Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Winter is coming

To listen to some in the media, you would think that the pub trade is out of the woods now. Drinkers have flocked back since they reopened on July 4th, customers have been queuing out of the door to take advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and they are currently enjoying the beer gardens in this spell of Indian summer weather. However, looking forward, as the nights grow in and the temperature drops, their prospects don’t look anything like so rosy.

Social distancing rules mean that their capacity is still severely limited, and some small or cramped pubs haven’t been able to reopen at all. However, they’re often nowhere near attracting even the reduced numbers they’re permitted. City centre commuting remains way below the level before the lockdown, and many activities that generate footfall for pubs such as spectator sports events and live music concerts have still not restarted. Domestic tourism is greatly reduced, and international visitors have virtually disappeared.

Added to this, many celebrations such as birthdays, christenings, weddings and wakes that produce a lot of business for pubs can only take place in very limited form, and the “Rule of 6” introduced by the government last week further restricts gatherings of this kind.

In view of this, it’s hardly surprising that a wave of closures and redundancies is forecast, with North-West brewer and pub operator Thwaites being one of the first to make a formal announcement. Inevitably, with the furlough scheme winding down by the end of October, there are calls for further financial assistance, and certainly if businesses are unable to function at all the case for support is compelling. But the question has to be asked where the money is going to come from, given that we have already mortgaged our children’s and grandchildren’s future to pay for the first lockdown. And no government can keep businesses on life support indefinitely if there is no realistic prospect of reopening.

At least pubs can open to a limited extent, but that isn’t true of nightclubs, which remain firmly shut, with no prospect of that changing any day soon. Some may dismiss them as an inessential frippery, but like many other inessential fripperies they provide a lot of jobs and economic activity. The Morning Advertiser reports that three in five venues face closure without government support, and the Deltic Group have fired the starting gun by declaring 400 redundancies. Many operators are likely to reach the conclusion that, with no expectation of reopening until well into next year, they might as well put up the shutters and go into liquidation.

Another organisation that has effectively been brought to a standstill is CAMRA. All of its normal everyday activities – branch meetings, socials, presentations, pub crawls and brewery trips – are now impossible. A few half-baked virtual events are no substitute for face-to-face engagement.

Since the beginning of the year, the headline membership figure has fallen by almost 10,000. This isn’t due to people resigning in disgust, but to natural attrition. The main source of recruiting new members is beer festivals, which have been impossible to hold for the past six months. And festivals are also the second largest source of revenue after membership subs.

So, given that, frankly, there’s little prospect of much improvement in the situation until well into 2021, CAMRA is going to have to take a long hard look at its activities and its organisation. It’s no longer a case of just riding out the storm for a few months.

In the short term, further financial assistance may help tide pubs over, but only for a limited period. Eventually, their prospects are entirely dependent on the general health of the economy. The government needs to take the lead in restoring confidence, but unfortunately their announcements last week have only served to intensify the climate of fear, and further restrictions such as curfews are being actively discussed. So there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of any improvement for months, and the pub trade has a very bleak winter to look forward to.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

I’m Spartacus

In a further blow to the embattled pub trade, the Scottish government have decreed that, from Monday, customers in hospitality venues will be required to wear face masks at all times except when seated and actually eating or drinking. Bear in mind that in Scotland bars are now supposed to be table service only, so the question of going to the bar doesn’t arise, but even so it is likely to prove significantly offputting to many pubgoers. Going to the pub is, after all, a discretionary leisure activity, not something you have to do like shopping for food.
Given that you are already expected to be seated at all times, it is table service only, there is no piped music, the TV volume has to be muted, there should be no raised voices and definitely no singing, the atmosphere in Scottish pubs is already pretty grim and joyless.

This raises an obvious issue as to how the masks are actually used. The government guidelines say that you should “avoid taking it off and putting it back on a lot in quick succession”, which is precisely what you’re going to be doing in a pub situation. Plus they recommend washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds both before putting on the mask and before removing it. It’s hard to see that being adhered to when Jimmy’s on his fifth toilet visit of the evening. (These are the guidelines for England, but I can’t see those for Scotand being much different).

It’s also extremely problematical how it is going to be enforced, and it carries huge potential for creating flashpoints between staff and customers. The government have acknowledged that some people may have genuine reasons for not wearing a mask, but there is no official scheme of confirming or proving exemption.

In settings where face coverings are required in England, there are some circumstances where people may not be able to wear a face covering. Please be mindful and respectful of such circumstances, noting that some people are less able to wear face coverings, and that the reasons for this may not be visible to others.

These include:

• people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability, and
• where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress

The government have avoided stating which medical conditions may entitle someone to an exemption, but lists have been widely circulated which include, for example, Asperger syndrome, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, depression, emphysema and hearing difficulties. Most of the customers of the “Clansman” from “Still Game” would no doubt qualify on multiple counts.

I see many frail-looking, elderly people struggling around the supermarket in a mask who must surely have good cause to claim exemption but, just as with the reluctance to claim means-tested benefits, they probably just don’t want to make a fuss.

