What seemed like a volume bar’s worst nightmare actually proved a valuable lesson in how adapting and evolving could lead to more efficient service and improved profitability. By Mike Baxter of Gonzo’s Tea Room.

If Covid has given us one thing it’s rules. Lots and lots of rules. Hands! Face! Space! Stay Home! Sanitise! Eat Out to Help Out! And of course, Sit Down! Don’t you dare stand as we all know that Covid is only contagious to those who dare to be vertical.

For once in our lifetime comes an illness that promotes my sedentary nature. Unfortunately, we’re now too late to follow this up with a bunch of Matt Hancock jokes, however let’s just presume that if your bum is touching a chair or his sweaty little hand you were officially considered safe from disease.

The question for many of us in this scenario became, how do we make money while socially distanced and seated? How do we pack ’em and stack ’em on a Saturday night with added furniture and limited space? My venue, Gonzo’s Tea Room, is multi-purpose, we’re a restaurant, a bar, but often most importantly a nightclub. We always did well in the day, but even on the slowest of January dinner rushes, we could always depend on a poor evening’s sales to get bailed out by our late-night club service. With people jarring for space at the bar we could go from the doldrums of a dead day to four deep and in the weeds within 20 minutes and with that the lights would stay on.

However, the maths did not look good when the nation’s dance floors turned into hastily assembled lounges. In one room of Gonzo’s the capacity went from 250 to 40. To make things worse, post the first lockdown our service was a Chumbawamba nightmare: “They got sat down, but they got up again.” Many of our bartenders were not trained floor staff; the idea of a conversation beyond the initial transactional approach of “What’ll ya have mate?” terrified a few and, to be honest, all the changes terrified us. Financially handcuffed with a changing business model and piling debts, we were happy to be open, but is all this even going to be worth it?

Then a few weeks in, we began to notice something – sales were up, spend per head was up, even GP was up. On first reflection it didn’t make sense, but then again, maybe it did. Being a small business, we were able to make changes a lot quicker than the competition. We learned fast and adapted. We would write and print menus one day and reprint them the next, constantly learning what we could and couldn’t do and, most importantly, what we could maintain.

Spikes in sales

Our food menu probably changed 25 times in six months, but with that, we learned how to do what we do in the most efficient and profitable manner possible. With customers now seated, our staff have learned that table service is actually as simple as knowing the menu and being friendly.

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Our team started making way more in tips and as a venue we suddenly saw massive spikes in backbar sales. The cocktail menu exploded as people, now feeling less rushed, read and explored the menu. No longer was service dominated by people leaning on the stick saying: “What’s your cheapest lager?” People were buying mezcal or desperately trying to pronounce whatever new amari or aperitif I put into a Spritz. For years the industry has been told vertical drinking equals faster drinking and higher spend per head, but here we were witnessing the lie. This brings me full circle and firmly to the point... What now? Is table service here to stay? We’re coming out of lockdown and frighteningly staring down the barrel of a normal world again. What does normal even look like anymore? Is table service the new black in casual venues or do I return to the model that worked for years? The rule of business is “keep evolving” after all, and this year has seen that change to a more Darwinian “evolve or die”.

One thing we can all accept is that this year has changed our industry massively and now we can only wonder if we can ever go back to the way things were. A small survey has led me to mixed feelings on the issue – some bartenders can’t wait to be six deep and covered in grenadine and yet some others are finally enjoying talking to tables again in our new world.

As for me, I’m getting too old to get covered in grenadine every night and maybe after the last year I think a bit of a sit down would be nice from time to time, so I’ll probably find myself somewhere in the middle. Evolving, but not evolved, but like most of us in the industry after the last 18 months, I’m just happy to still have a spot at the table.