The Thatch, Thame

With some pubs already fully booked for the opening weekend of July 4, our local hospitality industry is buzzing, delighted to finally be able to reopen at long last.

But is it that simple and what can we expect?

“We opened reservations up yesterday and are already fully booked for the opening weekend,” Kay Chandler of The White Hart in Fyfield told us, “which is fabulous news! But whilst we are super excited, reopening in these circumstances is not without its issues.

“The critical impact for us will be the reduced capacity – not a lack of public demand”

“Given that the government has given us less than two weeks to reopen, we have a tremendous amount of work to do to prepare – from training, to implementing one way systems, signage, sourcing PPE and removing all non essential contact items to ensure our guests can feel safe and secure,” she adds, neatly summarising how the hospitality industry feels in the wake of Boris Johnson’s announcement that pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants across Oxfordshire can reopen their doors on July 4 for the first time since lockdown began in March.

Sarah at The Mole Inn in Toot Baldon agrees: “We are extremely excited to be able to open again, but a little more notice from Boris would not have gone amiss.

The Mole

It means we’re going to be busy beavering away over the next week and a half to make sure we can make things safe and workable for our staff and customers and can’t wait to feel life breathing in our beautiful pub and garden again soon.”

It’s a similar story at The White Hart in Wytham where landlord Baz has his revolutionary wooden dining pods ready and waiting for the hundreds who have already signed up to eat in them. (READ FULL STORY HERE

“It’s tremendously good news in the circumstances. We’re anticipating a real bounce and we’ve a waiting list in excess of 250 for our pod dining,” Baz says.

The new dining pods at The White Hart in Wytham

“There are however real concerns about the mid term and run up to Christmas, and what consumer behaviour will be. Fingers crossed for continued great weather in July, August & September, because every penny will count. We’re very excited to see all our customers again, old and new.”

Frazer Sutherland from Peach Pubs told us the first Oxfordshire pubs to reopen will be The Thatch and The James Figg in Thame and The Fishes in Hinksey.

“We started taking bookings for July 4 last Friday, but on Saturday had to stop as we were fully booked. It’s really good that people want to come back and the one metre plus rule makes sense and will really make a difference to us,” he said.

The Fishes in North Hinksey

While Oxfordshire’s hospitality industry can scarcely contain their excitement about finally being able to reopen, there are still so many questions and factors to take into account. Social distancing may have changed from two metres to one, but new restrictions include mandatory table service, more use of hand sanitiser and customer details required by staff for contact tracing.

Clare Alexander from The Killingworth Castle in Wootton and The Ebrington Arms in Chipping Campden told us: “Reducing the two to one metre rule will stop lots of businesses in hospitality from going under.

So what challenges will she face with the new reopening guidelines? “As well as hands free sanitiser stations, we’ve been working on new spaced table plans, one-way systems and table ordering rather than gathering around the bar. The appetite for us to come back is huge and we hope to put our booking system live this week so people can start booking.”

Killingworth Castle

New government guidelines and social distancing measures will mean a very different eating and drinking experience for customers, and until now business owners have simply been taking an educated guess at what will happen next.

Peach Pubs has set up one of their pubs in Bedford as a training hub for staff to ensure they operate within the new guidance.

Frazer added: “We have to get this right so we will have screens in some pubs, extra bars and toilets and there will be more outdoor food available too.

The James Figg in Thame

“The biggest thing is making sure people feel confident and safe so we have done so much to make sure our customers are confident and safe when they come to our pubs.

“There is no reason why table service rather than vertical drinking (at the bar) won’t work, it happens abroad in places like France and Spain and is actually more hospitable in many ways.”

In the meantime, many restaurants across Oxfordshire started offering food delivery and takeaways after closing due to lockdown. Some pubs have also been offering takeaway beers.

Pub gardens are also proving a vital commodity in this brave nw world. Matt Williams of The Spar in Sparsholt said: “We are reopening on July 4 and are very excited about it! We will be spacing our outdoor tables at 2m and indoor tables 1.5metres. We’re very lucky though to have a lot of space that we can use inside and outside.”

