When Nicola Sturgeon declared a national lockdown in March 2020, universities shut down and students throughout Scotland were forced to evacuate their campuses. As professors scrambled to move their courses online and students adjusted to studying remotely, businesses in university towns mourned the loss of their biggest consumer base: students. Out of approximately 20,000 residents in St Andrews, more than 50 percent are students, roughly 10,425. With over half of their regular customers gone, many businesses in St Andrews suffered severe economic losses.
Throughout Scotland, businesses that have faced the heaviest losses have been those in towns with large student populations. Studee, an educational consulting firm, has combined data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the National Student Money Survey 2021 to estimate the cost of the pandemic on businesses in university towns over the last 6 months. According to the data, St Andrews ranks 7th in towns and cities which have felt the most significant economic impact from the pandemic, given the high rate of students which constitute their population. The study estimates that the economic loss in St Andrews over one month was £3,086,440, while over six months that figure rose to £18,518,640. Without students to spend in cafes, restaurants, pubs, bookshops and clothing stores, many businesses in St Andrews were devastated. One business which was hard-hit by the lack of students in town was BlackHorn Burgers. BlackHorn Burgers, which was opened by Storm Hughes and his father in 2013, has seen student engagement levels plummet during the pandemic.
On the matter, Storm says, “We’ve lost the engagement of certain year groups, both as employees and customers, and it’s been very tough trying to bring in new students.”
He further explains, “We have lost out on a lot of first, second, and potentially third years from the lack of engagement from Freshers’ Fayre and other events. We missed out on Starfields this year usually our trailers are down there and branding is big, so it is very easy to engage students.”
Between 6 and 9pm on Sundays, BlackHorn has a deal which offers a burger, fries, and a soft drink for £6.
“Sunday nights used to be the busiest day of the week. There would be a queue out the door and around the corner. You’d never get a table. Now, it trickles in. It’s steady but it is not busy.”
Though general student levels remain low, things are looking promising. Storm is back to having regular customers. He knows their names and orders by heart and enjoys chatting with them.
“It’s really nice seeing that again. I am very positive and hopeful for the future. At the same time, there is so much to be done.”
Though COVID-19 significantly drove down student engagement levels at BlackHorn, it had a milder impact on other businesses. Though Taste was closed for half the year, “not much changed” even once it decided to re-open. According to Taste owner Jan Leenhouts, “Instead of 95% takeaway, we are now 100% takeaway. We only have around ten seats, so it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
For Taste, it is very much business as usual. Jan attributes this to Taste’s popularity with students.
“We have a very loyal following. The students that weren’t here are all back.”
With regular customers boosting student engagement levels back up to pre-pandemic levels, Jan is exploring ways to draw in new students. One potential project is introducing Taste to the event scene in St Andrews.
"If we can’t bring the people to Taste, we will bring Taste to the people!”
Jan will continue to keep this in mind as he is reminded of the fact that “When students are here, we are as busy as can be.”
While the pandemic has changed little at Taste, The Rule has seen an uptick in student engagement. According to Michael, a team leader and supervisor at the Rule, “We seem more popular.”
Michael claims that the pub is generally much busier than before and that they are at full capacity almost every single night. He largely credit’s The Rule’s large outdoor space with this success.
“We happened to get a refurbishment before the pandemic, so we had plenty of space for people to come.”
He added, “When other pubs were closed, our garden space allowed us to stay open.”
When Nicola Sturgeon announced the tightening of restrictions in October 2020, restaurants and pubs with only indoor spaces were only allowed to operate between 6am and 6pm, without the sale of alcohol. Premises with outdoor spaces, how- ever, were allowed to remain open until 10pm, with the sale of alcohol. The Rule has successfully maintained its popularity even as restrictions began to lift.
According to Michael, The Rule has “surpassed the level it was at before the pandemic. We are breaking targets almost every day.”
In restaurants and pubs with outdoor areas, student engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially increased.
Though The Rule was able to expand its student engagement large- ly due to its outdoor space, Molly Malones’ limited indoor table service limited their popularity with students. Under the Scottish tier system, the pub had to drastically reduce its capacity, turning away multiple groups of people in any given night. According to Cara Graham, a pub leader at Molly Malones, “student engagement has gone back up” and “there’s been more [students] than ever coming in” this year with more students returning to in-person class.
In order to further drive up the number of students coming into the pub, Molly Malones has increased the number of students working at it.
Ms Graham said, “The pub hires a lot of students to work behind the bar. We are receptive of what students are after and we pass it along to our supervisors.”
Cara also went over some activities that take place at the pub. In the past, Molly Malones has had mic performances from the Folk and Trad So- ciety as well as pub quizzes with the Irish Society. Molly Malones’ openness to having students arrange events at the pub following the easing of restrictions has played a significant role in regaining its popularity after the hiatus forced upon it by restrictions.
Businesses across St Andrews have had very different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though some businesses have seen an economic uptick, they are in the minority. The pandemic has had an overall net negative impact. The businesses that saw a neutral or positive impact were those that were mostly take-away to begin with or those that were able to remain open throughout the pandemic due to their large outdoor spaces. Those that were hit hardest were mostly sit-down and had to operate at a reduced capacity due to social distancing. To some degree, it was inevitable that businesses in university towns like St Andrews would suffer when there was a lack of students. Now that restrictions are lifted, students can do more to support local businesses, especially those that are not part of big national or international chains. It’s up to them to play their part.
Image: Helen Lipsky