“I hope this city can get behind independents, even more so than usual” – Sheffield bar owner James O’Hara on reopening businesses

With July 4th being heralded as the date when many of Britain’s pubs and bars will finally reopen their doors following three months of forced closure, you might be forgiven for thinking that people will soon be able to pick up where they left off with regards to visiting their favourite city centre haunts.

Unfortunately, the sad reality could see a number of independent businesses in Sheffield forced to shut up shop for good due to a brewing storm of accumulated rent bills, difficult trading conditions during the ongoing pandemic and spacing issues with the current social distancing guidance.

Popular Division Street hangout The Great Gatsby is one spot particularly at risk, with owner James O’Hara claiming that the expense of paying backlogged rent racked up during the closure period to their landlord – a large pubco with almost 400 bars and pubs up and down the country – in order to reopen would make the business unviable.

“We’ve had to have some very difficult conversations with landlords that are ongoing,” says O’Hara, co-owner of The Rockingham Group who also own Sheffield venues Picture House Social, Public and Ambulo. “They are all very different landlords in fairness, but unless the government bring in some new legislation, or by some miracle pubcos decide to be nice, the Gatsby will probably be a business that won’t come back.”

“That said, whatever the situation and hurdles put in front of us we will try every avenue and every trick in the book to get the bar back open.”

“We’ve had to have some very difficult conversations with landlords that are ongoing” – James O’Hara Image: India Hobson

It’s a bleak message for the city’s independent pub scene, and something recently forced into sharper focus with the news that longstanding real ale and craft beer haven The Devonshire Cat won’t be reopening once restrictions are lifted. The Abbeydale Brewery owned pub cited sky-high rates, an uncertain future facing the hospitality industry and a general reduction of footfall in the past few years as factors all contributing towards the decision.

These are issues O’Hara and his colleagues are all too familiar with, claiming that last year was financially the toughest they’ve faced across their establishments and unless calls for a rent freeze or ‘National Timeout’ are heeded by the government, whole communities of independent businesses that primarily serve the local economy and provide identity and variety to cities such as Sheffield could be wiped out.

“The rent model in this country has needed looking at for ages,” he adds. “Most rents are incredibly overinflated, the risk is always attached to the tenants, and this situation has shown it up for exactly that. Say for example we’re closed for four months, which is looking likely, the National Timeout proposal would allow us to pause the rent for that period and spread it over the rest of the lease. The reality is, with the furlough scheme running for another few months, there’s no incentive to get into the risky business of reopening because, put simply, we’d lose less money by staying closed. Many other places will be in the same boat.”

With the large chain groups of the industry aiming for reopening in less than two weeks, he claims that “sitting back and learning from the big boys’ mistakes” will be a popular strategy for businesses unable to afford the risk of reopening too early. However, on a slightly more positive note, he stresses that the current predicament is “not necessarily a one-size-fits-all scenario” and that some local bars and restaurants, particularly those with spacious outside areas, could see a upturn in business through a combination of summertime weather and thirsty punters looking to make amends for lost drinking time.

Tough times are undoubtedly on the horizon for independent businesses throughout the country, but O’Hara claims that on a local level Sheffielders can provide their support and will be doing his bit to remind people of that once the drinks start flowing again. “I hope this city can get behind independents, even more so than usual. Go to the Dorothy Pax, Picture House Social, Forum, or any independents with big outside areas. Give your money to those who are employing people from the city and will be spending their money in the city. Don’t give anything to that complete bellend from Spoons who wouldn’t pay half of his staff anyway – and you can quote me on that.”

Read more about the #NationalTimeOut initiative here.


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