
Meanwhile, the owner of The Square bar in Dungannon reflects a similar success story, but echoes the same concerns.
Philip Woods fears consumer confidence is returning too slowly, but admits the appearance of fresh faces at the city center bar was a silver lining. “We’ve lost our older business, but we’ve got a whole new group of younger customers – there’s been a big revival there,” he said.
“We’re getting a lot of 18 and 19-year-olds, but our older audience just hasn’t returned.”
The landlord blames a number of problems, including the chaotic ritual of scrambling to get a taxi home after the final orders. “There aren’t many in Dungannon and you won’t get one if you haven’t pre-booked,” said Mr Woods.
“I think a lot of people have discovered the comforts of home and like to order food and stay indoors – that’s amplifying the impact of the cafe culture, which has already shown that people don’t meet up for a pint like they used to.
“But last weekend we had a real feel-good factor here. It was a buzz I hadn’t experienced in years.”
Mr. Woods praised the city and the Dungannon Enterprise Center for a series of initiatives aimed at bringing more residents and visitors to the streets. “There is a new farmers market with craft stalls that will start next door to us, so hopefully that will bring in more trade in the summer,” he said.
Maddens Bar in Antrim has also seen trade bounce back to healthy levels after the forced hiatus and associated restrictions ended. “It really took off right away, people were eager to get out again,” recalls owner Eugene Madden.
“The beer garden really did it for us. A lot of people got used to drinking at home when we closed, but they got tired of it and piled up as quickly as possible.”
The tax collector, like many others, was helped by Guinness, who donated a complimentary bar and outdoor gear to help thirsty customers who had packed into the rejuvenated outdoor space. He is also weighed down by concerns about the impact of rising prices, which are already showing.
“Everything is just going to go up and that means profit margins will go down – it’s a real concern,” Mr Madden said. Interest rate hikes are also on the way.
“We had government help to get through Covid, but there will be no help for these new challenges.”
A shortage of bodies behind the bar forces the lounge to close early and causes headaches when it comes to working out rosters and meeting the needs of part-time staff.
Divisive attitudes to the lingering risks of Covid-19 are creating a generation gap in many locations with young people far less concerned.
“Our older customers are back, but they are much more cautious because they know that Covid is still very much alive,” said the owner of Crosskeys Inn.
Despite regulars flocking back to the 17th-century pub, sales have not returned to 2019 levels.
Landlord Vincent Hurl says that’s because his company is inextricably linked to the travel industry. “The number of buses that are coming is starting to increase again, but there is a bit of a backlog – people coming now are on trips that have been postponed in 2019.”
With his electric bills having quadrupled in recent months, Mr Hurl knows that even if the pub fills up, restoring trade to its pre-pandemic peak won’t be enough to fuel the fires that create the perfect atmosphere.
“Customers are already seeing their disposable income shrink,” he acknowledged. “Hospitality is price sensitive and there is a tipping point where people just think: I’m not going out anymore.”
Hurl warned that the impact of the industry being “robbed of years of experience and knowledge,” coupled with rising prices, means hospitality could still get caught up in the vicious circle of another perfect storm.