Challenge for Irish pubs after ‘irreplaceable’ staff lost during pandemic

Kevin Barden sets up an outdoor drinking area at O'Donoghues Bar in Dublin
Kevin Barden sets up an outdoor drinking area at O'Donoghues Bar in Dublin
11:00am, Sun 06 Jun 2021
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A Dublin publican had spoken of the challenge Ireland’s pub industry faces replacing the people skills of staff who have left the trade during the pandemic.

Kevin Barden, whose family owns the traditional Irish music pub O’Donoghue’s, said he has been lucky to welcome back 19 of his 20-strong team after 15 months of closure and he hopes the final one will also return by the end of the summer.

But he said many other venues have not been so fortune and are finding it hard to fill their rotas ahead of reopening.

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O’Donoghue’s, a pub where the Irish folk band the Dubliners made their name, has not had a customer cross its threshold since March 2020, when the Covid-19 emergency forced the closure of bars across Ireland.

While relaxations allowed some pubs to reopen for periods in the months since, many traditional venues in Dublin have remained closed throughout.

On Monday pubs across Ireland can reopen on an outdoor-service basis.

Pints of stout will be settling on O’Donoghue’s bar once again as they serve customers in their courtyard and on a section of pavement out front on Merrion Row.

However, ongoing restrictions mean the pub’s defining characteristic – live music – will have to wait until Ireland takes some further steps back to normality in the months ahead.

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“We’re nervous but excited,” said Mr Barden.

“It’s been a long 15 months being closed, coming into the pub and no one being here is just a weird experience.

“There have been dark days when you’re coming in saying ‘I can’t believe we’re still closed’ but there’s always something to do with an old building.

“The last week or so has been a big joy trying to get the place clean and having the staff back – it’s been great seeing them again.

“We’ve only lost one for the moment and hopefully we’ll get him back by the end of the summer. So we’ve been lucky enough – we’ve retained the majority of the staff here, which has been great.”

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Like so many workers across Ireland, the staff have received an income through Government Covid-19 wage subsidy support.

“They’ve obviously had to take a hit and they all have families and mortgages and bills to pay as well,” said Mr Barden.

“It’s been tough for them and their families and they’re chomping at the bit to get back.

“We’ve 19 out of 20 coming back but I think we’re definitely in the minority.

“Every pub in town seems to be looking for staff, whether it’s floor staff or kitchen staff or bar staff. There’s definitely been a drain on the industry. You only have to walk down the street and you see signs up – everyone’s looking for staff. We’re definitely in a unique situation here.

“It is worrying that so many people have left the trade and I think it is the experience that is going to be a long time to be replaced. It’s one thing just pouring a pint, but it’s how you deal with people, it’s that experience of bar life which is kind of irreplaceable.”

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Three kilometres away, on the same side of the River Liffey, production of Guinness at the famous St James’s Gate brewery has been ramped up by an extra five million pints a week to accommodate the pubs reopening.

Through its Raising The Bar initiative, Guinness has invested 14 million euro in 5,000 pubs across Ireland to help them with Covid-19 safety steps, including training for almost 22,000 staff and help in constructing more than 1,200 outdoor spaces.

In recent weeks, Guinness quality control teams have called at 8,000 pubs to clean more than 50,000 beer lines.

Grainne Wafer, Guinness’s global brand director, said experience of reopenings in other international markets gives her confidence that the industry in Ireland will bounce back.

“It’s fantastic to be at this point,” she said.

Ms Wafer said research showing Guinness was the most talked-about beer on social media during the pandemic had also given her reason to be optimistic.

“That is an incredible feat because Guinness isn’t the biggest beer brand in the world but it is the beer brand that people are most looking forward to getting back into pubs and having, and celebrating that with their friends having,” she said.

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Colin Green, a commercial director at Guinness, said consumer experiences would be crucial to the success of the sector’s reopening.

“We know from data that people have a really high expectation of the pub or a restaurant in Ireland – they want a brilliant experience, they have missed it but they have probably set it up on pedestal, as the best experience ever,” he said.

“So the pubs have got to make it feel safe and friendly, the drinks have to be superb quality and the food – it’s all about the consumer experience.

“People think the pub is just going for a drink, it’s not – it’s about going to watch the rugby or going to meet your mates. It’s a social hub and you have a pint when you’re there.

“I just think that people have craved so much of that social reconnection that pubs will play a massive part in that going forward.”

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