Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Too many Indians?

A noticeable feature travelling around the North-West, West Yorkshire and the Midlands is the large number of former pubs that have been converted to ethnic restaurants, sometimes Chinese but more often than not Indian. Very often these are large roadhouse-type pubs on prominent sites, in the suburbs or in semi-rural locations. Just the other day, I spotted that an attractive-looking pub on the outskirts of Oldham, one that I had always imagined would have been quite successful, had succumbed to this trend.

I do have to wonder, though, exactly where all the custom for these conversions comes from. Surely the factors that have affected the pub trade in these kinds of locations apply equally to restaurants. I would have thought restaurants, perhaps even more than pubs, benefited from clustering together in town and village centres rather than being on isolated sites. Also, people tend to look for a kind of intimacy of scale in restaurants – sitting in splendid isolation in an echoing room on a Tuesday night in November isn’t going to be very appealing. And they’re essentially more limited in their trade – you can have a full sit-down meal in a pub, but people don’t visit restaurants for just a quick drink or a snack.

Obviously there must be a superfically attractive business case for these conversions, or they wouldn’t happen. But I must admit I don’t really get it – and it’s sad to see so many once-thriving pubs lost. And are out-of-town ethnic restaurants really all that viable anyway? I’ve seen a fair number of former Little Chefs converted in this way that have closed again within a couple of years – the one on the A6 at New Mills Newtown being a good case in point.

12 comments:

  1. Not a bad example of an apparently successful conversion in Stockport is The Mango Lounge on Hillgate which I think years ago was a pub. It has been a nightclub and then knocking shop in my memory, but someone did tell me it was a pub prior to being a nightclub, though I’m happy to be corrected. Stockport has an ever expanding array of curry houses, and by the number of them you would guess it to be the cuisine of choice for stopfordians. A ruby is my choice at any rate. Though I think the Mango Lounge is a nice looking restaurant, I gather it’s not one of the better curry houses in the vicinity, so whether it changes again is to be seen.

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  2. Interesting point, but the post was referring more to pubs in suburban and out-of-town locations than those in or near town centres.

    Would, say, the Five Ways in Hazel Grove work as an Indian restaurant?

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  3. There are a number of restaurants around Five ways, including a curry house. I haven’t the business acumen to ascertain whether there is enough demand for a Madras to support another. As pubs close, it’s interesting to see how the building reopens, as you say. Whether there is genuine sustainable demand for additional restaurants or whether, or more interesting why, the entrepreneurial type think “restaurants” these days rather than “pub” may have a lot to do with an opinion that if your starting a small customer service business, a restaurant or take away will be successful and pubs are a money pit. If I was thinking of opening a restaurant I guess I’d research the socio economic profile of the area, and make a guess about how much I could make per head, style of food, and type of restaurant to open. Not sure I’d do that with a pub. My own prejudices and preferences come into to play and I’d probably be more inclined to go with my own taste and hope it matched the locals. Wing it and see. Is there a great difference in sunk costs between the 2 enterprises? That’s a factor for the guy with a redundancy cheque to burn. Either endeavour is a risk, and I don’t know why, but if I was the entrepreneurial type I’d think pubs offered the greater risk and poorer return.
    You’ve hit upon an interesting theme with this post. I’ve always thought there to be an ever present number of potential entrepreneurs with a desire to open a pub. The middle manager facing redundancy and wanting a fresh challenge and a desire to leave the rat race with a redundancy cheque who enjoys sitting in front of a bar and wants to sit behind it. Maybe the pub companies have put people off. Every time I read the pub press I get the message that involvement in pub tenancy is the opportunity to piss my life savings up a wall, as I slowly go bankrupt. Could the pool of potential licensees be waking up and smelling the coffee?
    Many pubs on Hillgate have been converted for other use (a part of town that was and probably still is, over pubbed) whether restaurant or office. Some are boarded up empty buildings. Of concern to the areas are those that appear to have no obvious use. The Nick Arms on Lancashire Hill has been boarded up for years and is blight and target for vandals. It’s better to find some use for 4 brick walls and a roof

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  4. The Mango Lounge immediately sprang to mind but it isn't out of the way. I stopped using the place when I had a gush of curry sauce drop on me without any form of compensation. Anyway, it has a lot of competition in walking distance, where they haven't yet decorated my strides.

    As for places out of the way, the rents are cheaper. Also, sometimes owners simply get the demographics wrong.

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  5. Another one in Stockport, of course, is the Last Monsoon, the former Tom Thumbs. That's in a rather unpromising location and sufficiently far off the town centre to makes its appeal a bit questionable.

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  6. The Last Monsoon is a great example. It is as if it's purpose is to provide curry nights to Ye Old Vic. If it was even more out of the way then it would not even have that trade.

    The Blue Bell in Chester closed, to reopen as the East Glory Oriental Restaurant. I have never found this restaurant open. So, there is a good chance that it has closed too. Ironically, it is central and it even has a well-documented ghost.

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  7. Harking back to Hillgate, the Packet Horse became Coco's (supposedly an Italian) before turning Greek. It is now closed; ironically, it had no apparent competition in walking distance.

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  8. As an aside, I believe the general failure of Hillgate (other than the building of the A6) is down to several factors. First, it is not well-served by buses. Second, only one pub and accepts cards but now does not offer cash-back. Third, no-one except two off-licenses, open only a few hours a day, have ATMs. Fourth, these off-licenses are in competition with pubs. The one in Faery Towers now sells booze. Fifth, pub advertising is almost non-extentant (online or otherwise). Finally, its lack of aethetic appeal, despite £11m of lottery money, is not enough to attract many people except nearby workplaces, locals, or cheap drink seekers.

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  9. Hillgate suffers from the general malaise of areas just off town centres which I have alluded to in past postings. There are fewer people living there, and they're less inclined to go to the pub in the week. Add to this the decline in small workshops and factories, and the growing disapproval of lunchtime drinking, and the overall potential trade is much less than it used to be. Arguably Hillgate could still lose another three or four pubs and still not remotely seem under-pubbed.

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  10. Actually, Hillgate is highly populated - How many tower blocks did you miss?

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  11. Despite the tower blocks, the area is much less populated than thirty or forty years ago when it supported a lot more pubs than at present.

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  12. That has nothing to do with population but changes in consumer attitudes which are linked to the factors that I have mentioned.

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