In the evening of Friday 13 May, the Czech government announced series of measures that effectively put the country on lockdown. The borders were closed, public events and gatherings were banned, freedom of movement was restricted, wearing face covering was mandatory when going out and only businesses deemed essential were allowed to open.
The restrictions are gradually being eased now. Beer gardens can open from 11 May and pubs, restaurants, and cafés will be allowed to welcome patrons back into their premises on 25 May, after almost two and a half months of only selling food and beverages to go, at best.
The effect this has had on society and the economy as a whole is enormous and we aren’t even close to the end of this crisis, which has been especially hard on small businesses, like pubs. There’s been a lot of talk in the media about it, but I still wanted to know (and share) the perspective of the owners, so I sent a couple of questions to a bunch of them. These are the answers I got.
How did you react when you learnt that pubs will be closed until further notice? What’s the first thing you did and what did you do during the lockdown?
Jan “Hanz” Charvat (Zlý Časy, Pivkupectví, Bad Flash)*: The news caught me in Vietnam and I had to sort everything out with the staff over WhatsApp. The pub was fully closed over the first weekend and on the first Monday we opened the takeaway window, which has remained open throughout. The turnover is 15% of the normal. This covers the wages of the person at the window and maybe the energy costs. I’ll borrow money for the rent and the rest. The sales at Pivkupectví (the bottle shop) are the same, maybe a little higher.
Vláďa Vítek (Bar Na Palmě)*: When we found out we’d have to shut down the pub we immediately tried to figure out what to do: open a takeaway window, procure plastic cups and bottles, face-masks, disinfectant… At first people were afraid and not many came for a beer. We also offered delivery with an electric skateboard and that helped a little. Gradually more people started to come and thanks to that we could pay the bills. Great. The landlord forgave us the rent, which helped a lot.
Jíři “Bejček” Stehlíček (První Pivní Tramwaj)*: I don’t want to be vulgar so I’ll keep my first reaction to myself. I went to the pub on Saturday 14/3, I drained the beers, filled the pipes with water and washed the keg couplings and the taps. Then I went to my cottage to meditate about the future. When I realised this would last longer than the originally announced 10 days I decided to open a takeaway window and since 23/3 I’ve been selling draft beer in plastic bottles and cups.
Aleš Dočkal (Pivovarský Klub)*: My first reaction was wondering why they didn’t say it already at midday instead of before midnight. We wouldn’t have had to cook and order bread and other stuff for the morning, and we could’ve told the staff that they didn’t have to come work.
The first thing we did was to try to make the best use of the cooked food and the things that would spoil, which worked out well and everything went to charity.
At first the pub was fully closed. We sought information on what we had to do and how so we could get at least some help. We tried everything, we asked for payment deferrals and support and applied for loans. So far, we’ve received ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Even the request for a VAT deferral sent on 25/3 hasn’t been settled yet.
Jakub Veselý (Malý/Velký, Pivo Falkon)*: The first thing I did was to conserve the pub, take away everything that could spoil and took the beer back to the storage, and in the next 4 days or so I got the e-shop running.
Max Munson (Jáma The Hollow, Jáma Steakhouse): We immediately called a management meeting that Saturday morning, March 14th, at 11am. The word had just come that we had to close. My wife and I, and our entire team, were shell-shocked. We did not anticipate such extreme measures so soon. I have had Jama for 26 years, and the Steakhouse for 10, and unless it’s Christmas Day, we simply never close. Regardless, we agreed with the team then, that if the government will let us at least do window sales and deliveries, that we would do that. So on Monday the 16th, we opened both restaurants with sales out the window, as well as delivery service. In both places we lowered the prices to "crisis pricing" and began promoting on the web and by delivering flyers to all the local businesses that were allowed to remain open. We have continued that every day, Mo-Fri, from 11 to 3pm. We did not re-open in the evenings. Also, after not being on any delivery sites for years, we signed up on Wolt and Uber Eats to assist with our lunch deliveries.
We had to halt all payments including, rent, electric, social, health, VAT, and various other services. We contacted all of those providers and explained our situation. Almost all were understanding and let us postpone payments. Their understanding continues through today. With the limited lunch income that we had, we were basically only able to pay the delivery staff hours and for supplies. Overall both restaurants took about a 90% hit in income. The staff that wanted to work had some hours, albeit limited, and the staff that wanted to wait-out the crisis at home were able to do that.
