Having completed some chores the other day, I’d planned to grab a coffee while walking back home but then it suddenly dawned on me I could actually go into the pub and have a beer instead. A wave of power and opportunity washed over me – what would I drink, who might I meet in there, should I stay for a couple or even more?
It was early evening on a midweek night and, looking through the window, I could see lots of empty tables in Small Beer, in north London’s Crouch End, so a spontaneous visit for an hour or so was no problem. Since it was pretty quiet, and the bar’s name also reflects its modest size, it was easy to attract the server’s attention for my order of a pint of cool, fresh Hammerton N1 cask ale.
I’m absolutely no fan of table service in pubs because I feel it strips the life out of the place by removing the opportunity for people to congregate around these venues’ key feature – the bar. To me, it is the equivalent of the captain’s table on a ship where we envisage the most interesting characters are invited and they invariably have the most fun.
The other problem with table service, which has become apparent over recent weeks, is it greatly limits the capacity of venues when everybody has to be seated. Yes, I understand it is currently a strict covid-19 guideline but certain pubs are talking up the idea of insisting on table service, post-pandemic, which will surely impact their capacities negatively when you remove the opportunity to accommodate a throng of people stood at the bar.
This decidedly ugly potential future scenario played out all too clearly for me last week when attempting to book a table in a pub in the Angel area for a quick drink with my family before heading off for dinner at Austrian cafe-restaurant Kipferl in Camden Passage.
Using the booking facilities on the websites of five pubs, the end result was that two could only be booked if dining, one would not let me book for a time less than six hours away (incidentally I could also not book a table more than 30 days out), another was fully booked, and the final place had no facility to book a table at all. Yes, I did try to message directly on Twitter (I’m still waiting to hear back) and attempted to call a couple of others but they did not open until the evening so I received no answer. The upshot was that we didn’t go for a pre-dinner drink after all because my children are not too keen on trawling the streets to see if there is any room at the inn.
It’s good to see such technology is being implemented, but my experience on this occasion, and other times over this past year, suggests it is not being used particularly intelligently. My guess is that, possibly, all these five pubs could have squeezed us in for 45 minutes at my preferred time and taken my £20-plus but their systems were simply set up too rigidly.
The implementation of clunky technology and over-complicated systems has been a problem in many venues I’ve frequented during covid-19. I’ve been tripped over by QR codes, failed to download apps, berated my children for staring at their phones in a restaurant when they’ve actually been looking at the menu because no paper alternative was offered, accidentally over-ordered and, one time, the setting up of an account and password along with entering my payment details took longer than the supping of the pint I’d bought.
It will be imperative that pubs and restaurants iron out these sorts of problems because consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable and reliant on technology for ordering and paying. When you add in the massive issue of staff shortages then the tech is guaranteed to play an outsized role over the coming months.
And perish the thought, if we are moving into a world where more pubs have exclusion zones around the bar and dictate we remain glued to our seats, such technology will become even more critical to the smooth, economic running of venues. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to storm the bar.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.