Sunday, 11 December 2016

Closed for you

At the local CAMRA branch meeting the other day, one member expressed his disappointment on having visited Glossop on a weekday lunchtime, only to find the highly-regarded Star Inn firmly closed. This is despite it being situated right opposite the station in the centre of a busy town. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Stockport town centre at lunchtime, and thought I would pay a call in the Petersgate Tap, which I hadn’t yet been in. But, again, the shutters were firmly down, so I still haven’t. This illustrates the problem, which I have written about in this month’s Opening Times column, of never knowing when pubs are going to be open.

In the first eleven years of my drinking career, pubs adhered to specified hours, with a mandatory afternoon break. Sometimes they didn’t open for every single permitted hour, in particular often opening later on Saturday evenings, and in the South, where the official hours allowed opening at 10 or 10.30 in the morning, often leaving it for another hour. But it was so rare as to be noteworthy that a pub didn’t open for any one of the fourteen sessions each week. If you wanted to visit a pub, you could be pretty confident it would be open when it was supposed to be. I remember doing a Good Beer Guide survey of one Bass Charrington pub in Surrey where the manager made a point of saying that he was open “all permitted hours”.

In the early years of all-day opening, from 1988 onwards, it could often be difficult to find pubs open during the afternoon. But, maybe prompted by the rise of Wetherspoons and other national chains, all-day opening steadily became more commonplace from the early 90s onwards, to the extent that in the centres of big towns and cities it is now the norm.

However, in areas with more of a local clientele and less footfall, it was hard to justify the extra staff and utility costs, and the trend began to turn the other way, with lunchtime opening being steadily curtailed. Often this is just Monday to Thursday or Friday, but sometimes seven days a week. For example, in the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge, only two of the six pubs are open at lunchtimes Monday to Friday, and three of the remaining four do not open before 2 pm on any day of the week. This kind of pattern of opening is now commonplace across large swatches of the country. I would say, though, that it is largely a phenomenon of the present century, and in particular the past ten years. In the earlier days of relaxed licensing hours it remained rare.

Now, I don’t for a minute wish to criticise any pub that chooses to open restricted hours, so long as they take reasonable steps to make it clear what their hours actually are. There’s no point in opening when there is negligible custom, and every extra hour of opening represents a significant increase in staff costs. It’s entirely understandable why many micropubs choose very limited hours, so that they can effectively be run by one person or a couple.

But I can’t help thinking that the pub trade has lost something from opening hours no longer being at all predictable. It’s still the case that you can normally expect shops to be open, roughly speaking, from about 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, Monday to Saturday. They may vary it a little, and some independent shops may close one day a week, but you don’t tend to come across shops that open at two in the afternoon.

Obviously pubs are different from shops, and rely much more on regular trade, but even so you often have no idea when they are going to be open unless you check first. By definition, anyone aiming to explore pubs outside their local area will generally tend to be doing so at lunchtimes or in the afternoon, when they are increasingly likely to be shut. And I’d say that casual drinking, by members of the general public, as opposed to beer geeks, has greatly diminished over the past few decades. Across the country, most pubs are much less likely to see unfamiliar drinking customers than they once were. It must also be said that closing at lunchtimes because there’s no trade all too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I fully understand the economic reasons behind it. But the loss of predictable opening hours is, overall, a significant detriment to the pub trade.

A related point is how the traditional afternoon closure seems to have persisted much more in the South than the North. Looking in the Good Beer Guide, none of the first twenty entries for Greater Manchester follow this pattern, either opening all day, or from 4 or 5 in the afternoon. I can’t think of a single pub in my area that opens at lunchtime but closes in the afternoon. But quite a number in Somerset do, including the second in the listings, the Ring o’Bells at Ashcott.

22 comments:

  1. The Waters Green Tavern in Macclesfield still has the afternoon break reopening, I think, at six o'clock. But at least they display their opening hours. The really annoying thing is to arrive at a pub at, say, ten to six find it closed with no indication of when it opens again.

    There does seem to be a lingering remnant of the old pub trade attitude that the landlord is doing the customer a great favour by allowing him to enter the pub and drink beer.

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    1. Yes, the Poachers and Vale at Bollington also still have the afternoon break. But your locality of Whaley Bridge, as I've said, is a prime example of the decline of lunchtime opening.

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    2. Whic pub other than The Cock opens at lunchtime?

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    3. White Hart has been very erratic recently. Which, of course, reinforces your argument.

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    4. Yes, consistent, properly advertised limited hours are far better than erratic ones.

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    5. Ahh yes, of course the Poachers & Vale - the only two decent pubs in Bollington (NOT). Not using the GBG were you by chance? ;-)

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  2. Odd opening hours is one of the factors that improves your chances of getting in the Good Beard Guide.

    It's one thing having reasonably decent bitter in a pub where your shoes don't stick to the carpets but if you choose to never be open when people want a pint, you add a bit of exclusivity to your gaff.

    It's not the only technique. You can also try not letting the punter use the chairs and tables, not allowing in people that look working class. There's all sorts of ways.

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  3. I don't mind restricted opening hours, as long as they are publicised and stuck to. I am highly irritated by pubs that are shut on a whim, as here in Southport.

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  4. Last year I stopped overnight in beautiful Ribeauville, Alsace; a town I'd stayed in previously. Walking up the hill in anticipation to its wonderful Belgian bar, to my horror i found it was shut - on a Friday evening! The reason was the local fete the next day which involved late night opening. No consolation to me.

