If it’s a balmy evening and you hear buzzing in the sky over Rathdrinagh, a townland in the middle of Ireland, the odds are that it’s not bees but beer.
Specifically, a drone carrying bottles of beer, and maybe a bag of crisps. “Bottles of Heineken usually, or sometimes a few cans of Bulmers,” said Avril McKeever.
She is the owner of McKeever’s Bar & Lounge, a 152-year-old pub that serves a rural community 30 miles north of Dublin. It used to offer drink, food and craic, but then came the coronavirus lockdown, so now it offers aerial delivery.
The drone, operated by McKeever’s nephew-in-law, Paul Clarke, criss-crosses the neighbourhood, bottles dangling from a string. “We had a bottle of wine and a bag of Tayto crisps ready to go last night but it didn’t take off because of the wind,” McKeever said last week.
The innovation is whimsy, a way to stay connected with customers, but is part of a deadly serious struggle for survival confronting Ireland’s 7,000 pubs.
When the pandemic hit Ireland in March, pubs were among the first businesses to close, leaving 50,000 workers without jobs and the population bereft of a part of Irish culture.
Seven weeks later, a question mark hangs over when – or even if – pubs will reopen.
They have taken a big financial hit by missing the “goldrush” weekends around St Patrick’s day and Six Nations rugby matches, lost beer that went stale, and faced ongoing pressure to pay rent and utilities.
Under the Irish government’s lockdown roadmap, they may be able to reopen on 10 August but customers’ fear of infection plus social distancing rules could yet sabotage any revival. Donal O’Keeffe, the chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), called the rules a “complete nightmare” for pubs.
Which raises a question: can a business model premised on bringing people together exist in an era of staying apart?
Ireland’s pubs have faced challenges before. The temperance movement, depopulation, political upheaval and economic boom-and-bust all took their toll. But the survivors adapted and thrived.
Covid-19 presents an existential threat. Former customers have become used to stocking up at supermarkets and drinking at home. How many will return to pay higher prices and risk infection in pubs stripped of bustle and atmosphere?
Other pubs are racking up brisk sales by delivering pints to customers’ doorsteps. “You ring up, order pints and pay with a credit card,” said Mark Grainger, owner of Graingers Hanlons Corner, a Dublin pub which has pioneered the strategy.
Staff pull the pints – usually Guinness – seal the glasses and put them in a coolbox. Drivers with gloves and masks deliver them within the 5km radius permitted by lockdown rules. “The pint would be perfect. We’re now nearly six weeks in and not had one complaint,” said Grainger.
Orders come from all over the world – Britain, the US, Australia, Dubai – as the Irish diaspora seizes on the chance to send some love, in the form of drinks and cooked meals, to Dublin relatives in lockdown. “It’s good business-wise but not as good as if the pub was open. It’s survival. If we didn’t do it, we wouldn’t be getting any income,” said Grainger.
One publican has installed a keg and pump in a van so he can pull pints at customers’ houses. The Big Romance, a north Dublin pub, takes orders online and dispatches drivers with two-pint “growler” bottles.
These are emergency measures. Survival hinges on reinvention in a Covid-19 world.
A survey found that six out of 10 Dublin pub owners fear their businesses will founder if forced to stay closed for the rest of the year – a prospect flagged by the Irish health minister, Simon Harris, who suggested full reopening may need to await a Covid-19 vaccine.
Hope of sorts came last week when the government’s lockdown roadmap proposed letting pubs open on 10 August. Physical distancing measures, however, will increase costs and shrink revenue.
Last week, the LVA and the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, which represents publicans outside Dublin, submitted a request to let pubs open in June – with cafes and restaurants – on the promise of a new type of pub: no more than four people per 10 square metres, no more than six per table, no live music or DJ, no sitting, standing or ordering at the bar, using hand sanitiser upon entry and staff keeping distance from customers.
The government is reviewing the proposals. No one knows how many pubs will cope with such restrictions.
Mark Grainger’s pub used to draw 300 people on a Saturday night but will have to limit that to 70, he said. He is installing partitions, converting a bar area into a newsagent’s – and crossing his fingers. “It’s terrible to see your pub empty, it’s like a death in the family. We have to do what we have to do … That’s the deck of cards we’ve been dealt.”