It is possible to buy a card stating that you are exempt to provide some visible evidence, but there is no check on anyone’s eligibility. And the guidelines go on to say:

Those who have an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering should not be routinely asked to give any written evidence of this, this includes exemption cards. No person needs to seek advice or request a letter from a medical professional about their reason for not wearing a face covering.
Indeed the Equalities Act 2010 makes it clear that businesses have no right to enquire as to the nature of someone’s disability or medical condition, and no right to exclude customers on the grounds of disability. So pubs have no legal ability to enforce the rule. If all their customers turn up and declare that they are exempt, there is nothing they can do about it. “You don’t look very disabled to me” is an incredibly insensitive thing to say to someone with a disability that isn’t immediately obvious. It will also create tension between customers when some object to others being unmasked even if they have an entirely legitimate reason for exemption.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Bolted shut

I was working on a general post about how the pub trade was still nowhere near out of the woods, when the unexpected announcement came that the government had ordered the closure of all pubs and other hospitality venues in Bolton due to a rise in local coronavirus cases. Some of the reporting of this was a touch disingenuous, just saying they would be limited to takeaways, which is rather like saying you can go to a theme park but just buy candyfloss.

Predictably, the headlines were all about pubs, and it seems that this is yet another example of the finger of blame being pointed in their direction, when it’s widely considered that transmission between households meeting in private homes is just as important a factor, if not more.

And it’s not just pubs, either, it’s the whole of the hospitality sector – hotels, restaurants, cafés and coffee shops too. It’s basically putting Bolton back into the dark days of the height of the lockdown. If it’s impossible to sit down and eat a meal outside your own house, or stay anywhere else overnight, it becomes a huge drag on economic activity in general. If applied nationwide, this would cause huge economic destruction.

An increase in reported cases is an inevitable result of more testing. But there’s little sign of it translating into an increase in hospitalisations, let alone deaths. It’s reported that there is a substantial number of false positives, and many positive results come from traces of the infection still being detected in people who recovered from it months ago. It comes across as a panicky over-reaction from blustering tin-pot dictator Matt Hancock. It is quite disproportionate to the actual level of risk.

No time limit has been set for the restrictions, or criteria stated as to when they might be lifted. And the question has to be asked whether affected businesses will be entitled to the resumption of furlough and business interruption payments.

If operators across the country fear they may be subject to arbitrary local lockdowns at the drop of a hat, it will seriously erode confidence in the hospitality trade on both sides of the bar. And any exhortations from the government for people to return to work will just come across as weasel words.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

And you think you’ve got it bad?

Anyone who thinks the licensed trade in England has been badly done to might consider casting a westward glance across the Irish Sea. Regular commenter Professor Pie-Tin has kept us updated on how the Irish Republic, as the map shows, is now the only country in the whole of Europe where you can’t visit a bar just to have a drink, not even outdoors. Apparently they are finally going to allow bars to reopen later this month, although a firm date has yet to be confirmed. And they are going to have to operate under such severe restrictions that many publicans doubt whether it will be worth their while.

Possibly as some kind of sop to the hospitality industry, the Irish government have announced a Stay and Spend scheme that will operate from the beginning of October to the end of April. Presumably this was modelled to some extent on the British Eat Out to Help Out initiative, but it is only a very pale shadow. The government-funded discount is only 20%,not 50% and, rather than being given at the time of purchase, it will be refunded as a tax credit at the end of the year, thus greatly reducing the immediacy of its impact. Plus the minimum spend is €25, so you will need to buy a pretty substantial meal. No getting a Wetherspoon’s dessert on its own, or a single coffee, at half price.

To add insult to injury, they have even introduced a bizarre requirement for pubs and restaurants to keep a record of every single food item purchased by their customers. Ostensibly, the reason is to confirm that customers have actually eaten a meal, which has been allowed for a couple of months provided there was a minimum spend of €9. Not only does this impose a huge bureaucratic burden on hospitality businesses, but it also has disturbingly totalitarian overtones. You can just imagine Public Health itching to get their hands on details of exactly who has eaten what.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Pubs in England have now been able to open for nine weeks, and during August the food-serving ones at least were buoyed by the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. However, they have had to operate under a set of restrictions intended to curb the spread of coronavirus, reducing capacity due to the need for social distancing and imposing other requirements such as recording customer details and maintaining a heightened cleaning regime.

Licensees were given little notice of what was expected and had to improvise a system to deal with this at short notice. To be fair, most seem to have made a reasonable fist of it, coming up with something that meets the spirit of the guidelines while not making customers feel unwelcome. However, in some it seems to have unleashed their inner jobsworth, with restrictions being imposed that go well beyond what the guidelines imply, or are very poorly thought out, and which can have the effect of being very offputting to customers. As Victoria Bischoff wrote this week in the Daily Mail:

But some staff have taken to acting like self-appointed prison guards, barking orders at customers as though they are virus-ridden inconveniences. I’m sure they think they are helping to keep everyone safe. But if people are made to feel nervous and unwelcome, they’ll soon trade expensive rounds (£13.90 for a pint of Neck Oil and an Aperol Spritz in our local!) for a far cheaper glass of wine at home
As both I and other commenters have observed in the past, all too often pubs give the impression of having a sense of entitlement that the world owes them a living. Particularly after lockdown, they seem to assume that customers will be grateful they are open at all and will put up with all kinds of indignities. It’s on things like this where pubs benefit from being part of a large group so that someone in head office can look into it and come up with a coherent system rather than expecting everyone to make it up as they go along.

While I haven’t been in any other chain pubs, in general Wetherspoon’s seem to have made a pretty good job of it, actually improving the ambiance of their pubs by spacing out the tables and introducing partitions, and achieving the requirements of the guidelines without being too intrusive. But they still seem to struggle with organising queues at long bar counters that weren’t designed for it.

Some of the policies pubs have introduced arise simply out a lack of thought, but others clearly come across as deliberate. If you’ve decided to do away with beermats and ditch the charity boxes on the bar, if you’ve stopped taking cash payments and make everyone download an app to order, if you’re insisting on people making an advance booking just to have a drink, if you’ve festooned your pub with yellow tape and half-baked one-way systems, it’s not because the guidelines expect it, because they don’t. It’s because, deep down, you want to. And customers will remember where they were welcomed, and where they were treated like something the cat dragged in.

