Chinatown’s legendary all-night pub is facing the fight of its life

Manchester has never quite managed to earn itself the reputation of being a city that never sleeps – but we do have a pub that never sleeps.

The Seven Oaks is a haven for hospitality workers, serving after-work drinks to those who finish work in the dead of night.

It’s one of the few places in the region that you can walk past at the crack of dawn and find a lively buzz.

The pub, which sits on Nicholas Street in Chinatown, sometimes serves workers their first end-of-shift pint at 7am, and will keep pulling pints long after daybreak.

Its owner, Patrick Smith, describes it as a two-in-one pub – a traditional boozer in the daylight hours, then almost a private members’ club once it reopens at midnight each night.

Inside the Seven Oaks, with its new safety measures
(Image: ABNM Photography)

It’s something of an institution, especially for those who work ‘the wrong nine-to-five’.

Patrick said: “We’ve always been very welcoming and we have such a diverse clientele, especially late at night when we cater to people finishing hospitality jobs. It’s great to see the old faces back – we just want to see them more!

“It’s two very different pubs. The traditional pub with sport and a jukebox and all that sort of stuff. Our daytime crowd is usually over 30, nice friendly bunch that tends to be mostly male.

“After midnight it’s hospitality workers, generally around the 18 to 25 age bracket, much more diverse and they drink very differently.

“We’re sort of trying to cram two pubs into one!”

The Seven Oaks technically opens at midday each day, trading until around 11pm at night.

Trade has dropped off dramatically at this Manchester nightlife institution
(Image: ABNM Photography)

It then closes for an hour, before reopening at midnight for those who work in hospitality – and proof of employment is required to get your foot in the door.

Patrick says on a Saturday morning they can be pulling pints until 10am, before closing for a quick clean ahead of the next day’s trade a few hours later.

But its unusual business model is presenting some unique challenges in the current post-lockdown climate.

For one, nightclubs remain closed – and The Seven Oaks brings in a lot of customers who work in the city’s late-night clubs.

Much of its daytime clientele is made up of football spectators, or office workers – two more customer pools that have largely dried up.

Earlier this week, the British Beer and Pub Association published a report that said more than a third of British pubs cannot break even since opening post-lockdown.

Patrick thinks this figure is actually quite conservative – especially for wet-led pubs like the Seven Oaks.

Its owner says the city centre is still ‘deathly quiet’
(Image: ABNM Photography)

He said: “The recent reduction in VAT is of no real benefit to us, neither is the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. There’s not an awful lot to help us.

“We need some targeted support for wet-led pubs. Something to encourage people to come out. It could be a real lifeline.”

The Seven Oaks has implemented dozens of new safety measures to protect staff and customers – measures that feel ‘a bit strange’ in a pub setting.

Patrick said: “Hospitality businesses, by their design, are perfect places to spread a virus unfortunately. We’re designed for social interaction and intimacy and just being around other people.

Manchester’s two-in-one pub
(Image: ABNM Photography)

“It’s a bit strange when you’re trying to show football and having to tell people to shush like a library, because they’re not allowed to shout.

“Ultimately, these rules do suck the joy out of the pub for a lot of people, but we just have to try and mitigate the risks.

“July is traditionally a quieter time for us – the universities are closed, the football season’s over, everyone’s on holiday and we have no outdoor area.

“Even so, we were about 25% down on the previous year, but the great concern we’ve got is September and October onwards – with the restrictions that we have in place, how can we actually scale up?

“At the moment our capacity must be at a maximum of 50% of our normal.

“How can we find the space for our usual customer numbers? We can’t. Not safely.”

The Seven Oaks hopes to see road closures and pedestrianisation like the schemes in the Northern Quarter
(Image: ABNM Photography)

He hopes to see a similar al fresco situation set up in Chinatown to match those established across the Northern Quarter and the Gay Village.

He continued: “Chinatown’s at its best when there’s street food, people walking around, hustle and bustle.

“The pavements aren’t very wide so I’ve been told not to get my hopes up for a temporary pavement licence.

“But the road closures – I think there’s real opportunity for that. Businesses here could increase capacity by 150%.”

Chinatown was one of the first areas to suffer the financial fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic, with businesses reporting takings down as much as 50% as far back as January and February, long before lockdown.

Operators here reported racist abuse, back when the virus was first emerging from Wuhan in China and beginning its devastating spread across the globe.

It’s also an area expected to be badly hit by the new local lockdown restrictions, which forbid people from different households meeting indoors – including in pubs and restaurants.

“I do understand it, but it’s a struggle for pubs,” Patrick said.

As with many businesses, it’s grappling with new safety measures
(Image: ABNM Photography)

“Going to the pub to sit at a table with your own household, especially in the city centre, people just aren’t going to do that.

“There are offices where people are working together and sitting in meetings, but then they finish work and they’re told they can’t come out for a drink.”

Even without the local lockdown measures, the Seven Oaks has seen first-hand how much the city centre has fallen quiet.

He continued: “You see these horror stories from parts of London that are really office-focused, like Holborn, where pubs are Monday to Friday trading and everything’s quiet at the weekends – and they’re trading at 10%.

“That’s an issue that concerns us too, being in the city centre.

“There are bars out in the suburbswho are doing better than ever.

“This situation has pushed people back out to where they live, and they’re not likely to travel into the city centre after working from home. People are changing their habits.

“The city centre, even now, is still deathly quiet, and I think that will be long term change.

“I don’t see people returning back to a five day week in the office – I think businesses will have people working from home far more.

“Getting people back into the city centre is the real mission.”

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