Saturday 31 January 2015

Bad manners

I recently spotted an article listing the 16 Most Annoying Customer Types in pubs. I’ve never personally worked behind a bar, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have, and I can see the truth in most of them. However, I freely admit to #3 – if it’s not immediately obvious, I’ll always hold my pint up to the light to confirm its clarity.

In my experience, most bar staff are polite, welcoming and competent. Even in Wetherspoons, which always seem short-staffed, the actual customer interface is usually good. But, to put the boot on the other foot, there are a few who bring them into disrepute. So I compiled a quick list of 16 Annoying Bar Staff Behaviours, covering those who...

  1. greet you with “Are you alright there?” rather than “What can I get you?”

  2. can always find something to do behind the bar like slicing lemons or rearranging glasses rather than actually serving customers

  3. totally mishear a clearly-spoken order – “Pint of Harvey’s Best, please” – goes to Foster’s tap...

  4. ask “what?” when you order one of the regular cask beers

  5. treat you with supercilious disdain as though you’re something that the cat dragged in

  6. happily gossip with customers when there are people waiting to be served

  7. have no idea in which order customers should be served

  8. hand you a blatantly short pint and then walk off

  9. have to check the till before they can tell you the price of the most popular draught beer in the pub

  10. insist on asking “Is there anything else?” when it’s clear from your order that there isn’t

  11. have no idea how to use a handpump, so you either get a totally flat pint or a glass of foam

  12. give you a pint with obvious airspace between the beer and the rim

  13. blatantly favour regulars sitting or standing at the bar

  14. ask “have you tasted it?” when you return a pint looking like raw sewage

  15. refuse to change music or heating levels despite most customers asking for it

  16. expect you to point out the dish you are ordering on the menu
Most of these fall into the two categories of poor training and rank bad manners.

Any more suggestions will be gratefully received.

I asked for ideas on Twitter, and one person replied with “lacks product knowledge”. I can see that being a problem in a specialist beer bar, but in the average pub it’s enough to expect that they’re actually familiar with which products are on sale.

Friday 30 January 2015

Happy days are here again!

The latest British Beer Barometer statistics from the BBPA show that, in 2014, overall UK beer sales rose by 1.3% over the previous year, the first time this has happened for ten years. It also represents a landmark in that the tipping point between on- and off-trade seems to have been finally reached, with the off-trade accounting for 50.2% of sales in the full year and 52.5% in the final quarter. Having said that, the on-trade only fell by 0.8%, a rate of decline that newspaper publishers would kill for. They also make a good point that seven out of ten drinks sold in pubs are beer.

This rise results from a combination of economic recovery and two years with no increase in beer duty. If the duty escalator had still been in force, then a pint in the pub would now be 20-30p dearer and the figures would look much less healthy. No doubt the anti-drink lobby will be spluttering into their sarsaparilla, so watch out for them stepping up calls for further punitive duty increases.

Thursday 29 January 2015

Reversal of fortune

Following an accounting scandal and a dramatic downturn in trading figures, Tesco have announced the closure of 43 stores across the country and the scrapping of plans to open another 49. No doubt many who have opposed the conversion of pubs into Tesco Express stores will experience a pleasing sense of Schadenfreude.

Amongst the closures is the Tesco Express store in Heaton Chapel (pictured), which was converted from the former Chapel House pub and has only been open for about three years. I wrote about it here. To be honest, it had never been a particularly appealing pub throughout my time living in the area, going through a short-lived incarnation as a Tut’n’Shive (often disparagingly referred to as the Tub’o’Shite) and ending up as the Irish-themed and keg-only Conor’s Bar. Few tears were shed when it closed.

However, if we are to believe the narrative that greedy supermarkets and pubcos have conspired to close thriving pubs, then surely all those making this argument will be queueing up to invest in turning it back into a pub. Won’t they?

It’s also somewhat ironic how people campaign against Tesco coming to their area, but then many of the same people complain about the loss of jobs when they close a store.

Friday 23 January 2015

Nanny in a bunny suit

The Green Party have recently enjoyed a marked rise in the opinion polls, and this week released a policy statement, which is well summarised here. Many might see their economic policies as occupying the middle ground between utopia and insanity, but at the same time would imagine them to be quite fun, in a waccy-baccy, rough cider, dreadlock, dog-on-a-string kind of way.