The systems most pubs have implemented to record customer details leave much to be desired. It wasn’t long before instances of systems being abused and the information collected being used to harass customers started to emerge. Any procedure that expects people to write down their details on a register that can be viewed by all and sundry obviously does not pass muster.

Indeed, very few of the systems I’ve seen meet the twin objectives of complying with GDPR (which is law, not just guidelines) and being accessible to people without smartphones. Again, the best I’ve seen is that operated by Wetherspoon’s, where you have the choice of either scanning a QR code or writing the information down on a slip that is then put into a box where nobody else can see what is on it.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Every little helps

There’s now only one day left to take advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, which finishes next Bank Holiday Monday. This government-funded scheme, which has been running since the beginning of August, allows pubs, restaurants and cafés to offer a 50% discount on food and soft drinks (although not alcohol) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, up to a maximum of £10 per transaction. So far it has proved extremely popular, with over 64 million meals being sold. Many venues have been fully booked and have had to turn customers away.

So I thought I would run a Twitter poll on how much use people had made of it. This was widely retweeted and attracted an impressive 786 votes.

As you can see, it shows a U-shaped distribution, with the largest group not having taken advantage at all, but almost as many having made good use of it on more than one occasion. Indeed, one person replied that he had so far used it no less than sixteen times. The reasons for not using it at all included simply being too busy, being someone who didn’t eat out at all, and not thinking it worth abandoning their usual routine. Nobody stated that they were still too frightened to visit hospitality venues.

Obviously if it involves doing something outside your usual routine, many might not find the saving worthwhile, although others will see it as too good to refuse. Amongst other things, I’ve used it to have a couple of Wetherspoon’s steaks, which I don’t normally bother with, but are hard to resist at less than a fiver. While obviously sourced at a price, they’re actually considerably better than you might expect. On one occasion I added a couple of slices of black pudding for half of £1.05, but the other time they had run out. The way the bills are presented makes it difficult to work out exactly how the discount has been calculated, as the menu prices include a drink, but the value attributed to the alcoholic drink is certainly well below the full list price.

The complaint has been made that the scheme does virtually nothing to help pubs that do not sell food. However, realistically, for the government to subsidise half-price alcoholic drinks would have been a political non-starter. I also suspect that it would have generated surprisingly little additional trade apart from that shifted from other days in the week – as I have argued in the past, people are much more deterred from drinking in pubs by lack of opportunity than high prices as such. There may well be a case for additional targeted support for wet-led pubs, but surely the key to reviving their fortunes must be the general restoration of economic confidence and ending the climate of fear. And any government initiative to help the hospitality industry should be welcomed.

Eat Out to Help Out is of course a broad-brush scheme, and will pay for many meals that people would have eaten anyway, or that have been shifted from other days in the week. But there is no doubt that it has generated a lot of additional business overall, and one of the keys to its success has been its simplicity and lack of small print. It is giving specific support to a sector of the economy that was one of the worst hit by the lockdown and provides a large amount of relatively low-paid employment. Plus, going forward, it should help to allay many people’s fears the risk involved in visiting hospitality outlets and make them feel more comfortable about returning in the coming months.

And, if you’ve missed out, or you just can’t get enough, some pub operators such as Ember Inns are continuing it into September at their own expense. Although not, I suspect, Wetherspoon’s.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Tempting bait

Sad news that the well-known Jolly Angler pub just off Manchester city centre, having reopened after lockdown, has announced it is to close at the end of the year. It’s a Hydes tied house dating back to 1854, tucked away behind Piccadilly Station in a warehouse district that is increasingly being turned over to new flats. While it was knocked through into one room in the 1980s, it remains a traditional proper pub of considerable character and has become something of a Manchester institution.
Predictably, Hydes brewery have been accused of greed in selling out, but they are after all running a commercial business, not a preservation trust, and one assumes that they have received an offer they can’t refuse from a developer. It isn’t appropriate to draw a comparison with the noble railway arch craft brewers because they don’t have legacy estates of traditional urban pubs that they have to manage.

Over the years I’ve been very resistant to automatic knee-jerk opposition to pub closures. It has to be recognised that, for a variety of social and legislative reasons, the overall demand for pubs has greatly reduced in recent decades, and thus the total number that can trade profitably is much lower than it once was. In addition, many pubs have seen their trade dramatically decline due to changes in their local economy that have led to much lower footfall in the area. Many campaigns to save individual pubs are simply exercises in flogging a dead horse.

However, there are reasons beyond the sphere of economics why particular pubs may warrant preservation. One is that they are of such outstanding architectural merit, in terms of either exterior or interior, that they deserve to be kept. We don’t just allow the indiscriminate destruction of all the architectural jewels bequeathed to us by previous generations. This would cover pubs in Manchester such as the Peveril of Peak and the Wellington and Sinclair’s on Shambles Square.

And there are other pubs that, while they may not be so individually distinguished, contribute to the quality of the overall cityscape. Of course Manchester is not a historic showpiece such as York and Chester, but it would be greatly diminished if all its Victorian heritage was lost. There is no suggestion that the Jolly Angler is a failing business, merely that it does not fit into an overall development plan.

