Tim Foster (pictured right) has featured in Pub & Bar magazine many times. He was one of our first ever interviewees and, since then, has been called on regularly for quotes on topics from Guy Fawkes to glassware. This is not just because Foster likes to talk (and Foster does like to talk… he also likes to swear, most of which has been omitted from this piece), but also because time and again he has proven to be an open, honest and approachable operator who is always willing to offer advice and perspective for the sake of his peers. So reliable for comment is this issue’s lead interviewee that at one point (and he won’t know this until now) I had to ban our writers from turning to the Yummy Pub Co co-founder for “another f**king quote”.
This unfiltered accessibility was no more apparent than in a LinkedIn post from Foster at the end of March this year. However, gone was the bubbly, positive go-getter whom much of the trade know well. He had been replaced by a tearful, defeated, angry operator, visibly grey from exhaustion as he pleaded into the camera for the government to step up and save a hospitality industry on the cusp of collapse. This was just after the prime minister had told the public to stay away from pubs and restaurants, as Covid-19 took hold of the country.
At the time of writing, Foster’s tears had soaked up over 17,500 views and, while he may not have realised it at the time, this was to be a first glimpse into the power of documenting a conscientious account of how Yummy navigated its four pubs through the initial stages of the pandemic.
Heads-up, we’re locking down
You can only wonder how many peculiar lessons have been learned by UK operators throughout the last six months. Previous operational hindsight may teeter on something like wishing you’d had that extra screen in another room for a World Cup, or ordering your potatoes from a different wholesaler. While trade rallied through phone calls and WhatsApp groups to share reactive best practice with each other, offering any inklings of insight that could help them adapt to such abnormalities, it’s fascinating to delve into each individual’s timeline to discover how and when they moved to cope with all that came their way and what they’d have done differently if they knew it was coming. For Foster and his two Yummy Pub Co co-founders (Anthony Pender and Jason Rowlands), it was around the beginning of March when contingency plans were being put in place.
“A food consultant we worked with told me that at a hotel he works with there were currently more staff than customers,” explains Foster. “There were 350 staff on, but fewer guests. It was the first time that ever happened at that hotel, because they didn’t have the tourism coming in. The travel market was slowing down, and I took that as a warning shot that something was brewing. I spoke with J and Anthony, and then we got all the GMs on a video call. Within a week after that, everything started to tank.
“Our entire concern was the protection of our people. We froze our own pay and I sent out some comms to everyone in the business saying all we cared about was them. A full business plan proposal was written about how we needed to stop paying rent at The Somers Town Coffee House (King’s Cross), The Gorringe Park (Tooting) and The Victoria (Mile End). We then spoke to suppliers and started to reign in cash – we had just paid nearly £250,000 in VAT four days before, so we had to stop spending immediately. We looked after our smaller suppliers, but the big guys could handle a hit – we have 213 suppliers in the business, so we worked through the list and called everyone. But then, that was when Boris made his next announcement…”
The Friday before Mother’s Day (20 March) was when Boris Johnson instructed all pubs and bars to close, permitting them to operate only as takeaways for the foreseeable future. Like so many venues, The Wiremill – Yummy’s freehold lakeside pub in Felbridge, Surrey – was previously packed with bookings that they could no longer honour. After the PM instructed people to stay away from pubs, a takeaway option was quickly devised, with the team running a full Mother’s Day service and asking all of their customers to come and collect their roasts to enjoy at home.
“So we focused on takeaways, carried on trading and then started looking at the option of opening a shop,” says Foster. “We’d heard about people having to queue for hours at Waitrose and thought ‘we have a supply chain, we have fresh veg… let’s start a shop.’ We looked at an online ordering platform to change from takeaway orders to grocery, assessed what we could sell and uploaded all the different items for people to choose from.”
This was around the time that The Wiremill began to document all of its trading activity – reactive or otherwise – on social media. If you have a half hour or so, it’s worth going through the journey via its Facebook page. Each and every operational endeavour and experiment was captured on camera by Foster and The Wiremill’s general manager Joe Calvey via photos, videos, time-lapse footage and other content that captured the personality and essence of the pub wonderfully. In fact, the duo may well have been unaware of how vital this social media presence would turn out to be over the following months. But we’ll get to that. First, rewind to the Monday after Mother’s Day, with Foster about to receive an unwelcome phone call, before then having to make one of his own.