Olga Romanova (BeerGeek, Sibeeria Brewery) (Olga answered by phone, the following is from my notes): At first they didn’t have time to think. During the first week, both the bar and the bottle shop were closed. This made their regular clients realise how serious thins thing was; in its seven years, the bottle shop had always been open, even during Christmas, but one of their staff had reported flu-like symptoms – that fortunately, were a false alarm. Eventually, they opened both for takeaway, mainly to keep their bar staff employed.
But the lockdown hit them hardest in two fronts. The first was their brewery, Sibeeria. It had received the final permit to operate at the end of last year and they spent the entire winter fine tuning their products so they would be as good as possible for the spring season. It forced them to review one of their strategies, though. Originally, they were committed to bottling their beers only in 330 ml bottles, but this made them realise that 750 ml is a more appropriate size for the local market, besides being easier to work with.
The second front was more personal. They had scheduled an event for the event of March – the event of the year, as Olga said – the presentation of Trillium, a renowned American independent brewery that does not export their products. They had worked really hard to bring a few kegs across the pond, and even the head brewer had agreed to come to talk about their beers, which are now being sold through the takeaway window.
What are your expectations after 25/5, when pubs reopen? Do you think people flock back to the taps? What effect do you think the situation will have on the market as a whole?
Hanz*: After 25/5 I expect a gradual return to restaurants. If distancing between clients is mandatory, I can’t imagine a return to normal. I won’t lay-off the permanent staff, but I will limit the temporary staff and will also close one of the kitchens. Definitely, I won’t raise wages. I also believe that smaller places, where only one person works, will have it easier, and that many pubs will commit to large breweries; I’m also considering that in some way.
Vláďa*: When the pubs reopen we expect the situation to slowly go back to normal. I can’t foresee the impact this will have in general, but I hope that most breweries and pubs survive.
Bejček*: I’m convinced that people will be happy to return. Everyone around beer miss the feeling of drinking from a glass, meet friends and enjoy the atmosphere of a pub. You may not believe it, but I also miss that. Even though I’m almost daily right at the source, behind the bar serving beer, everyone is standing outside and I’m inside with gloves and a mask and it’s not much fun. I can’t imagine very well the impact of this; I don’t have the data and I’m not an economist, but it’s clear that some businesses won’t be able to survive this long mandated closure. Especially since our chaotic government speak about the support to small and medium-sized enterprises, saying something different every time, but it’s just talk.
Aleš*: Everything is shit and it’ll be a miracle of the pub survives.
Jakub*: I believe people are already looking forward to going back to the pub. On top of that, there won’t be any festivals so many people will come to the pub to have fun. It greatly depends on the kind of the people that went to a given pub. If they were more than 50% tourists, they will have to adapt very quickly or close.
Max: I am thankful that the Czech culture is a beer culture. That should help restaurants and pubs across the board. Although I do not expect a full house when we re-open, I do expect to get our business back up to about 50% by the end of June. Then, it will depend on the daily number of patients infected with the virus, if our business increases or decreases. The fear factor is something none of us have ever had to contend with before, and I am not sure what to expect. The longer the curve can remain flattened, the more our business with increase. The beer garden in Jama will also help. Not only can we open it from the 11th, but also after two months of quarantine, our guests will be really looking forward to sitting outside, enjoying the day with friends in person (and not on Zoom!), and having service in clean and safe environment.
Olga (again, from my notes): She really doesn’t know what to expect because it’s still not know for certain what restrictions will be in place for pubs on 25/5. She believes people will be divided into two main groups: those eager to go back to the pub and those more reluctant. She also feels that many places will be forced to close, but can’t say what effect that will have on the market as a whole.
* The answers were sent in Czech, the translations are mine.
The last couple of months have been difficult for all of us in one way or another, but I in my opinion the lockdown was the right decision by the Czech government, even if some of the criticism for their handling of the situation were more than warranted. That made clear, I agree to a great extent with the optimism of most of the answers above. Many, if not most people are eager to go back to the pubs for the simple reason that they are craving for something, anything, that resembles normalcy, and few things are more normal for Czechs than going na jedno do hospody. Whether that will turn out to be a good thing or not, I can’t say, but I admit that some degree of apprehension is justified given the tangible risk of a second wave of the pandemic. Personally, as much as I miss going to the pub, I still haven’t decided whether I will be first in line on 25 May or will rather wait a few more days.
On a side note, the pubs, restaurants, cafés and bars that catered almost solely to tourists are pretty fucked. But that’s a chat for another day.
Stay safe, stay healthy and Na Zdraví!