Yet it only occupies a small footprint, and surely it would be possible to create a new development around it, and indeed potentially become its centrepiece. Therefore the ball is firmly in the court of Manchester City Council in assessing the planning situation. The Central Manchester branch of CAMRA have started an online petition which is specifically addressed to Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the Council, and has already attracted over 1,000 signatures in just a couple of days. This states:

The Brewery say they have sold the building but we believe no planning application has been submitted to the City Council for demolition or change of use. If and when plans are submitted we believe it would be reasonably easy and the correct thing to do to accommodate the retention of this pub into any new development.
It should be remembered that a similar campaign a few years ago was successful in saving the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub near the Town Hall which was also threatened by the wrecking ball as part of a development scheme, so there is still all to play for.

However, it may well be that the Jolly Angler is saved by the bell. One of the most noticeable effects of the Covid crisis has been a severe reduction in economic activity in city centres caused by people working from home. There are many indication that this may prove, at least to some extent, to be a permanent shift in behaviour rather than a temporary adjustment. Therefore it could well turn out that the demand for city-centre office development, and for city-centre living, greatly reduces. After all, while obviously it had many unwelcome economic effects, many pubs were given a stay of execution by the 2008 financial crash.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Blame it on the boozer

Last week, it was announced that the British economy had contracted by no less than 20.4% between April and June this year, one of the worst figures of any major economy. That’s a fifth of the entire economy temporarily destroyed. However, much of the criticism of this performance was blunted by the fact that those making it had previously demanded an even stricter lockdown and a slower easing of restrictions, which comes across as an exercise in complete hypocrisy. As Kate Andrews says in this article:
...the decision to live in lockdown longer than other European countries, and with far tighter rules, has left us with our worst recession on record and the sharpest economic contraction since the Great Frost of 1709.
Given this, you might think that the media would be looking into ways of how to stimulate the economy and remove restrictions holding businesses back. But Sky News were having none of this, and decided to carry out an exposé on one sector that that only just been allowed to reopen and was still struggling to recover, namely pubs. They claim to have found that nine out of ten pubs were not asking for customer details, although it has to be said this completely contradicts my own experience, and in any case it is only a guideline, not a legal requirement. Several other bloggers have described finding very few pubs not taking the issue seriously on their own pub visits. And a survey by the Morning Advertiser found that 85% of respondents considered that pubs were meeting or exceeding the requirements.

It’s been widely observed that the Covid pandemic has encouraged every joyless Puritan and bansturbator to advance their own pet hobby-horses, and pubs are, not surprisingly, often in the firing line. Yet, while they’re often viewed as something that is frivolous and not really necessary, in reality they are only a part of the wider hospitality sector, which is the third largest segment of the economy and essential to our wider prosperity. Yes, it might be possible to distinguish drinking from other forms of eat-in catering, and in the Irish Republic you are still unable to just have a drink in a pub or bar although you have been able to eat a meal for nearly two months. But to do that would in practice be hard to define and would be a seriously retrograde step. Plus pubs sell more meals overall than either restaurants or cafés.

The government have given some demonstrable and welcome support for the hospitality sector with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme which is currently generating a fair amount of business that they wouldn’t otherwise get at all. But other parts of officialdom aren’t so sympathetic. There has been the long-running suggestion of shutting pubs to open schools, which are two things with only a tenuous connection. Council bosses have demanded more powers to shut non-compliant pubs. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? And the egregious, constantly whining mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said that pubs may need to shut if contact tracing can’t be sorted out. So not exactly a great deal of love there. Pubs are always singled out as a scapegoat.

Several parts of England, including Greater Manchester, have implemented partial local lockdowns, although they haven’t included the general closure of pubs, much as some council leaders might want to have done that. The opening of pubs in Leicester was delayed due to a surge in infections which had been caused by inadequately regulated sweatshops and, by definition, as they hadn’t been open in the first place, was nothing to do with pubs. The basis for these lockdowns often appears very flimsy and seems to arise from nothing more than an increase in testing leading to an increase in the absolute number of cases.

In Scotland, in contrast, a local lockdown requiring the closure of all hospitality businesses was imposed in Aberdeen, and indeed remains in force today. This was then followed by turning the various guidelines on social distancing and contract tracing into legal requirements, and making pubs operate table service only, turn off all piped music, and mute any televisions, thus producing a pretty grim and joyless experience. No doubt the notorious Puritan John Knox would be pleased, although he might not be so happy that it had been imposed by a “monstrous regiment of women”.

As I’ve mentioned before, many people who claim to be beer and pub enthusiasts seem to have been distinctly lukewarm about the pubs actually reopening, as it means that they have to mingle with the dreaded hoi polloi again rather than sampling craft beers in the safety of their own homes. “After a couple of weeks we went into a beer garden, but we didn’t dare venture inside. And we thought some other customers were getting scarily close to each other and talking quite loudly.” Meanwhile, CAMRA has seemed keener on calling for financial support and staging cringey virtual events than actually kicking against the anti-pub climate and the possibility of further restrictions being imposed. But, as we know, they are always a complete paper tiger when it comes to confronting the public health lobby.

As Kate Andrews states in the article linked above, the government currently seems to be yo-yoing between wanting to stimulate the economy and being paralysed like a rabbit in the headlights by fear of a second wave. And worries about further lockdowns and travel restrictions is holding back people’s willingness to spend and make commitments.

As well as clarity, people also need confidence to start spending again: the reassurance both that they’re relatively safe from contracting the virus, and also that a sledgehammer won’t be taken to their lifestyle again.
The future of pubs is intimately tied up with that of the wider economy. Without a healthy economy, there won’t be a healthy hospitality trade. And indeed not only will it be a beneficiary of economic recovery, but one of the main drivers of it.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Only here for the pub?

