Stuart McPhee from Siberia Bar and Hotel and Scott Murray of Cru Holdings reveal the impact of operating under the different levels of restrictions.
It’s a tale of two tiers for the north of Scotland with the Highlands and Islands sitting primarily in Tier 1, while the north-east lies in Tier 2.
With more of the country, especially around the central belt, heading into Tier 4, it is a guessing game for businesses as to how long they will continue to operate under each level, and what the future holds.
Inverness – Tier 1
Having to prepare themselves almost daily for any changes which may be thrown their way, Scott Murray, managing director of CRU Holdings, a hospitality group in Inverness with six venues including Scotch & Rye and Bar One, says Tier 1 is still extremely challenging, with little to no support in place for businesses.
In Tier 1, Scott can serve alcohol indoors and outside without customers ordering a meal, but must close his venues by the 10.30pm curfew time, and can only allow up to six people from two households to meet in or outside any of his venues.
Operating restaurants, pubs and cocktail bars, Scott says while it doesn’t make financial sense for some of his venues to be open, he has done so for the sake of his staff in keeping them in jobs and motivated through these challenging times.
He said: “Being in Tier 1 is quite challenging. I don’t think there’s enough support at the Tier 1 level and I’m not convinced that the government recognises how far reaching the implications are for the hospitality businesses, especially in the Highlands.
“I think Inverness and the Highlands have almost bucked a trend with the rest of Scotland in terms of how hospitality operators have rallied to make the businesses safe. We have opened as we’ve wanted to keep continuity of employment for staff and for morale. We wanted to give confidence to our customers that we are still here and trading.
“For the Highlands as a location, everything seems to be a lot more by the book. Everyone seems to be doing things right, except maybe for a few rogue customers, but the majority are following and respecting the rules.
“For that reason I’d like to see a little leniency applied to the Highlands because I think the Highlands have done it right. They have gone way above and beyond what has been asked of them, but we still seem to be getting penalised for that without any really good reason.”
Tier 1 Christmas
With Christmas just around the corner, Scott says the festive period is going to be nothing like what the businesses are used to, but encourages the public to support local where they can.
“Tier 1 is still going to be a struggle for businesses during the festive period and into the New Year,” said Scott.
“I think from a customer point of view it is going to be very different. Obviously the lack of music for starters, and whether that changes, but I very much doubt it, although I’d love to see it. Groups of people meeting together; Christmas is going to be more a meal out with a friend or two than the likes of an office party or what we’re used to.
“Christmas is coming up, but don’t be afraid of it. Go out and support the local businesses whether that is pubs, restaurants or shops, they need your support more than ever right now. Try and get a little normality back and get through the next few months so we can enjoy things fully when hopefully restrictions are lifted and things are back to being closer to normal.”
Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire – Tier 2
In Aberdeen, Stuart McPhee, director of Siberia Bar & Hotel also says Tier 2 continues to be challenging, but has got himself and his staff into a positive mindset of preparing for a Tier 2 Christmas.
Unlike Scott’s venues in Inverness, alcohol is only permitted to be sold indoors with a main meal until 8pm when restaurants are forced to close, and outdoor venues can serve alcohol, closing in time for the 10.30pm curfew.
However, Tier 2 also has the ‘six from two’ rule in place, and social distancing must be carried out in every venue customers step into across the country.
He said: “It has been nice to be open again. We have been pleasantly surprised and I think that with food being the primary goal of visiting inside, that has driven footfall. The kitchen has been pretty busy daily so that’s a welcome boost.
“We’re nowhere near hitting the same income we would normally hit, even in terms of September/October time. But we’re open again and that’s the main thing as we can keep people in jobs.
“The most challenging thing for me has been the flip-flopping between opening and closing. Really what you would like to see is a consistent period of time where you can trade and build up some momentum, get to know customers again and adapt to changes. We did that well in October from it being eight people over three households to now six people over two, to then having curfews and a music ban. We’ve just tried to roll with everything and embrace it as positively as we can.”
Sticking to the rules
While Stuart says he and his staff have been working to ensure all practices in place are followed to a T, it is a minority of customers who either don’t understand the rules, or are now bending the rules, which makes operating a hospitality venue more difficult than ever.
“The team are incredibly anxious as things seem to be changing on a daily basis and are sitting waiting on decisions to be made which really impact their lives. They have dealt with it incredibly well and are an extremely resilient bunch. They are very creative and have spent the downtime of the last three weeks we were closed working on training, a new cocktail menu, a line of merchandise and more. We’re trying to engage their talents and keep them interested,” said Stuart.
“Regulars have not been scared in coming back out which has been fantastic and we obviously really appreciate their support. I think there’s a heightened layer of confusion in what people have to do in order to come and visit a venue like ourselves: ‘What can they do? Where can they come from?’. Overall, they have been extremely compliant and the feedback has been phenomenal – probably some of the best I’ve had working here.
“There’s only so much we can do as a venue in enforcing the six by two household rule, and if a customer tells you that’s the case, then our due diligence is, ‘Are you guys from two households?’. We’ll make a note of it and if we suspect or know they are not, we will turn them away. The difficulty comes when people will actively try and bend the rules – there is nothing anyone can do.”
Tier 2 Christmas
Preparing for a Tier 2 Christmas, Siberia will be offering three-course festive dinners and a winter cocktail menu to get customers in the festive spirit.
Stuart added: “We’ve planned for the future to be operating in Level 2. We will plan for it as long as possible. If we went back into Tier 3 we would have to close – and that would be a fourth time and back looking at furlough.
“We’re planning for a Tier 2 Christmas. We are developing a simplified three-course dining menu called the two household Christmas menu. We will have a range of winter cocktails that will go live on December 1. People are keen to try and engage with businesses who are doing things in these novel ways and are trying to fit normal celebrations into the restrictions, so that they can still have that sense of normality, but in a safe environment.”