Gardeners World: Why I’m sticking with table service

Paul Silcock of the Gardeners Arms, Plantation Road, Oxford on his response to the pandemic

So, this is probably the sixth or seventh article I’ve started writing for the Oxford Drinker over the last two years. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s been a bit of an odd time for pubs. And restaurants. Cinemas. Schools. Basically, well, everyone. Y’know, what with the global pandemic and everything. As such, articles I’ve started in good faith about how things have changed for the average publican have been redundant by the time I’ve been close to finishing them. 

Pubs kept getting the chance to open, but only a bit, and with certain restrictions. And these restrictions, and people’s responses to them, were fertile ground for articles like this. How people responded to mask wearing, table service, NHS Track and Trace. Honestly, I’d written some hilarious and perceptive articles for Dave, the editor. Unfortunately you’ll just have to take my word for that though, because just as I’d finished them, pubs were closed again and what I’d written was instantly outdated, if still hilarious and perceptive.

The Gardeners Arms on Plantation Road, Oxford is a notable free house

Once pubs were back in lockdown, though, there really wasn’t that much to write an article about. I mean, we were one of the lucky pubs. Our kitchen stayed open, serving takeaway food to locals and through Deliveroo. Being the only 100% vegetarian and vegan kitchen in Oxford on Deliveroo gave us a unique selling point. It meant we kept most of our kitchen staff employed throughout the lockdowns. Which is all very pat-yourself-on-the-back worthy type stuff, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting of articles to read about the minutia of daily business strategy for a small pub. Nor does relating to you my view from the bar during these times. Hint — it was quite empty. And boring. Really boring.

Touch wood, for the sake of this article, and my profits, we seem to be in a period of some stability so I’m going to crack through the rest of what I’ve got to say so poor Dave can stop having to remind me I owe him an article. 

I’ve said in the past about how people have different types of pub for different occasions, and how a variety of pubs is good for everyone. Maybe only in the short term, and I mean the next couple of years, I predict there’s going to be even more variety of pubs for people to choose from, as everywhere seeks to decide how they want to operate. 

Some pubs, and their clientele, are desperate to get rid of any sense of the restrictions of the pandemic and have gone straight back to the old model of bar service. No more table service. No more app ordering (which was an understandable solution to a bar-less problem, but always left you with the uneasy feeling that no-one was on the other end of the app to actually pour your beer).

Other pubs, mine included, found the restrictions of the pandemic forced a re-evaluation of previous business patterns. By that I mean it forced us to shake things up. Take my pub (the Gardeners Arms on Plantation Road, Oxford, just in case you didn’t know) – we’ve stuck with table service. We’ve stuck with it for one very important reason. We can serve more people more quickly than we ever could have with people queuing at the bar. That’s not a slight on my bar staff, by the way. They weren’t being lazy (well, no more than anyone else’s bar staff). The bar is very small here, less than four meters across. Previously summer months would see a queue to the bar snaking round the front half of the pub. And did customers help the process by taking time in the queue to consider what they wanted to order? Did you hell as like. Ten minutes in the queue, only to reach the bar and have no idea what you want.

The garden was revamped ahead of outdoor opening last year

But table service does away with that. Now you can comfortably sit a table and have no idea what you want. We’d never have taken the risk of moving to table service in a normal world. In fact I’d have dismissed the idea as lunacy, but there you go. Necessity is the mother of invention. Also though, I spoke to a lot of people before sticking with table service. I mean, it’s very European, it has a more laid-back feel. In fact, it turned out to be nowhere near as unpopular as I thought it would be. People wanted table service. Or at least they wanted an alternative to having to queue for fifteen minutes to get a beer.

So whereas before, you’d choose a pub on its beer selection, or what sports it was showing, or what food it served, now there’s the option of how you want to be served any of those things. (Possibly not how you’d want to be served sport, best leave that to a big screen). We might even start thinking of some pubs as old school, or traditionally traditional, where you go and order beer as you always had. Then other pubs would become the new school, or the European style, or just possibly (because not everyone wants change) as one-of-those-fancy-new-wave-sit-down-and-wait pubs.

Like everything, it’s going to come down to personal choice. Pubs will respond according to sales, after all we’ve got a lot of sales to make up. Bear with us as we experiment with new approaches over the coming months. One thing’s for sure, for the short term at least, choosing where to go for a drink is going to be even more complicated than before.