I was recently reading a blogpost by Martin Taylor about the Hyde Park in St Neot’s, Huntingdonshire, and saw this comment that very much struck a chord with me.
25 years of trendy beers in “CAMRA” pubs and I suddenly find I prefer slumming it in scruffy market town boozers selling Doom Bar after seeing the joy in LAF’s posts.
“LAF” is Life After Football, who tends to write about pubs used by ordinary people that are never going to trouble the scorers for the Good Beer Guide.

This mirrors what I wrote ten years ago:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
I first became interested in beer in the late 1970s, when the landscape was very different from today. There was effectively a finite number of draught beers available from a slowly diminishing number of long-established breweries. Although a few beers enjoyed wide distribution, in general to sample a variety of brews you would need to travel to different parts of the country and drink them in the tied houses of their own brewers, which of course added to the thrill of the chase. If you wanted to try Mitchells or Yates & Jackson, you would have to go to Lancaster or its environs.

Pubs as such were largely taken for granted, although it quickly became clear that they varied widely, with some being characterful and welcoming while others were blandly modern or offputtingly gimmicky. Sometimes you found yourself visiting a dreadful pub for that occasional rare beer, but in fact that was surprisingly rare. Some pubs were fascinatingly old and quaint, and some were wrecked by heavy-handed renovations, but nobody had yet seen the need for a National Inventory of historic interiors.

Before moving to the Stockport area in 1985, I never lived anywhere there was a wide choice of beers available on my doorstep. Therefore in each area, for your local pubgoing, you had to learn through trial and error (sometimes aided by the Good Beer Guide) to distinguish between the pubs available to you, both in terms of their atmosphere and the quality of their beer. It became evident that, broadly speaking, there was a correlation between the two, that better pubs kept their beer better.

However, slowly but surely, a fundamental change came about in the nature of beer enthusiasm, in that it became self-referential. Rather than taking an interest in something that existed anyway regardless of their presence, the market began to change to accommodate their desires, both in terms of the beers brewed and the venues in which they are sold. It is hard to think of any other field that attracts an enthusiast following where this has happened to anything like the same degree.

The first manifestation of this was the rise of the beer exhibition pub. Initially these were only showcasing beers not normally available in their local area, but they were specific venues targeted at beer enthusiasts, which took them out of the more mainstream pubs. This was followed by the steady rise of microbreweries, some of whom produced brilliant and eye-opening beer, but others came up with samey product that sometimes verged on dishwater. But it provided a lot more beers to sample, and gave rise to the phenomenon of the beer ticker. At the time they were derided by mainstream CAMRA members, but it seems that nowadays everyone has become a ticker.

Out of the microbrewery scene came the trend towards extremely pale and hoppy beers, and then in the current century the bewildering variety of flavours and styles, often at extreme strength, under the banner of craft beer. It all becomes impossible to keep up with and you find yourself wondering what is the point.

Some may respond by saying “life is very dull if you never try anything new”, but that is really a straw man. I’m certainly not resistant to trying new things, especially if they are new permanent beers from established brewers that I am likely to encounter on multiple occasions such as, a few years ago, Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring. But if it’s a case of something so odd or immensely strong that I’ll just say “Well, that as all very well, but I’m not going to make a habit of it”, then it seems a futile exercise, and to see the pursuit of novelty as the prime purpose of going to the pub is completely at odds with the reason the vast majority of people do it. The idea of spending a whole day in one town drinking Bass and Pedigree is anathema, let alone the prospect of an afternoon in an estate pub on Carling.

On the other hand, I’m certainly not averse to visiting unfamiliar pubs. During 2019, I went to 111 new pubs, which is good going considering that I’ve already had 40-odd years to work at it. Of course some are far better than others, but every pub visit has something of interest. It’s an endlessly rewarding quest. And even the familiar pubs that you have been to many times before have something different every time you go. So far this year, unfortunately, due to the fifteen-week closure, cancellation of holidays and continuing social distancing and travel restrictions, I’ve only managed ten, half of which were on one trip to Burton-on-Trent in March.

As I said in the post from 2010, locally I often choose to drink in Sam Smith’s pubs, not because I particularly value their beer above others available in the area, but because I appreciate what they offer in pub terms – comfortable seating, an absence of TV sport and piped music, a general lack of noisy children and, while some do sell food, never being put in a position of being the lone drinker in a wall-to-wall sea of diners. Plus all of the customers are there for what the pub has to offer rather than specifically being beer enthusiasts. While I prefer cask ale to keg, if these pubs dropped the cask I’d probably still go there for the same reasons, albeit perhaps a little less frequently. Fortunately, while they have converted a number of pubs to keg, that’s not a choice I’m forced to make in my local ones.

To many self-proclaimed beer enthusiasts nowadays, life is a constant quest for the new and unusual, and the greater the strength and the weirder the flavour the better. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, if that’s what takes your fancy, but it drives a wedge between them and the general population of pubgoers that certainly didn’t exist in the 1970s, and makes them ill-placed to represent the wider interests of pub operators and customers.

Friday, 7 August 2020

If it ain’t broke...

In the 1970s, financial journalist Patrick Hutber came up with Hutber’s Law, which was “Improvement means deterioration”. At the time, it was all too common for companies to announce improvements to their products or services that actually in important respects made them worse.

And that seems to be a principle often followed nowadays by tech companies. Every so often, all the major services that you use announce a new improved version. Inevitably, it’s initially confusing and hard to get used to. Eventually you work out how to do most of the things you used to be able to do, but there’s always something they seem to have forgotten, and it’s hard to see anything that’s actually better. Facebook was the most recent example of this.

