Food & Drinks

Drinking culture shift: will pubs survive?

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Empty seats and tables at Smuffs Lounge. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Summary

  • The ‘park and chill’ concept has continued from March 2020 when the government first closed pubs and restaurants.
  • A concept that started as a way of beating cabin fever is evolving into a trend that is threatening pub businesses.
  • A spot check by BDLife shows that alcohol sales in most Nairobi pubs are low since the reopening last month.

I’m never going back to the bar again,” says Geoffrey Muriuki, who runs a small firm in Nairobi’s Upper Hill.

For as long as he can remember, he has been drinking alcohol in bars while socialising with his friends.

But in the midst of a pandemic, that has led to death of over three million people, sitting inside a small, crowded, smoky room and drinking from shared glasses as friends and strangers laugh into each other’s faces, is no longer a appealing.

When the health crisis led to the closure of bars, several Kenyans found alternatives; some started drinking from their cars, while others assembled pub benches in their gardens, where they have the luxury of social distancing.

Mr Muriuki and his friends are among the drinkers that have found a new way of hanging out and spending less on alcohol compared to when they frequented bars.

“I used to spend up to Sh20,000 on weekends, but now I spend half of that. Bars sell the alcohol triple the price sold in shops and that is how I wasted my money,” he says.

What Mr Muriuki, his friends and many other Kenyans are doing, is buy their favourite whisky or beer at liquor stores, park their cars on the roadside or secluded area and banter up to a few hours before the 10pm curfew.

The ‘park and chill’ concept has continued from March 2020 when the government first closed pubs and restaurants. A concept that started as a way of beating cabin fever is evolving into a trend that is threatening pub businesses.

A spot check by BDLife shows that alcohol sales in most Nairobi pubs are low since the reopening last month. Ordinarily most people don’t drink during the day and with the closing time set at 7pm, drinkers spend less time at the bar and others have been avoiding it altogether.

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Joel Kamau Commercial Director at KBL. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Peter Kimeu, a party lover admits that before Covid-19, he used to be out all weekend, socialising with friends in clubs until the wee hours of the morning.

Now, he says, he is forced to drive to specific outlets as early as 2pm if he has to get his fill before closure.

“I no longer go to bars or clubs like I used to. Nowadays, we plan for the weekend early, pick a pub and arrive early so that by 7pm, we’d feel like we partied ‘all night long,” he says.

At Smuffs Lounge on Thika Superhighway, since they reopened after six months of closure, things have never been the same.

“There has been a steep decline in sales. We used to sell up to 60 bottles of liquor in a night but now count ourselves lucky if we sell 10,” says Patrick Baderha, the Smuffs Lounge manager.

Some club owners have been forced to offer subsidised prices on selected alcohol to woo patrons.

At Bobos in Nairobi, the restaurant-cum-bar is among the few left operating in Central Business District (CBD). With low alcohol sales and few patrons coming in because the working-from-home clique are drinking from their ‘home pubs’, the future is uncertain.

“The two hours that the president took away after reopening meant a lot to us. Who will come here at 9am and buy a bottle of liquor and start drinking?” Poses Grace Boncilin of Bobos.

“We used to do more than 50 bottles of liquor in a night, but now the much we can do is only five. I don’t know for how long we can keep the business running.”

While pub owners are counting losses, for wine and spirit shops, especially those selling at wholesale prices and located within estates, business has never been better. Alcohol home deliveries have been a game-changer.

Drinking culture

“We have been experiencing brisk business since we started doing deliveries. We are happy we still have our jobs at a time when people are being laid off,” says James Kinyanjui, the owner of Pipers Wines and Spirits, located on Nairobi’s Northern Bypass.

Mr Kinyanjui says that weekend afternoons are some of his busiest times as people park their cars along the busy bypass, keep replenishing liquor from his store and while away time. “What they used to spend at the bar for a bottle of liquor, they can get two of them here for the same price,” he added. It may seem trivial, but the closing of pubs may herald a shift in drinking culture.

Pub culture has evolved from the days of drinking from a makeshift bench to glitzy rooms with big TV screens, live music bands, and leather chairs, to serving the best of meats.

Beer makers such as East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL), have noticed the shift. They launched Party Central, an e-shop where one can buy beer, wine, or whisky and have it delivered to the doorstep.

Joel Kamau, Kenya Breweries Limited commercial director, says today’s consumers are shifting to e-commerce and cash and carry outlets because they deliver a convenient and immediate solution.

“With the majority of consumers at home, we are seeing an acceleration in e-commerce. Consumers have discovered the convenience of in-home delivery and the uptake has been growing since the pandemic hit in March 2020,” says Mr Kamau, adding that “about 78 percent of consumers who have used a home delivery service have reported willingness to continue to using this service in the near future.”

In a pandemic, it is only the resilient and fast adapters that are still in business.

Graham Villiers-Tuthill, EABL marketing and innovations director says “the team quickly responded, tearing up the old rule book.”