“After Joe took on The Wiremill, my promise to him in lockdown was to help him learn by working the pub together,” he says. “I would help start it up and then he would carry on. We got to Mother’s Day and ran that full takeaway service. Then, on the Monday, one of the team rang up and said he had Covid. So I then rang my wife and said I won’t be coming back home – the whole team would have to isolate in the pub for 14 days. She wasn’t best pleased. I was only meant to be there three days – I had only packed three pairs of pants.”
Thankfully, anecdotes around Foster’s undergarments were not posted online (quite possibly the only thing he hasn’t shared so far), but almost everything else at The Wiremill was. As Foster says: “crying in the park went mental, but the daily updates became a self-fulfilling prophecy where people were saying how much seeing our journey was helping them.”
From lowering crates of food out of windows for cars to collect, to streaming live sunsets over the water for guests to relax in front of while enjoying a virtual drink – these posts were not only demonstrating the efforts that this little pub company were going to, but the regularity and content itself began to generate a loyal community of online Wiremill fans, something any pub can utilise in its future, no matter the societal restrictions in place. When The Wiremill began to combine this digital dexterity with personal community interaction, the noise around the lakeside pub began to get louder.
“Our Facebook reach was shocking at first, as we thought there was a shift in how people wanted to consume media,” says Foster. “Wiremill had 910 followers on Facebook and we hadn’t posted in ages, so we ramped it up and asked the team to keeping resharing what we were posting. We then started to ring everyone – old cleaners, golf clubs, local societies. We told them what we were doing with our takeaways and food boxes, and how we were also raising money for the isolated. Meals on wheels were stopping and there was no food for people coming out of hospitals, so we shifted gear and gave stock away while trying to raise money to pay for it. Within 24 hours, I had 50 addresses of people in the area who needed support and started going to them with little boxes of meat and veg, while Joe cooked up pastas. We created lots of meals and it was an overwhelming two weeks.
“Then cars started turning up at the shop, as people were telling their friends about what we were doing and how you could check it out on Facebook. We told all our Mother’s Day bookings that we were doing the shop, so had 30 boxes ordered on the Tuesday that week. By Thursday, it had doubled. I ended up doing a delivery to someone who hadn’t spoken to anyone for six weeks, so I stayed for a chat. That sort of thing just helped get the word out about what we were doing. If pubs can get out there, trade again and help people, they should be going for it.”
How does London compare?
For Yummy’s three London pubs, which don’t have the added luxury of being situated next to a gigantic lake, each site took lessons learned from the entire company and put it into practice in its own location-considered way. Foster tells me the main focus was on protecting The Wiremill (the co-founders’ houses are tied up in the freehold), which explains the limelight it received in online posts. But for Somers Town, The Gorringe and The Victoria, which are now all open and trading again, each venue adapted in its own way. For example, the general manager of The Victoria (who owns a quarter of that business), once worked for the seafood restaurant Wright Brothers, so they put a fishmonger in the back of that pub and introduced a fresh fish delivery service. They also launched their ‘Messy Hog’ takeaways in The Victoria and The Gorringe, assigning this part of the operation to five of the Yummy team who weren’t eligible for furlough payments.
Sadly, Somers Town, which is hugely reliant on local footfall, has needed bailing out by money generated at The Wiremill. As lockdown kicked in, it had been nearly two years since Somers was destroyed by a fire, with the pub having only just returned to its previous levels of trading. It has certainly been through a lot.
“Somers has been the one that has bailed out the other sites over the years, so rather than sketching out a CVA for each business, we grouped them together and made a plan for the whole group,” says Foster. “Before Christmas, we were looking at selling it back to Charles Wells, but that won’t happen now. So we may be looking at a longer term for Somers Town, which will mean it will be more valuable for us to start trading it again. We don’t expect it to get back to its former trading levels until at least this time next year. If it’s trading at 50% in December, we’ve done f**king well.”
There’s no doubt that many city-based venues are still facing an uncertain future. While suburban sites and countryside locals like The Wiremill are trading encouragingly well, operators with pubs and bars in city centres are doing all they can to attract people through their doors – organic footfall from local workers has failed to return as more people opt to work from home on a permanent basis.
For Foster, this doesn’t mean the idea of locality and community is dead. Yes, Somers Town has all but lost its loyal lunchers and coffee breakers, but that doesn’t mean Yummy has lost sight of forward planning and the importance of communicating with those around you.
“Make noise,” he stresses. “We won’t go into a second lockdown, because the country won’t survive, but local lockdowns? Yes. We need to prepare London if that happens. So many have given up so quickly – mindsets need to change. Have a vision of where you’re going. Forward vision about where you think each of the sites is going to get to is so important. Develop the business and get your head in the game to drive through it. We are natural born fighters and we scrap it out, we always have done.”