“I am always supported, even right up here in Scotland!” Robert Shephard, The Thistle Street Bar in Edinburgh discusses his pandemic support and the effect on a solely wet-led pub.

The Thistle Street Bar in Edinburgh is a little gem in the beautiful and historic city of Edinburgh. Given away by its name, the Thistle Street Bar is a wet-led pub operation, passionately managed for what will be three years this October (2021) by Robert Sheppard.

With a capacity of just 80 people (including standing) even without Covid-19 restrictions, there is no doubt the Thistle Street Bar is one of Greene King’s – and the UK’s – smallest pubs. Offering only 24 seated covers in the whole bar and 8 outdoors, it relies on its regular, older generation trade and the visiting tourist community looking to sample a carefully maintained and crafted pint of ale.

As Robert discussed the last year, it became apparent just how different life in Scotland had been for him and other tenants based in the devolved nations compared to those in England. As Robert explains, the Scottish government played things very differently:

“Just as our English counterparts are planning to open their gardens in April – if I had one, I still couldn’t open it at the same time. Our restrictions are quite different to England and even Wales and Northern Ireland. It has been quite a tough time for all of us, but I have to say that the Scottish government has been tougher on us than other nations, and as such, I haven’t really been able to open much at all during the pandemic.”

One of the critical things from talking to Robert was how much he felt supported by Greene King: “Even though we had very different restrictions, this didn’t faze the pub partner team, our BDM and the Scotland head of Greene King from stepping up. The communication was second to none. Even though nobody, even the company, could predict what would happen, they were always the first to bring us news, updates, and information that we could understand and use to plan for the immediate future. It is nice to feel I am always supported, even right up here in Scotland!”

Robert decided to close the Thistle Street Bar a few days before the official announcement of lockdown came. The bar is a cosy, friendly, pleasant venue that offers patrons the enjoyment of a pint or a glass of wine in the company of locals with their entertaining stories and bar banter. However, the bar did not provide much opportunity to social distance and be safe in an event as significant as a pandemic. So, as Robert says, that was ‘curtains for him’.

“For the sake of my regulars, I had to make the tough decision to close early for the sake of my older regulars. I would have quite simply gone bust within weeks, perhaps months had it not been for Greene King. In fact, they have gone above and beyond to make the process simpler but also provide some exceptional, second to none support”.

Quickly after the lockdown announcement was made, he was informed that support would be coming from Greene King for him and his business. Robert was able to get some help from the local authority thanks to grants offered by the Scottish government and equally take advantage of the UK comprehensive support, including the furlough scheme.

“Support from Greene King wholeheartedly proved the value of the ‘pub partner’ scheme. Greene King acted like a well-educated, industry-focused, experienced business partner – something we could only hope to have access to. You never felt alone and always had support.” Robert says. “The lifeline for us tenants were by far the communications from the team”. Robert says that the information supplied by his BDM and the Scotland territory management was why he did not suffer more with his mental health during the pandemic. With regular updates on policies, restrictions and requirements for opening being provided to him regularly. These were based on Scottish government updates – not a generic update on the national agenda - which would take time and understanding to adapt.

Robert continues: “The information I got was exclusive to my area, and I can’t tell you how important that was for me to understand what it meant for my business.” That would also be the same with the financial support provided by Greene King. Akin to support in England, all Scotland Greene King partners could access the same rent concessions, stock credits on a wasted or returned product, free training solutions and exceptional mental health support.

“I was offered between fifty and ninety percent rent reductions throughout the pandemic, which was unbelievably generous and way beyond anything I have heard of regarding support from similar pub groups. As it happens, with the restrictions as they have been in Scotland, I have barely been open. Without this financial support, I would definitely not have a business at all now.”

Robert was blessed with some positive developments over the lockdown period – with a bit of help from his ‘business partner’, Greene King. The historic and stunning bar has been given a lovely makeover to freshen it up whilst keeping the character. “We don’t have a kitchen, and we don’t have a beer garden. Our outside drinking area hosts only 8 people. Therefore, my shop window is my inside space and it is lovely to see it all fresh and ready to go.”

Robert is now planning for an official opening but is still not confirmed when the Scotland restrictions will lift further. But, when he does, he is excited to get the banter back and the regulars surrounding the bar – as it should be.

“The pandemic has proved something I already knew. I have a partner in Greene King, and they have further cemented my relationship with them. They have gone above and beyond. After a year of being closed, I never thought I would be in a position to open at all. Now I can open with stock and unfaltering confidence. This is all thanks to the support of the amazing team at Greene King.”

The Thistle Street Bar is due to reopen by June 2021, and we can’t wait to visit Greene King’s little Scottish gem.