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  5. The Albion in Chester, which in all other respects is a brilliant pub, has a sign saying something along the lines of "we are open when we are open, we are closed when we are closed." Fat lot of use that is.

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    1. It is an awful place. Filled with oppressive decorations and women that look like they hate working there.

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    2. Bit harsh. It is full of World War 1 memorabilia but I'm a bit of a WW1 geek so I don't mind that. I've always found the beer and food to be excellent. Haven't been there recently so I can't comment on the staff.

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    3. My brother and I stayed at the Albion in Chester for 3 nights in May 2014. We only slept and ate breakfast there so only caught a glimpse of the landlord, who we had heard was a character. The landlady, Christina, was fabulous. Our first morning she shared information on the Albion and offered to serve us kippers for breakfast the next day. I took her up on her offer and she went out that day to purchase fresh kippers. On our final day in Chester, we left her a note informing her that we would be leaving early the next morning for London and would not need breakfast. She responded that she would be downstairs to send us off and that it had been a pleasure to take care of us. We left too early to see her in the morning. I guess that it is best to stay there and have breakfast rather than drink and have an evening meal there.

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    4. I'm with my brother. We were very well treated and very much enjoyed our stay. I very much enjoyed the WW1 memorabilia. If you go in with an open mind, I think you can have a very interesting time there. The area near the Albion also was very pretty. The almshouses and wall near the pub are spectacular.

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    5. Oh God, kippers for breakfast. Hungry already. However, the lunchtime food is pretty good too. They do Staffordshire oatcakes with ham, cheese and black pudding. Get it down your neck!

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  6. If pubs were the types of businesses that responded to the needs of customers with helpful signs showing hours of business, friendly efficient staff that gave a hospitable welcome, good quality beer, hygienic standards, they would be prospering and doing well instead of dying on there arse and falling like flies.

    As it is, pubs are by and large awful and poor and that's why we must all campaign to save them because the market won't save such tired businesses run for the convenience of the lazy operators.

    We must all overlook any deficiency, insist these places are bedrocks of their communities, and demand they never shut or get turned into flats or shops or something else useful. The really unwelcoming ones, we must stick in the beard guide.

    They must stay open, even if they are never actually open when you might want to go in. In fact that is even better because it means in reality you have an excuse as to why you never step foot in the place and instead buy cans from Tesco.

    Now instead of moaning about them, let's unite to save them!

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    1. Putting to one side the satirical overstatement, there's quite a lot in what you say, CL. Some licensees do seem to have an air of entitlement whereby they expect that customers should be grateful if they just open the doors. Such licensees are declining in number, but some still remain.

      In addition to the example I linked to in my previous comment, some licensees don't see the need to communicate events going on their pubs. They might, for example, put live music on, but do little to advertise it. I've known pubs organise beer festivals with very little publicity, letting the CAMRA branch know a day or two before they start - if at all.

      I've spoken to licensees about the limited range of beers they serve. "I know what my customers like," he (it's usually a 'he') might say, waving a hand in the direction of some undoubtedly elderly drinkers who, apparently, all adore Tetley beers. You can't maintain a pub on a diminishing clientele, and I can think of two pubs where I got such a reaction that have now closed. Predictable, really, and it's a pity that one was a picturesque old coaching house.

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    2. For sure Nev, you are not wrong.

      It's astonishing how many business people decide to run their businesses on their own instincts, beliefs and opinions and not take the advice of a group of leftie beardie beer drinkers with obscure tastes in booze that have never ran a business in their lives and instead "work" for the council in the sense that they turn up at the town hall everyday to clock in and use the photocopier for CAMRA business and pick up pay cheques. These are the people what know how to run pubs.

      Who do these self entitled publicans think they are? The pubs are community assets and they should run them how the beard collective tell them too.

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    3. Pubs should be run as businesses, like shops, restaurants and other retail and hospitality outlets, or they will not survive. No matter how many nice ales you sell (or how few, for that matter), if you're making a loss, you will sooner or later go bust. You don't need business experience to realise that.

      Checking out the market is something that pubcos sometimes get badly wrong, otherwise certain seasoned business professionals wouldn't be expensively refurbishing a pub in Southport for the second time in 18 months. CAMRA had nothing to do with this series of major cock-ups; this pub has been badly run by (non-CAMRA) licensees for more than 10 years. It was my local when it was well run.

      Advertising what you're doing is not a CAMRA issue: it is blindingly obvious, business experience or not.

      Finally, I've only ever worked for councils for two years a long time ago: I had two teaching jobs and a job in social services. I don't ever remember touching a photocopier during that time.

      N.B. I am clean shaven!

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  7. Sandbach has quite a few pubs with restricted hours: The Market Tavern shuts in the afternoon and the Lower Chequer shuts in the afternoon Wed/Thurs. And the Robbies pub, the Crown is even worse, only opening Fri/Sat. And there are several more. As you say, this is a relatively new phenomenon as the first time I visited there, they were all open in the afternoon.

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  8. Is this a consequence of the Wetherspoons opening? In a town like Sandbach with a group of pubs in the centre, a new Spoons is like an exocet.
    When I lived there the Black Bear was a great pub, now it seems to change hands every few months and is seldom open.

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