The Star at Sparsholt has lots of space

Lockdown has also provided many businesses the opportunity for deep cleans, decorating and makeovers.

Nick Evans took over The Black Horse in Standlake in November and during lockdown has decided to give the pub a total makeover, impossible when it was open seven days a week. “We have painted every wall, sanded every table, and built a 120 sqm outdoor patio area, covered and heated decking, pizza oven and BBQ area,” he said.

“Although slightly frustrated with the lack of information provided by the government over the past months, we are excited about reopening on July 4. We are very fortunate to have such a large and beautiful outdoor space, enhanced by our new patio and back garden area, and we cannot wait to welcome all our friends and neighbours back.”

Nick Evans with head chef Martin Sherriff

Nick added: “Having put together a skeleton team during lockdown, we continued to offer great food for takeaway and delivery. The feedback and support we received has truly been amazing.

The pub also runs a weekly al fresco market where local businesses sell a range of produce; fruit and vegetable, cakes, plants, takeaway coffee and food cooked by the Black Horse.

And what of our central pubs? Ed Whinney of The White Rabbit has also been using the time to refresh the look of our favourite pub: “The White Rabbit has not been idle while we have been closed, and look forward to welcoming back our customers to a newly freshened up pub with the same fantastic beer and pizza.

The former beer garden at The White Rabbit

“We are using technology combined with good practice to ensure we stay safe while still keeping the sense of actually being somewhere sociable. Our staff are now raring to get back!”

So back to The White Hart in Fyfield who have also been undergoing a dramatic makeover: “We are very lucky to have such a large outdoor space and are making the most of it – we are having an outdoor kitchen built with wood-fired pizza oven and 4 wooden outdoor dining rooms being built.

“One of our locals has designed pagodas with sail shades and fire pits so guests can make the most of outdoor dining, even in the evenings when it starts to get chilly. We are also very lucky that the White Hart has so many secret little rooms and spaces and we can still fit in about 40 guests, even with tables 1.5m apart.

The White Hart in Fyfield

Oakman Inns’ CEO, Peter Borg-Neal, who runs The Old Post Office in Wallingford, The Blue Boar in Witney and The Crown and Thistle in Abingdon said: “There is substantial public enthusiasm for us to reopen and we have already taken over 3,000 bookings for July 4 with two of our 28 pubs already fully booked. 

“The critical impact for us will be the reduced capacity – not a lack of public demand. The significant challenge will be to ensure that everyone who visits us and works for us has a safe and enjoyable time,” he adds.

Peter Borg-Neal. Photo credit: Kevin Dunnett

Laura Wiedemann from Pompette said: “We are extremely happy to be able to open, and we had taken four bookings within 15 minutes after the announcement was made! 

“We can’t wait to serve our customers once again, but we want to make sure that they are safe and feel confident dining with us, so we are putting policies in place such as removing all excess tables which we can’t have due to the 1m rule.

However, Laura is also a realist who knows July 4 isn’t going to solve everyone’s problems. “We are happy to be opening, but we know that this is not just the end to our worries. We are now only in the second stage – where we can open with limited capacity, and we are a long way from being out of the woods. But it is a step in the right direction.

“Pompette is mine and Pascal’s (her patron chef husband) and it is our life, along with all our staff that work with us. We intend to keep it alive by any means possible, and will work hard to ensure that we can serve our lovely customers and community for long into the future.” 

However, not all pubs and restaurants will reopen on July 4

Peach Pubs plans to have all of the Oxfordshire pubs open by July 12, The Milkshed in Weston On The Green will reopen on Friday July 10, while Ross Drummond from No 1 Ship Street in Oxford said he won’t reopen until Thursday August 6, “to give customers a few weeks to get their heads round the new normal.”

“It’s nice to see light at the end of the tunnel though,” he adds, echoing our sentiments all round.

We can’t wait.