And now the same has happened to the Google-owned platform Blogger, which hosts this blog and several others that I run. I’d known it was coming, but earlier this week I was taken aback when I logged on to create a new post on Closed Pubs and suddenly found I couldn’t do many of the things I was used to. And they certainly have past form in this respect.

One obvious change is that many verbal links to actions have been replaced by icons, some of which are far from self-explanatory. It’s also no longer possible to select multiple comments for approval or deletion.

This blogger is certainly far from impressed, and neither is this Twitter user:

Everyone uses these platforms in their own way, so one person’s experience isn’t necessarily typical of the general picture, and I’m sure I only use a limited subset of the features that are available. I tend to create posts in Word and then copy them into the composing window to add the final formatting touches and import any pictures.

There are two options for this – the HTML view and the Compose view. The latter ostensibly offers a WYSYWIG interface, but it can be very fiddly to set up items as you want them, and the end result still doesn’t necessarily reflect what you see on the screen. So, for the limited amount of formatting I want to do, mainly inserting pictures and links, I tend to prefer the HTML view, where you are at least in full control of how the final version will actually appear. But they have now dispensed with the options to import pictures and add links, meaning that the former have to be done through the Compose view and the latter require manual input of the necessary code. It can still be done, but it’s more time-consuming if your blog is anything more than a slab of plain text.

It’s not so bad as to be completely unusable, but it will certainly make creating new blogs in future a more time-consuming, fiddly and laborious and process. And for anyone wanting to set up a new blog, I certainly wouldn’t recommend they used Blogger to host it.

Edit: Another issue is that, on the blogroll of blogs such as Tandleman's, no thumbnail is displayed against posts created with the new editor, even if they contain images.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Tit for tat

It’s reported that a senior scientist advising the government has said that pubs or “other activities” in England may need to close to allow schools to reopen next month. ‘Prof Graham Medley told the BBC there may need to be a "trade-off", with the re-opening of schools seen as a "priority" for children's wellbeing.’

However, it’s hard to see how such a trade-off works in practice. It’s not as though there’s a fixed amount of infection going round, and if you make it easier for it to spread in one environment you have to make it more difficult in another completely unrelated one. Indeed it just comes across as vindictive. If there really was a problem, then why not just ban children and teachers from going to pubs?

If this did happen, it would be a kick in the teeth for a sector that has had to endure nearly four months of closure and even now is struggling to get back on its feet again. It is likely that many operators would reach the conclusion that there was no point in trying to run pubs when they were subject to capricious closures, and simply give up the ghost. And where would the money come from to pay for the business support and furloughing staff? Or would they simply be thrown to the wolves? It also wouldn’t sit well with the attempt to get people back into pubs and restaurants through the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme during August.

Pubs are often singled out by the media as an example of a business sector that is essentially frivolous and that, if need be, we could easily manage without. However, they are just part of the wider hospitality industry that also includes cafés, restaurants, coffee shops and hotels, and it is impossible to decouple them. Indeed many pubs do far more business selling meals than drinks. If it again became impossible to sit down and eat a meal outside the house, or stay anywhere else overnight, the economy would be put back into the deep freeze of the darkest days of the lockdown.

The government has been widely accused of taking a “whack-a-mole” approach to Covid, pursuing various half-baked, headline-grabbing policies while lacking any clear overall strategy. And the official Opposition cannot hold them to account when all they seem to want is more of the same, both more restrictions and more spending.

So far, people have generally responded to the various restrictions placed on them with a kind of resigned acceptance. However, key to all this is a feeling of hope that eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things have, albeit painfully slowly, been relaxed. But if that process is put into reverse, resignation can all too easily turn to despair and then to anger. There is only so much people will put up with.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Junk policy

In an attempt to revive the hospitality trade, the government have announced an Eat Out to Help Out initiative, under which customers of pubs and restaurants will be able to get a 50% discount on food and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday. What a good idea, you might think. You could go out and enjoy some fish and chips, or roast lamb, or a cheddar ploughman’s, followed by some tiramisu or chocolate fudge cake. The only problem is that, apparently, the government don’t actually want you to eat any of those things. Under their proposed anti-obesity strategy, they’re all considered so bad for you that it won’t be possible to advertise them on television before the 9 pm watershed.

It seems that Boris Johnson has been spooked by his own brush with Covid, which has prompted him to adopt “Nanny State” policies that previously had been ruled out. I wrote about the possibility of this happening back in May, and concluded that “any ‘war on obesity’ started by the government will be largely ineffective, will get a lot of people’s backs up, and will create a whole raft of unintended and undesirable consequences.” it also seems particularly bad timing to impose new restrictions when hospitality businesses are already struggling.

It is presented as a crusade against “junk food”, but that is a nebulous concept for which it is impossible to come up with any hard-and-fast definition. In practice, it will to cover foods that are “high in fat, salt and sugar”, which in practice covers many items considered natural and wholesome. I wrote last year how a similar ban on advertising imposed by Transport for London had caught up in its net a company specialising in boxes of fairtrade products, who had had the temerity to include bacon and butter in a photograph. But they felt it was unfair on them rather than drawing a wider conclusion. The whole can of worms is set out in this paper (PDF donwload) from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Fortunately it seems as though small independent businesses will be excluded, as including calorie counts on menus would place an unreasonable administrative burden on them. However, the clamour to bring them within its scope will be unlikely to relent, whatever the wider consequences. And the restrictions on what can be advertised will harm the revenue of already struggling media outlets.

