Gardeners World: It’s back to the bar!

Paul Silcock of the Gardeners Arms in Plantation Road, Oxford, continues his regular column

Two years ago we decided to try an experiment in the Gardeners Arms. Forced by the pandemic to adopt table service in 2020 as part of the government’s rulings on safe re-opening for pubs (rulings that many in the government failed to follow themselves, but hey, that’s a rant for another time and place), we opted to keep table service when, in July 2021, all Covid restrictions were lifted in England. This wasn’t out of, what many of our customers believed, some heightened sense of health and safety, but rather the recognition that in our specific pub, table service was a much, much better way to run the establishment.

No longer would we have customer deterring queues snake from one side of the pub into the other. During busy periods this queue was a constant problem that we fought to serve through as quickly as possible, watching, as we did so, many would-be customers walk in through the front door, give the queue a quick glance, and wrongly come to the conclusion it was going to take them hours to be served. 

Why wouldn’t they? It looked like it was twenty deep at the bar! Of course it wasn’t, if I had been running a pub that could be 20 deep at the bar I’d have made so much money I would be writing this article on my solid gold laptop, on a beach, overlooking golden sands and having someone bring me the sort of cocktail that comes served in a coconut. With sparklers in it. And half a bottle of rum.

Instead of being twenty deep at the bar it was in fact only two deep at the bar, and the rest of the people were indulging in that particularly British pastime of politely queuing. Or occasionally impolitely queuing, as the alcohol took them. We, and by we I mean myself and my well trained team of staff, could serve people pretty quickly, but there were always hold-ups. Like, “What types of gin have got?”, or “I’m sorry, I was too busy talking and I’ve no idea what I want”*, or “I’ll just have a cappuccino, half-fat oat milk, sugar-free vanilla syrup, foam on the side and with some of those little marshmallows, but not too many.”

Table service was mandatory when pubs re-opened after lockdown in July 2020

(This last one, which actually happened, was followed by a suggestion that the customer try a coffee shop, and not a pub. After all, Costa doesn’t usually have an in-depth knowledge of the original gravity of an Iced Whipped Caramel Latte.)

And these hold-ups would happen because, naturally, people want a choice, and they don’t always know where to look for the choices, and then they get to the bar and still don’t know where to look.

But despite our best efforts we would still get this queue, simply because our bar (and we only have the one bar in the Gardeners Arms) is about four meters across. Yet the pub, on a busy, sunny summer day, the like of which we’ve barely seen this year, could have over 150 people in it. If you’re not great at maths, that’s just 2.67cm of bar space per customer. Barely space to get your finger on the bar, let alone see what’s on offer.

Table service neatly swerved this problem. Take a seat, take the weight off your feet, take a minute to relax, importantly take a minute to peruse the food and drinks menu helpfully provided by one of my (highly trained) serving staff. Then place your order with the member of staff, relax a little bit more and have your choice of drinks brought to your table. 

Paul Silcock: As people approaching the bar might see him

We didn’t even take the will-they/won’t-they approach to table service and ask customers to scan a QR code and order online, where drinks requests would vanish into the ether and possibly be intercepted by a bartender, or maybe not.

That wasn’t the only benefit of table service. We run a busy vegetarian and vegan kitchen, and before we turned to table service customers would order at the bar, and be given an order number on a little receipt. Serving staff would then have to wander around the pub hollering out, in increasing desperation, the order number. If we were lucky we knew whether the customer was inside or outside. If we were unlucky, the customer would have put the number in their wallet, or lost it, or thought 15 was 50. All the while we were trying to locate the customer, the food was growing cooler, and the kitchen was backing up.

So all round, table service worked for us. And for the customer. I’ve even written articles on how table service worked for us, which does admittedly make this one a little pride swallowing to author, but hey! There you go.

Because we’re not going to keep table service for much longer. Not because we’ve realised that it slows us down, or is inherently wrong, but because deep down you don’t want it. Table service is not part of the pub tradition. Even if you really like not having to queue for ages to get a pint, you miss it all the same. Being jostled, ignored, or slightly covered in someone else’s pint, is all part of the pub experience. Table service is for restaurants. And people subconsciously behave as though they were at a restaurant, even when it’s a pub.

At least that’s my observation. 

The Gardeners Arms in Plantation Road, Oxford

It’s not that table service is bad. In fact I hope I’ve demonstrated its functionality, and the reasoning as to why we kept it. But just sometimes, what works best is not the thing that is actually best. 

People just don’t want table service in a pub. It does not compute. It is simply not what people want, when they want a pint. And that’s the most important thing. That’s what works best. Not the table service.

Okay, you might have to wait a little longer to be served, but let’s face it, if I hadn’t written this article you probably wouldn’t notice the wait anyway. You’d be stood with friends in the queue, and as previously noted, probably talking all the way to the bar instead of deciding if you wanted beer or wine.

We are not just simply reversing three years of table service though, because there are things we’ve learnt that would be nice to keep. Like a food system where we’re not wandering around trying to find who ordered pie. Or a system where a table can run a tab for the evening and settle at the end, rather than after each round. Whether these things can be incorporated or not has yet to be seen. Not to over-credit my imagination and creative problem-solving abilities (which are massive, by the way!), but I’m pretty sure I can come up with something.

What all this has shown me though is how important it is to listen to what people want. After all, the house is for the public, so it should, and must, run in a way the public want.

*despite having been in the queue for five minutes!