Pub landlord’s honest verdict on socially distanced reopening

An Exeter pub landlord has told how he is having to try and adapt to the biggest challenge he has ever faced in his working life, and how reopening was like starting a new job.

Chris Highton is a familiar face behind the bar of The Kings in St Thomas which is renowned locally as being a ‘proper pub’.

It has stood the test of time in Exeter thanks to its large loyal following, but nothing has hit it harder its long history than the coronavirus pandemic.

During lockdown it disposed of 180 litres of beer. It would have been significantly more had Chris and his wife Cath not foreseen what was on the horizon and adjusted their usual order.

Chris Highton in the new outdoor seating area at The Kings (Image: Devon Live)

The pub reopened on July 4, the day all pubs were given permission to do so by the government.

Its car park, which can usually accommodate 28 cars, has been closed off to create a large outdoor seating area which can cater for 100 people within social distancing requirements.

Currently it is the only place people can sit and have a drink, but as of next week the pub will be reopening its main bar.

It means it will then be able to make room for another 70 people, although Chris says his priority is not large numbers but managing those who are drinking there safely.

The pub has created an app for people to order table service from and also has a website for orders.

For those who are not good with technology they can go inside the function room and ask for their order to be taken, but not at the bar. All drinks are delivered straight to the table.

There is a one-way system in operation outside and also inside the function room to enable people to use its toilets.

The one-way system at The Kings (Image: Devon Live)

Chris admits he did not know what to expect when they reopened, but said the first day and night went better than he had hoped.

The 54 year old said: “I was very apprehensive because I didn’t know which way it would go. I didn’t know if anyone would come or not.

“However, it was busy but it was also nice, and I think we managed it very, very well. We controlled numbers at the gate and asked people to book a table in advance. Anyone who had not wasn’t able to come in.

“I likened it to my first day in a new job. That’s exactly how I felt as it was a totally, totally different way of operating.

“The atmosphere has been different. It has been more subdued as people have been getting used to it and coming to terms with the new norm. Everyone has been respectful.

“On the first day we opened we had to ask three people to leave but that was only because we have to ensure peoples’ alcohol levels are looked after. There was not any trouble; they had just had enough to drink.

“We know we have a big challenge on, but as a team we are all pulling together and we are a great team.”

Chris Highton, the landlord of The Kings
Chris Highton, the landlord of The Kings (Image: Devon Live)

For the past 12 years the landlady of The Kings has been Cath who is now helped by Chris Highton, and her son Alex. Together they have introduced a thriving food trade which includes build-your-own breakfasts and roasts.

There is no hiding away from the fact though the pub has taken a massive hit. It is running at less than 30 per cent of what its income was prior to lockdown.

Chris said: “With the help we are getting from the brewery and what we are doing it’s sustainable, even within limited opening hours.

“But is it enormously stressful, but luckily I deal with pressure quite well. My wife has been running the place for 12 years so she knows what pressure is. It is just a case of adapting.

“In my working life it has been the biggest challenge I have ever faced. We are quite fortunate that we also have a function room with a bar so at the moment we are serving from there instead of the main bar.

“We will be opening up the main bar to get some normality back, but it’s very difficult as a lot of our business came from the live music we put on every Saturday and Sunday, as well as karaoke. That is now all gone.

“We have also lost our pub sports. We have nine dart boards inside, and we also have skittles and pool teams. We have lost all that revenue as well.

“But fortunately we have extremely loyal customers who have been very, very supportive during lockdown.”

The Kings new bar top in the main bar area (Image: Devon Live)

Since launching takeaway meals including breakfasts and its infamous Sunday roasts, Chris admits he has been amazed by how popular they have been and continue to be which means they will be staying.

They have been selling up to 60 roasts on a Sunday.

Chris said: “The only way people were able to support us during lockdown was our takeaway breakfasts and Sunday roasts, especially with older people and those who can’t get out.”

The pub has also been offering BBQ food towards the front of the pub seven days a week which has also been very popular.

Chris said: “It has generated an income from which we have been able to pay our gas, electricity and water while the pub was shut as we’ve had no income.

“We still have some staff on furlough so we are closed every Monday and Tuesday to make sure everyone gets two days off a week.”

The pub is currently running limited opening hours. It is open Monday to Thursday from 10am to 8pm, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 9pm, and 10am to 6pm on Sunday.

It is not yet known when the hours will be extended.

The Kings toilets now have hand sanitiser on the outside (Image: Devon Live)

Chris said: “We have been trying our best to come to terms with what’s been going on and slot into the new way of thinking. I don’t think we ever get back to ‘the norm’ again.

“We have had to adapt and it has taken a lot of thinking about and a lot of work. Everyone who works here has been chucking in ideas to grow the business.

“This is a huge building so we are just trying to exploit the room we’ve got. We have been looking at buying gazebos for when the weather is not nice outside, but it’s a further expense, but we have been lucky with the weather so far.”

Making the necessary changes required has meant additional money has had to be ploughed into the pub, and during lockdown refurbishment work has been carried out such as redecorating and installing a new bar top in the main bar area.

Chris said: “Heavitree Brewery have been very supportive which has helped. This pub creates a lot of revenue for them, although a lot of that has now been taken away from us, but we are still here and hope to be for a long time.”

Devon Live