Northern Soul and People’s Powerhouse are continuing our partnership to share good new stories about businesses, people and communities coming together in the North of England during the COVID-19 crisis. As the country begins to loosen lockdown restrictions, we’re talking to Northerners doing excellent work across the region.

This week we chat to Dianne Irving who runs the award-winning pub The Crown and the popular city centre Howard Arms, both in Carlisle. Irving received national acclaim when she delivered meals to the vulnerable across the city at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, having put a full range of safety measures in place, the former primary school headteacher is set to reopen the doors of her pub businesses. 

Northern Soul: What inspired you to start a meal delivery service to help the vulnerable across the city at the start of the coronavirus pandemic?

Dianne Irving: From my own experience with both sets of parents in the over-70s group, I realised how vulnerable they are, especially the in-laws who live away, and we had no chance of supporting them. As a community pub, we like to support all members of our community throughout the year and this was an extra opportunity to show that we are there for them.

NS: What was the response like?

DI: The response was heartwarming. Many people were phoning us to pay forward meals to be delivered to anyone who we knew was in need. Also, lots of volunteers helped deliver the meals. The response from customers who received meals was great. They thoroughly enjoyed the food and comforted that someone was looking out for them.

NS: What challenges have you faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?

DI: Both pubs had to close down and rents and fixed costs have been ongoing. Whether or not either business would survive has been a real worry.

Dianne IrvingNS: How has the community been affected by the crisis?

DI: Much like in many places across the country, the community response has been heartwarming. Our community has banded together to look after one another.

NS: And how have they come together?

DI: When we were delivering meals, lots of people decided to pay forward £5 or £10 to purchase meals for the elderly or vulnerable. There were lots of grown-up children of elderly parents still in the area and they were really grateful that someone was there to support their parents when they couldn’t be available. We also had numerous volunteers who delivered meals but also checked on people from a safe, social distance. The deliveries sometimes took double the amount of time they should as some vulnerable customers were so delighted to have someone stop to talk that they got a bit carried away.

NS: Have you been surprised by the reaction to reopening The Crown and The Howard Arms?

DI: The Crown and The Howard have reopened and people have been delighted to get back in. We have taken the precautions needed to keep people safe seriously and so we’ve won over the hearts and minds of many people who wouldn’t ordinarily wish to return to visiting pubs. Customers understand that their pub experience will be slightly different from their pre-coronavirus experience because we want them and our staff to be safe during any return.

Dianne Irving, Howard ArmsNS: What does the loosening of lockdown restrictions mean to your business and how will you approach these new challenges?

DI: It’s meant that we can reopen our businesses with increased safety measures in place. We have removed some of our tables to comply with social distancing measures, we have one-way systems around the pubs and operate a one-in, one-out system in toilet areas. We have also increased our cleaning routines, especially around touch points such as door handles, table tops etc. Sanitisation stations are now in place at all entrance and exit points and scattered strategically through the pub. All of our staff have completed accredited online training in COVID-19 safe practises as well as renewing food hygiene certificates. Contactless payments are our preferred method of payment. With all this in place, we are as safe as we possibly can be.

The challenge for us will be: is this model sustainable or commercially viable? The Howard in particular suffers from having fewer tables because of social distancing, but our ongoing business costs are largely the same.

NS: What’s the most positive moment/thing you’ve experienced during the crisis?

DI: For many people the most positive thing is having had time to spend with their families and to reflect on how they want to realign their priorities in the future.

NS: What does the ‘new normal’ mean to you?

DI: The new normal means I am not working as full on as I have been in recent years. At the moment, the pubs are not open all day, every day. This model has been broken and we may never fully return to it. This has given me more family time but it has also given me time to think more about my businesses and how I want them to grow moving forward.

The People's Powerhouse