Merlin Griffiths: You have to control what you can

We spoke to the cocktail slinger on Channel 4’s First Dates and co-owner of a pub in Northamptonshire this week as the UK government announced further restrictions on hospitality businesses.

Griffiths was counter-intuitively upbeat when we spoke over Zoom yesterday (13 October). Research published by UKHospitality has found that, since 20 March when bars and restaurants were told  to close, nearly three quarters (72%) of small hospitality business owners have had negative impact on their finances due to the pandemic. Nevertheless the pub owner, who worked for 20 years in the hospitality sector and rose to fame on First Dates, sees light at the end of the tunnel. “The hospitality industry is very adaptable,” he said.

Despite some promising gains over since 4 July when venues were allowed to reopen, things are getting harder by the week as the UK government attempts to fend off the worst of a second wave of coronavirus cases. Pubs and restaurants have been forced to close at 10pm since 24 September to prevent people from breaking social distancing rules. Any bartender will tell you the last leg before closing at midnight is when the vast majority of takings come in.

“I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t made things difficult,” Griffiths said, “it really has.”

Worse still, PM Boris Johnson announced a tiered lockdown system which means that areas with high levels of coronavirus could force venues that don’t serve food with their drinks to close. London could become classed as a “high risk” level in a matter of days, plunging hundreds of sites without a fully functioning kitchen back into darkness.

Griffiths’ country pub, thankfully, has a full food menu, but even then, he says the past seven months have “forced me to take really a cold objective look at my business and the way we do certain things.”

“You have to control what you can,” he said. “Everyone’s business is different, but you’ve got to look honestly at yours and say ‘what can I control here’. The more you can control the more you will be in a safe mental space to get through this.”

“This is something hospitality has always been, it’s changeable and adaptable.”

Some restrictions have been easier than others to adapt to. Table service, he said, was already part of the pub’s offering, but there has still been “a lot of cost control if I’m honest and trading in the profitable hours.”

The pub used to be open “all hours” Monday-Friday, as busy weekend trading periods were enough to make up the shortfall at the start of the week, but he’s since balanced overheads by “compressing” opening hours, staying closed on Mondays, and integrating set service slots for booked tables to ensure more people pass through the doors in a shorter space of time.

“Table-turning is something I’ve not liked to do but you have to.”

Next the weekly food order for the menu slimmed down significantly. Dishes revolve around a few, locally-sourced “hero ingredients”

“You look at things like how does you menu operate, and make the supply chains more efficient.”

There’s also the basics, such as cutting down on utility bills, which Griffiths said can offer “marginal gains”. This is the reason he is speaking to me this week, as well as several other journalists. He has partnered with Smart Energy GB, a company that is communicating the roll-out of smart electricity meters in homes and businesses so bill-payers can keep track of how much money they are spending on utilities. Smart Energy has just published a free guide offering peer support to hospitality small business owners ahead of the Christmas season, and Griffiths has been recruited to spread the word.

Called ‘Hospitality – Take Time, Take Control’, it provides business tips from 11 industry figures, including Griffiths; Little Venice Cake Company founder Mich Turner; co-founder of travel club Mr & Mrs Smith, and James Lohan MB from Institute of Hospitality and Hospitality Action.

Advice includes pairing down menus, partnering with other businesses on co-branding projects, investing time and energy on engaging with potential customers on social media, retaining staff and, of course, installing a smart meter to better manage utility bills.

“Smart meters is one of the things we’re encouraging small businesses to get in. Extracts is something I didn’t know I was spending so much money on.”

However, it’s important to note not all energy suppliers offer smart metres, and venue owners will need to do their own homework as well to work out what appliances they need and what they can do without to bring the bills down.

Aside from that, restaurants can add value to their business by operating a retail business on the side – whether that means selling takeaways or shifting anything they don’t need. At the start of lockdown, many venues such as Brat in east London pivoted to selling groceries, while some were even selling crockery and napkins no longer needed if table service couldn’t happen. Griffiths said that running a “small village shop” alongside the hospitality business has helped to offset some losses.

The First Dates star isn’t immune to the chaos, but he is not going down without a fight.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me at some point, how could it not?”

“It’s going to be difficult…but as I say we’ve been dealing with various degrees of these restrictions for some time.

“It might sound obvious but it’s control what you can. So much of this you cannot control and as an operator it’s really difficult situation. Just control what you can.”

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