The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the UK hospitality industry hard, including speciality coffee shops. First came the mandatory shut down of pretty much the whole industry, followed by the slow reopening of a handful of places offering takeout services. Then, following the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in England at the start of July, increasing numbers of coffee shops have reopened around the country. I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of being able to visit quite a few in places such as London, Reading, Chester, Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as my hometown of Guildford.
On the whole, I’ve found that the speciality coffee sector has coped well, but it’s certainly not out of the woods yet. As we approach the end of September, a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases has led to further countrywide restrictions, plus a wide range of stricter local/regional restrictions.
This post looks at the impact of these further restrictions and what they might mean for speciality coffee shops in England as we head into autumn/winter. Please bear in mind that this is just my opinion: you can find specific UK Government advice on-line, while industry bodies such as UKHospitality also publishes its own advice.
You can read my thoughts after the gallery.
Based on what I’ve learnt from visiting coffee shops over the last three months, I’d say that speciality coffee shops are well-placed to cope with the recent changes. Many of them are already doing everything that’s needed to comply with the new restrictions that were announced this week. There are, however, two specific changes that I want to talk about: the NHS COVID-19 app and table service.
The NHS COVID-19 app was rolled out across England and Wales on Thursday, 24th September. I’m not going to talk about the merits (or otherwise) app itself, instead focussing on its specific impact on coffee shops, where it plays a role in contact tracing.
Initial government advice, issued when the COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed to allow sit-in customers at the start of July, recommended that coffee shops recorded contact details for all sit-in customers, keeping them for 21 days. In my travels through the summer, I found that adherence to this guidance was patchy. However, this advice became a legal requirement last weekend, and now, with the new NHS COVID-19 app which has a check-in function, there have been further changes.
It’s now a legal requirement for all hospitality establishments (including coffee shops) which offer sit-in service, to display a unique NHS QR Code which allows customers to check-in with the app. However, this doesn’t replace the existing contact-tracing requirement since not everyone will have the app, so coffee shops will still need to maintain their own contact-tracing system, which they should already have in place.
The second change is around table service. Quite a few coffee shops have already introduced table service, but it doesn’t suit all settings. There was initial confusion around this change, which some feared would apply to all sit-in settings. However, that’s been clarified, with the new table service rules only applying to licenced establishments. Here, customers must order from, and be served at, a table.
For unlicenced premises, customers can still order at the counter, but, unless ordering takeaway, they must sit at a table to eat/drink their food, etc. Allied to this, mask wearing, which some coffee shops were already requiring, is now, I believe, mandatory within all coffee shops, except when you are eating or drinking at a table.
So where does this leave coffee shops and what can you, as a customer, expect to happen? In a lot of places, the changes will be minimal, with the appearance of a QR Code you can scan if you use the NHS COVID-19 app. Perhaps the biggest change will be the requirement to wear a mask. This was already the case for some coffee shops, but now it applies everywhere. You’ll need to wear one on entering, keeping in on while you queue, and also wear one when moving around the shop.
The other change is around table service. For many coffee shops, the new rules won’t apply, but plenty of places are licenced, so this means that customers will have to order at their table. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean waiter service. For example, Notes already has a system where you can order online from your table and I expect to see others going down this route, although there will always been the need for a backup waiter service.
In conclusion, in theory, the new changes should have minimal impact on coffee shops. Of course, the bigger impact will be the public mood: when I returned to the UK in March, ahead of the nationwide shutdown, there were no rules in place forbidding coffee shops from opening. However, in Guildford, all three speciality coffee shops in town had virtually no customers, so much depends on public mood and confidence.
And, of course, if COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations continue to rise, there may be further restrictions to come. So please, continue to support your local coffee shops for as long as you are able and feel safe to do so.
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