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Pubs pivot to digital: 'We hope that people feel that the world outside is still there' | Life and style

Across Australia, pubs stand empty because of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Some venues have shut entirely, others have pivoted to takeaway businesses, and the majority have had to make changes to their staffing.

While the future of physical pubs remains very uncertain for the coming months, the entertainers, brewers and chefs that rely on pubs for their livelihood are finding ways to recreate pub experiences in patrons’ homes.

A general view of The Forresters in Surry Hills.

Before lockdowns began, James Breko hosted trivia and bingo nights weekly, across four venues in Sydney. “I lost all my work really by 13 March,” he says. Then “after about a week of grieving”, he took his trivia and bingo online. Now he hosts weekly virtual trivia and bingo nights via Zoom and has picked up corporate team bonding events as well. “I’m very lucky,” he says. “There are a lot of performers who’ve lost everything but I’ve picked up quite a bit of work.”

A general view of inside the Four in Hand Hotel in Paddington.

These nights are not without their challenges. “As a performer when you’re in the room with people you can hear them laugh. On Zoom they just stare at you with their mics turned off.” However, he does the best he can to create the atmosphere of a pub – including using Zoom backgrounds of the venues he used to host events in, and creating breakout rooms so trivia teams can talk to each other in private. “My job is just to make people happy – I do virtual conga lines. I do the YMCA.”

His digital events have one more thing in common with physical ones: “A lot of the work groups definitely have a few drinks in their hand on the show. People are still having a few drinks at home.”

Dan Norris, CEO of Gold Coast based craft brewery Black Hops is now completely reliant on those few drinks at home. When the lockdowns began, he was filled with dread. “We were very worried because we’ve got two tap rooms which is one quarter of our business, and sales into pubs and restaurants, which is another one quarter – we thought we’d lose half our business over night,” he says.

While it hasn’t been an easy time, that wipe-out scenario has not played out. Norris is one of over 200 small producers whose range was expedited to sale through Dan Murphy’s new Direct From Supplier programme. As well as being ranged online, Endeavour Drinks – the parent company of Dan Murphy’s, BWS, Cellarmasters and several other alcohol retailers – are also stocking more products from small breweries, distilleries and vineyards in their bricks and mortar retail stores.

A general view of the Lansdowne Hotel in Chippendale.

Being sold nationally in bottle shops was something Norris has wanted for his business for the past two years. “They’ve done it quicker and with more products … A lot of people are getting more exposed to craft beer as a result of them bringing more attention to it. People are stuck at home and they’re still enjoying craft beer.”

While his new wholesaling business has helped, Norris still grieves his real world venues. “Our taprooms are not the place that we created, they’re just a takeaway bottle shop. We’d made it into this place that was exactly what we wanted … it’s a little bit depressing. But we’re lucky we’ve still got sales into bottle shops, a lot of breweries don’t have that option.”

A general view of inside the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel in The Rocks.

Bigger breweries are also making efforts to connect with customers online. Furphy, which is owned by Lion, one of the largest alcoholic beverage conglomerates in Australia, has launched a weekly virtual pub on Friday nights. The evenings will run until the end of May. Hosted by Aaron Finch and Matt Okine, they feature live story telling, celebrity guests and the chance to win a very real meat tray delivered to your door.

Meanwhile, gastropubs have pivoted to takeaway and delivery in order to keep their kitchens running. Sydney pub The Unicorn, whose schnitzel has achieved cult status, made the decision to offer the dish up for take out and delivery for the first time after lockdowns began. “By bringing the Unicorn Schnitty to your door, we hope that people feel that the world outside is still there,” says Jake Smythe of The Unicorn. Delivery did involve a small compromise – boxing the chicken separately from its sides. Kenny Graham, the pub’s co-founder explains “nobody wants a soggy schnitty”.

A general view of the Exchange Hotel in Balmain.

A general view of inside The Vic on the Park Hotel in Marrickville.

Despite fast adaptations, no publican, performer or brewer feels particularly secure in this moment. While Breko is thankful he’s been able to pivot to Zoom, he’s worried about what will happen in the months to come. “The pubs are going to be the last thing to open up, and events at pubs are going to be the very, very last thing. I could be back on the Centrelink line in a couple of weeks.”

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