‘It would be financial suicide to reopen now’ - Edinburgh pub owner's plight as beer gardens resume service

‘It’s great for other businesses to be running again, but for us we cannot bring people back with the two metre rule, it would be financial suicide to reopen now.’
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The licensee of a small Edinburgh pub said reopening with social distancing measures in place would be “financial suicide” for himself and the business.

Steven Hannah, from Little France, Edinburgh, has been running Sandy Bell’s in Forrest Road for the past eight years.

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The classic Edinburgh drinking hole depends heavily on live folk music and crowds of drinkers - an atmosphere the pub will struggle to recoup any time soon as Scotland slowly eases itself out of lockdown.

Sandy Bells, Edinburgh and Stephen Hannah, it's licenseeSandy Bells, Edinburgh and Stephen Hannah, it's licensee
Sandy Bells, Edinburgh and Stephen Hannah, it's licensee
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While some pub owners are inviting customers back as beer gardens reopen, the prospects for smaller venues with no outdoor space remain far from positive with social distancing measures strictly in place.

“There is absolutely no way we can reopen now, or in the next couple of weeks,” Steven said.

“It’s great for other businesses to be running again, but for us we cannot bring people back with the two metre rule, it would be financial suicide to reopen now.”

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The 58-year-old, who normally works Thursdays and Fridays behind the bar, said the renowned folk pub was “crippled” financially in the week leading up to pub and restaurant closures back in March.

“Most of our customers were self-isolating already before the government enforced lockdown,” Steven said.

“The bank was £8,000 overdrawn in that final week before Boris Johnson finally decided to close them.

“Our overheads were the same, but our income was significantly less, as you can imagine, so it was financially, and morally, crippling.

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“If we reopen now with so few customers it will be the end of us.

“We really need some sort of vaccine sorted before we can think about reopening again and survive.”

Staff payday fell the week after lockdown was enforced, for which Steven had to pay about £7,000 from his own personal account to cover wages.

“When it was payday there was no money in the account, and it was before the grants were set up so I just needed to step up with what I personally had,” he added.

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While staff have since been granted furlough, Steven was unable to claim cover as self-employed due to being a director of the business.

Instead he enrolled on the job retention scheme and claimed furlough on minimum wage which equalled 12 per cent of his original earnings.

Sandy Bell’s only respite for the next few months has been the Bounce Back loan from Bank of Scotland – a new scheme designed to enable businesses to access finance more quickly during the coronavirus outbreak – which has injected £50,000 into the pub.

“This loan means I can top things up enough to be able to cover the business and to keep my home,” Steven added.

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“It has been a real blow, I have had to take holiday payments on loans and mortgages, and I honestly can’t think of anyway that we can reopen with social distancing in place, it just wouldn’t survive.

“We are carrying on with what we’ve got, and I will fight for it until the end.”

With the coronavirus pandemic setting an uncertain future for many businesses, Steven said he is unsure as to when Sandy Bell’s will be able to welcome customers back to the bar.

“It’s too risky reopening in the next few weeks, and while we have grant money coming in to keep us ticking over, we are just going to sit tight for the time being,” he said.

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“Rent costs about £1,500 each week, which goes to the property owner, G1, which also needs to survive as well.

“We are working with what we have, and I think we can get by until Christmas time with the help we are receiving. And by then, hopefully we will be able to reopen as normal.”

The pub owner said Sandy Bell’s staff have been encouraging of the business in fighting for its survival.

“Everyone is very supportive,” Steven added.

“A member of staff set up a gofundme fundraiser. They have seen this coming and want to be prepared for it because they don’t want to see it go under either, and they have said they really don’t want to see me go too.”

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The pub, formerly known as Forrest Hill Bar, was named after Sandy Bell, a well-known regular who made a name for himself in the area.

Steven said during recent building works, staff uncovered the old pub sign, which is on display on one side of the pub to give a “nod back to the 70s” when it existed under its former name.

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