Owners hope the Montagu Arms could re-open its doors

Niall Crozier

Reporter:

Niall Crozier

Email:

niall.crozier@ulstergazette.co.uk

THE Montagu Arms’ closure may be temporary rather than permanent.

It could be re-opened by its current owners. Or leased. Or sold. Or developed into something completely different. Each of those options is on the table at this stage.

One of the owners, Mr Derek Poole, told the Gazette, “We will decide in due course what we’re going to do. At this stage, no such decisions have been been taken.”

Last Monday (May 1), via social media, the owners announced, “Due to lack of staff availability in the hospitality industry since the onset of the Covid pandemic, we have been left with no option but to close The Montagu Arms.”

On Thursday, when the Gazette sought confirmation of whether this closure is temporary or permanent, Mr Poole replied, “That’s a very good question. The simple fact is that, at this stage, we cannot get staff.

“From the onset of the Covid virus and the furlough of staff, all of a sudden you were sending staff home with 80% of their wages paid to them. We were given grant aid, of course, and in that sense they [the Government] were very generous to us.

“But, as a result, these same people quickly became accustomed to a better life and the working hours required in the hospitality trade suddenly became less attractive.

“Added to that, we lost our then-manager in the early part of the pandemic. He was very good at his job and when he told me what he wanted to do, I wished him all the best with that.

“Unfortunately, he then took three of our staff with him, which added to the problem we already had.”

Mr Poole explained, “There are two families involved in our overall business, and between us we have been taking the spare shifts. But we can’t continue to do that.

“Montagu is only about 2% of our overall company's turnover, but in the past year it has taken 50% of our management’s time. We can't sustain that.

“So, at present we’re closed until further notice. We’ll possibly leave it for a couple of months to see where it goes from here.”

Some staff have told the owners that they are willing to do whatever is required to keep the Montagu Arms open, and some people in Tandragee have offered to help part-time.

But as Mr Poole pointed out, “In the hospitality industry we need people who know about customer care and can provide that. So, with the best will in the world, people turning up and saying they’re willing to do whatever just isn’t the answer to our problem.

“We’re holding fire for a couple of months to see what options come our way. If there’s enough good staff to allow us to re-open and continue as was, obviously we’d look at that.

“Another option is to lease. Another is to sell and the third is to develop the site. When we bought that site back in 2000, I already had done a building development survey which we still have and, indeed, have upgraded.

“And now, with the development behind us pushing in to our boundary fence, that becomes a more attractive alternative.

“As I’ve said, we’ll take a couple of months to assess all of this. We could very well re-open – that’s still a possibility.”

Significantly, on the weekend on which the Montagu Arms closed, its turnover equated to Christmas week, suggesting that the venue remains highly popular.

Mr Poole agreed: “I can’t turn round and say that our customer base didn’t support us; that would be unfair. But there were four prongs to the business – restaurant, bedrooms, off-sales and the bar.

“Only two of those have been functioning in the past year, apart from the Tandragee 100 weekend when the family stepped in, took on board what had to be done – the breakfasts and those things.

“But those two elements – restaurant and bedrooms – have not functioned properly from Covid whereas previously they’d been an essential part of the turnover.

“Punters coming and enjoying the craic? We can’t complain about that. And the off-sales did what it did and it was there at all times throughout Covid, supplying the public’s demand, so that helped cover the overheads of the building.

“But those other two elements struggled desperately from Covid and the truth of the matter is that we can’t keep calling on family to fill shifts.

“We didn’t have an issue with staffing until Covid set upon us and all of a sudden the ethos and the mindset changed. And here I’m not talking about hospitality, but the whole of the workplace. People became accustomed to working from home rather than being on site and being able to relate to each other in getting things done.”

Currently the owners are looking at their stock situation and - given that stock ages - deciding what to do with it.

As well as that the licence is up for renewal this year and, in Mr Poole's words, “We can't afford to let it run out – and the only way you can re-new you licence is by trading.”

He continued, “Between now and September we could very well be trading again; that’s an option. Unless, of course, somebody comes along and says ‘We want to lease your place’ or ‘We want to buy your licence’.

“So, as things stand, we’re in a standstill period for a few weeks to see where we go.”

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