Nick Hair
Punters now have to keep their distance in the Kentish Belle – or face the landlord

Bexley borough’s growing community of micropubs – small bars specialising in real ale – is aiming to bring cheer to residents before the sun sets on summer, after their premises began to re-open following lockdown. IAN McCAWLEY found out how these much-loved boozers survived.

The number of micropubs in Bexley borough has now reached double figures with more launches on the way – and most of them seem to have adapted well despite the damage done by coronavirus to the wider hospitality sector.

Forced to close their doors on the same day lockdown was imposed at venues across the UK, micropub owners had to think on their feet about how to keep their businesses afloat, without any indication of when they’d be able to welcome drinkers back to the bar.

In some cases, demand for a soothing pint remained high. Several micropubs opted to launch takeaway and delivery, or grow their existing off-sales services to satisfy those still keen to sup.

Nick Hair, owner of The Kentish Belle in Bexleyheath, says a look through the books after a few months of effectively becoming an off-licence revealed his takings had actually increased compared to the same period in 2019.

He says: “Between the first day of lockdown and early June we were somewhere around 10 to 11 per cent up on last year. That was just through opening as a takeaway for four hours at a time on Fridays and Saturdays. Our customers were already using the service but this accelerated it. We were taking orders from as far away as Rochester.”

Kentish Belle
The Kentish Belle has become a much-loved addition to the Bexleyheath community

Despite takeaway sales fizzing, which alongside accessing various local and national government schemes has been vital emergency revenue for micropubs, orders have largely returned to normal levels since their premises reopened from early July.

For some, the enforced hiatus of lockdown was been an opportunity to think again about what they offered. Steve Lewarne took over The Door Hinge in Welling, Bexley’s longest-serving micropub, as co-owner in October 2019. While the unforeseen closure was far from ideal, the crisis hasn’t gone to waste.

He says: “We didn’t see lockdown coming. When everything shut we thought, what do we do now? But we’d always intended to change things. We value our existing customers but we wanted to attract younger drinkers too, so we’ve added spirits and ciders alongside ales and refurbished extensively.

“Because people weren’t able to go to traditional pubs in lockdown they came to us. We were licensed for takeaway so it was literally a case of popping your head around the door to see what was on the board. They could see the changes we’ve made and are coming back now we’re open again. Our existing customers joke it’s nice to look across the pub and not just see the same old faces.”

Such has been micropub owners’ ability to innovate, several have even managed to repay the support of their customers and employees. Hair has allocated a portion of the grant he received towards a staff hardship fund. Meanwhile, Bev and Bob Baldwin, owners of The Penny Farthing in Crayford, rewarded their drinkers with leftover beer when lockdown began.

Bev explains: “That first weekend, we had eight to 10 casks in place. Rather than pour it down the sink we gave most of it away to our regulars.”

A sense of community has helped the micropubs throughout lockdown. Steve points to the willingness of brewers to help: “Supply was an issue in some cases. But we have some great relationships with brewers and they have looked after us. We always managed to pay suppliers even if we weren’t paying ourselves – that’s a great bargaining tool.”

Meanwhile, Bev is keen to praise Bexley Council’s licensing team: “We were due to reopen on 4th July but because the government held back on licences for outside seating, we put that back till 23rd July as we didn’t have the outside space. The council has kept us well informed and they are just doing their job. Where the decision came through a bit late we have been allowed a larger area outside for tables than before.”

Capacity is an obvious issue, though here too a combination of sensible planning and – where possible – external seating has limited the restrictions. Nick says: “We can easily fit 20 people at the front, and until September our landlord has given us space at the back as well.

Turning to the next phase of the pandemic, he adds: “I don’t think we’ll have any problems. We’ve not had to turn any customers away yet.”

Kentish Belle's Nick Hair
The Kentish Belle has gained a beer garden – for now

Steve is just as positive: “If we can get through this, we can get through anything. When it’s all up and running properly after the pandemic is fully under control we will have a bit of a shindig.”

For her part, Bev is anxious about the prospect of a second wave and a potential new lockdown, yet hopeful of the continued support of her customers. “The hard thing is what’s to come. With the winter and bad weather micropubs might struggle,” she states. “But if there was another lockdown, I think off-sales would be good again. People do come out of the woodwork to support small business.”

While micropubs appear to be thriving overall, Nick voices concern about the health of the wider pub sector. He soberly concludes: “Some pubs have closed already. I suspect you will see many more. Big companies, independents: it will be a mass offload. I love beer and pubs and their history, and I’d sooner see them survive. The loss of any pub is terrible.”

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.

IAN McCAWLEY is a freelance journalist.

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