The policy is effectively filleted with his usual aplomb by Christoper Snowdon in this article entitled Boris Johnson’s Absurd Nanny State Crusade:

Finally, it is at least pleasurable to think of all the headaches the government will now have as it tries to turn the dozy ideas of ‘public health’ fanatics into workable legislation. Most of the policies that Johnson is toying with have been dusted down from the fag end of the Cameron era. They were gathering dust for a good reason. They are not just illiberal and ineffective, they are impractical and illogical. Since there is no legal definition of ‘junk food’, the government will find itself in the same preposterous position as Transport for London, which had to ban adverts showing butter and jam last year and even had to censor its own promotional literature to remove images of popcorn and cream.
One of the few consolations is that we will be able to enjoy a lavish helping of Schadenfreude as the whole thing becomes tangled up in its own contradictions.

It’s gesture politics pure and simple, straight out of the “something must be done” school of public policy. But, sadly, it seems that whichever party you vote for, Public Health England always ends up in government. And the fact their sights have currently been trained on food doesn’t mean they won’t return to alcohol in future.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Hollowed out

Unexpected traumatic events often lead to major changes in behaviour and policy, some of which are temporary, while others prove to be permanent. However, at the time it can be difficult to tell which is which. Remember after 9/11 how people were saying that nobody would be building skyscrapers any more? Have you looked around central Manchester recently? On the other hand, nineteen years on, there are still severe restrictions on what you can take on to aircraft in your hand luggage.

Nearly three months ago I came up with a list of likely long-term changes that the Covid lockdown would bring about. I think all my points remain valid but, as I was essentially considering the impact on the licensed trade and the retail sector, something that I didn’t mention was the move from office-based to home working. Yet many commentators are now saying this may represent one of the most significant shifts in society that emerge from it, which will have many implications for the role of city centres.

It’s been widely observed that the recovery from the depths of the lockdown has had a somewhat Polo mint-shaped character. Many suburbs and smaller towns are not far off normal levels of activity, whereas city centres remain deathly quiet. There are various factors behind this. They are places where most of the footfall comes from people travelling in from outside rather than those living nearby. Non-essential shops were not allowed to reopen until the middle of June, which is only six weeks ago, and pubs, cafés and restaurants, which most people would see as an essential part of a shopping trip, came three weeks later. At the same time, compulsory face masks were imposed on public transport, which people are much more likely to use to reach city centres, while they will travel more locally by car. And forcing people to wear masks in shops will make that day out shopping in the West End even less appealing. Plus the level of tourism, both international and domestic, has fallen off a cliff, and tourist attractions are only just reopening.

But undoubtedly the move from office to home has been by far the single biggest factor driving this. This has often been foretold, but has never really happened, but this time it really does seem to be different. It suits employers, as they can potentially save a lot on office rents, and it suits employees, as they are able to avoid the daily grind and cost of commuting. The wider implications for how workplaces function are really beyond the remit of this blog, and it does have to be said that successful home working may be reliant to a large extent on the social capital previously built up in offices, and employees are likely eventually to feel isolated and miss the social aspects of office life. But it is likely that many employers will adopt a system of only expecting employees to come into the office for one or two days a week rather than five, which obviously will have a huge impact in the amount of office space required, and the number of people present at any one time in city centres.

This will have profound implications for major policy areas such as land use planning and the expansion of public transport capacity. It will also affect housing demand, as there will be less need to actually live close to your place of work. And it will impact on a wide range of businesses operating in city centres that service the work-based economy – cafés, restaurants, sandwich shops, convenience stores, dry cleaners, hairdressers and all kinds of general retail outlets that workers use in their lunch breaks or on their way to and from the office. Some of this demand will be taken up by businesses closer to where people live – after all, everybody has to eat – but some is likely to disappear entirely. Although written from an American perspective, this is a very relevant article about how the relative attractions of city and small town are changing.

And one area that is likely to be particularly affected is pubs and bars. Nowadays, the centres of large towns and cities are one of the few locations where pubs really thrive. While lunchtime drinking is now much more frowned upon, there remains a strong demand for the after-work pint, with the streets outside central London pubs often being crowded with drinkers in the early evening. Very often, city workers go on directly to evening activities rather than going home first. And pub visits are often prompted by a desire to meet up with colleagues, and people from other workplaces, outside the office environment. If everyone is isolated at home, the attractions of wandering down the local at six o’clock will be much less. That is, if you even have a local, while in city centres there are pubs to suit every taste. So the death, or at least the severe diminution, of office culture is likely to have a seismic, and largely negative, effect on the pub landscape.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Inching back to normality

It is now just over two weeks since pubs in England were allowed to reopen following the lockdown on July 4th, albeit under restrictions as to how they could operate. On reopening day, there were a handful of reports of minor outbreaks of disorder, but they were probably nothing more than would have happened on a normal Saturday, and were only newsworthy because of the long closure.

The general impression is that trade has been substantially down, with the Morning Advertiser reporting a figure of 40%. That is certainly borne out by my own experience of visiting a number of pubs. Obviously this is not necessarily representative of the overall pattern, but I’d say they varied between doing reasonable business and being extremely quiet.

With one exception, which is a very small place, none were up to their permitted seating capacity. This suggests that those pubs that decided they needed to require bookings for drinkers had been distinctly over-optimistic, apart from perhaps on the first weekend. Each pub has come up with its own interpretation of the guidelines, so you have to pick up the rules on each new visit. You are likely to be greeted with calls to sign a register or form, and to sanitise your hands using the cunningly concealed dispenser that you have just walked straight past.