But, if you read more closely, they outdo the other major parties in their desire for nannying and social control. They say “Higher taxes will be brought in on alcohol and tobacco, and a complete alcohol advertising ban imposed.” They would also seek to encourage a “transition from diets dominated by meat”. It seems that they have a real problem with any commercial organisation profiting from people enjoying themselves.

One commentator has described their ideology as “Communism designed by middle-class women”. Nobody should imagine that voting Green will lead to a kinder, gentler, more tolerant society – indeed the opposite would be far more likely. Less free and less prosperous. Although no doubt many middle-aged beardies with a love of twiggy bitter will do so all the same.

Friday 9 January 2015

Micro to macro?

Let’s imagine a new wave of pubs started opening in the UK. They were small, plain and unassuming, with no food, children, piped music or pay-TV, where good beer and conversation ruled the roost. Mudgie heaven, you might think, but not really very likely. However, it does seem to be happening in the form of the still small but fast-growing micropub sector. Indeed, it has now been forecast that in five years’ time their number will mushroom from a hundred or so to five thousand. We’re even shortly going to get our own local example in Cheadle Hulme.

Let me be quite clear, I’m entirely in favour of micropubs. Most of them sound like places I would find very congenial to drink in, and they also underline the point that, if existing pubs don’t provide what people want, the opportunities are there in the market to open up new venues that do. But I can’t help thinking that, as I’ve said before here and here, they have been over-hyped and their potential for expansion is exaggerated.

For many years, industry experts have been saying that the days of the old-fashioned, wet-led, adults-only, drink and chat pubs are numbered. Customers are demanding food, music (whether live or piped) and TV football, and want to take their offspring with them, and you increasingly struggle to find pubs that do none of the above. Where they still survive – often in small towns and rural locations – they seem like an anachronism whose very survival is surprising.

As I’ve often said on here, in my view this trend has been overstated, and the obvious success of many Sam Smith’s pubs suggests there remains a market for pubs without these diversions. Plenty serve some food, but many don’t, and I’d suggest the tiny Queen’s Arms (aka Turner’s Vaults) in central Stockport is the closest thing we have to a micropub at present. Maybe the Olde Vic in Edgeley too. But it’s hard to deny that, in general, the embrace of some combination of food and entertainment has dominated for several decades. Is there really a large untapped demand to buck that trend?

I also get the feeling that, from their very intimacy, micropubs may end up being somewhat cliquey, basically a drinking shop for the landlord and his mates. It’s always been an important feature of pubs that customers decide for themselves to what extent they interact with others. If you want to chat, fine, but if you just want to sit reading the paper, or browsing the smartphone, that will be respected. But if it’s just a group of blokes sitting around a single table, will that be possible?

It may seem a piddling point, but you do wonder whether small, plain pubs will also have rudimentary toilet facilities. I don’t know from personal experience how far this is true, but I would feel uncomfortable spending much time in a pub with only a single unisex WC. I’d expect as a bare minimum a gents’ with one urinal and one trap. But that level of provision – plus the ladies’ – might take up as much room as the entire bar.

Some of the early micropubs seemed to suffer from an anti-lager mentality. “A pint of real ale for the gentleman and a glass of generic white wine for the lady”. Many pubgoers are in mixed groups, some of whom will drink real ale while others prefer lager. Deliberately alienating a large section of your potential market doesn’t come across as good business practice. And lager doesn’t have to mean Carling – there are plenty of excellent British-brewed craft lagers out there. Micropubs won’t enjoy rapid growth if they just cater to a limited audience of middle-aged and elderly Real Ale Twats. But there is always the risk of metamorphosing into “trendy bars”, which have also taken over plenty of former shop units. Where do you draw the line?

Will we be seeing village micropubs too? No doubt many villages could sustain a micropub even after a full-service pub trying to attract out-of-area dining trade has failed. That may be a great opportunity.

The licensed trade is becoming increasingly diverse, with more and more different types of venues opening up to appeal to a variety of clientele. It would be wonderful if, in five years’ time, there were five thousand micropubs up and down the country. But I doubt whether Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots.

The picture is of the Bouncing Barrel in Herne Bay, Kent, which gets very good reviews on TripAdvisor.