Original article from Kent Live
Kent pubs have been in the spotlight following the easing of national lockdown restrictions.
The public have raced back to their local boozer for a pint in the sun, with pub gardens now allowed to reopen.
Luckily the weather has held over the last two weeks, and though cold, headlines have abounded about people queuing up for midnight pints and braving chilly conditions for a chance to relax with their friends.
In the midst of all of this, you could be forgiven for forgetting that not all pubs have actually been able to reopen – even those which do in fact have beer gardens.
The pandemic has been exceptionally hard on the food service industry, and though some have pivoted to apps like Deliveroo and UberEats, keeping cash flowing through deliveries, many pubs have still struggled to make ends meet.
One such pub is The Smugglers Inn, in St Margaret's, just a few miles from Dover.
A family owned business that has been serving the local community for over twenty years, Peter Killin and his wife have struggled to justify reopening in April.
In fact, the tumultuous last year has seen them closed to customers for the past six months, following the initial second lockdown that came in during November 2020.
Though The Smugglers Inn does have a pub garden – and a reasonably sized one at that, with room for 6-8 tables seating six people each – Peter told KentLive that the economics of reopening at the moment just don't add up.
He said: "We had seventeen weeks where we were able to trade before the second lockdown, and there were obviously restrictions… however, the trading was good and we managed to get in to a very good position as a result of that.
"When it came to the second lockdown, which we could see coming really, we've now been shut for nearly six months, and it's just gone on, and on, and on.
"The problem for us reopening our pub garden is that it isn't overly large, customers have to pass through the pub to get to the garden, and quite frankly it would just be throwing good money after bad."
'It just was not viable'
Recent lockdown easing has meant that diners can visit pubs and restaurants as long as they are seated outside. However cold weather throughout April and pubs not being built to solely survive off external seating has made making a profit a big risk, if not entirely impractical.
Peter continued: "Greene King, who I deal with – though I'm a free trader – contacted me to ask whether we're going to open, and we responded 'no we're not.'
"They said [to us], 'We're opening, but we know we're going to lose money,' and okay, if you can afford that then that's fine.
"But from our point of view as an independent pub, we just can't afford to lose anything.
"We've been lucky for the pubs that have opened that we've not seen rain, but if the winds change and it rains or gets too cold at night, you're finished."
For pubs like Peter's, to remain closed was a difficult choice – one that getting wrong could risk the future of the business itself.
In his words, "It just was not viable."
'All in all it's been a bit disastrous'
Though chain-backed pubs, such as those owned by Shepherd Neame, are more able to incur some losses to get open again, that simply isn't the case for independent outlets like The Smugglers Inn.
"There are things we just can't get away from paying," Peter explained.
"Our accountancy costs alone cost £6,000 a year, our insurance costs around that much, and with fuel bills, electricity, wi-fi, making up furloughed employees' wages, it all adds up.
"All in all it's been a bit disastrous to be frank."
Even with the prospect of being able to reopen on May 17, when indoor dining is slowly reintroduced, there is still huge financial risk at play.
Some pubs may not have the capital to get their businesses open again.
"There was supposed to be a restart grant from Dover council," Peter said, "But we still haven't seen it.
"We were supposed to have it by April – it's now the 23rd, and we just haven't seen it.
"I know there's been a lot of fraud [of COVID grant payments], but we didn't start this business yesterday – if someone's been paying their business rates to the council for the past 20 years, and asks for a grant, you pay them."
The Smugglers Inn could have taken a grant payment over the summer from the government, but chose not to as they were doing well, but have since been left adrift as the unpredictable landscape of a COVID-19-stricken UK shifted.
Even now that it looks like we are finally moving out of the cycle of lockdowns and reopenings, there are still huge hurdles to clear.
"We need finance to reopen – it will cost around £10-15,000 just to restock, because every bit of stock we've got is now out of date.
"It's a fair sized business, but we have to bring all that stuff in, and hopefully as we reopen we'll get back ahead of the game, but it's a big risk and we are where we are really."
Though numerous government schemes, the NHS vaccine rollout and a more cautious approach to reopening all seem to have us on the right track, it still appears that the pubs at the heart of Kent communities are still struggling.
Amidst all the springtime pints with friends we'll no doubt enjoy over the coming weeks, it is incredibly important to remember just how fine a knife-edge this industry exists on, and that reopening doesn't mean that all is well just yet.