I have only encountered one put that allocated me to a specific seat, and that was on reopening day – I suspect it may have been dropped since. I have also had no problem in paying with cash in any pub I have visited. I have been surprised that only half the pubs have made any attempt to ask me for contact details, given that so much concern was raised about this aspect beforehand. Maybe this is a good thing, given that evidence is already starting to emerge of contact information being abused.

Two of those that did were Wetherspoon’s, where the contract tracing forms are prominently displayed by the entrance, but customers are not put under any pressure to comp0lete them. In general, Wetherspoon’s seem to have done a good job of complying thoroughly with the guidelines without making their pubs unwelcoming. To my eye, their interiors have been improved and made more intimate by breaking up the wide open spaces through spreading the tables out and putting partitions up between them. Like other pubs, though, they seem to have struggled with organising a queuing system at long bar counters that weren’t designed for it.

One pub I visited had a portable screen that they placed at the bar to enable a customer to stand next to it, which seemed like a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of paying lip service to the rules. In general, the most convivial atmosphere has been in pubs that preserve separate rooms with bench seating around the walls, enabling customers to sit around the edge and carry on a conversation while still maintaining social distancing.

While there is no way of telling people’s relationship with each other, I got the impression that people from different households were meeting up in pubs and sitting together, showing that on the ground they are beginning to ignore the increasingly incomprehensible rules on exactly who can meet whom where and how far they’re supposed to stay apart.

Some pubs continued to provide beermats, either already out on the tables or handed to you individually with your drink, although the majority didn’t. This suggests that doing away with mats falls into the category of “something we can do to show we’re making an effort” rather than having any real justification.

In most cases, access to toilets was unhindered apart from signs reminding people to wash their hands and keep apart from one another. One pub, however, had instituted a single occupancy rule for each of the gents’ and ladies’, and in the gents’ had taped off the urinals, so only the single WC was available for use. You can’t help thinking that this is likely to cause problems if someone needs to use the trap for the purpose for which it was intended!

At least initially, beer quality was good, as you would expect when pubs were all tapping fresh casks, and most seemed to have made efforts to trim their beer ranges to match the expected lower level of demand. However, this is inevitably likely to fall off as the reduced customer numbers take their toll.

The atmosphere in the various pubs I have visited has varied considerably. Personally, I’m quite happy for pubs not to be too busy, and some of them are places I’m happy to spend time in. In others though, it feels as though there’s just a handful of drinkers rattling around in an oversized building, and in one or two certain aspects of their adjustments made me feel less than entirely at ease. Only one, though, was playing piped music at a volume loud enough to require raised voices, which goes against the guidelines.

The fears that restricted capacity due to social distancing requirements would be a major problem have proved largely unfounded, and the real issue is simply the lack of customers itself. I doubt whether many of the reopened pubs can genuinely say yet that they are trading profitably.

The prospects of pubs are very much tied up with wider economy, and until confidence is restored they will continue to struggle. This is especially true in city centres, where the continued high proportion of commuters working from home has led to a sharp fall in demand, not just for pubs, but for a whole range of other ancillary businesses. The government are facing the problem that it is one thing to create a climate of fear that causes people to curb their activities, but something else entirely to unwind it.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Stop all the clocks

CAMRA have stated their intention not to include any information on pub opening hours in the 2021 Good Beer Guide, which is due to be belatedly published at the end of October. The reasoning behind this is that, in the wake of the Covid lockdown, many pubs will be operating different or reduced hours and, given the impossibility of resurveying every pub, the information would thus be extremely unreliable. No details at all are arguably better than incorrect details. This is only planned to be a temporary measure, and the aim is to restore opening hours in the 2022 edition.

However, even inaccurate information does serve a purpose in a negative way by giving an indication of times when you can be pretty sure that a pub will not be open, and thus there is no point in trying to visit. It’s a fair bet that very few pubs will actually be opening longer hours than they did before. There are also many pubs, such as the Wetherspoon’s which make up about 5% of the entries, where the opening hours are firmly established and could be published without any risk of misleading readers. On the other hand, in my experience, the shorter and more unusual the hours that are advertised for a pub, the more likely they are not to adhere to them.

It’s airily said that if you’re concerned about whether a pub might be open, you can easily phone them to check. However, that shows a failure to appreciate the way many people use the Guide in practice. Rather than fixing on a specific pub and planning an expedition to visit it, they are much more likely to browse a range of entries in a town, or along a route, to see which might be worth a visit. If you find yourself in Borchester on a Monday night, you’re not going to phone round nine pubs to check whether they might be open. You’re much more likely just to go to Spoons, which you know will be open. And the information contained on pubs’ own websites and Facebook pages is notoriously inaccurate.

Some have suggested that CAMRA should simply abandon publication of the Guide this year, as the lockdown has brought about such a dramatic change in the pub landscape that it has become more a history book than something of current relevance. However, its unbroken publication over 45 years has become a key symbol of CAMRA’s efforts, and it would seem wrong to simply discard all the effort that has been put into it at ground level. Plus, in the current climate when income from beer festivals has completely dried up, the revenue is important for CAMRA’s finances.

There are cogent reasons why the decision has been taken, but the importance of reasonably accurate information on opening hours should not be understated. It will also inevitably lead some people to decide not to purchase the Guide due to the incompleteness of the information contained in it. And it will make life even more difficult for the dedicated band of tickers of GBG entries.

Maybe it would also make sense to drop the beer listings against each pub, which can be even more inaccurate than the opening hours. But at least it will bring to a temporary halt the interminable debate about whether or not to adopt the 24-hour clock!