Thursday, 26 September 2019

Stoned

Over the past couple of years, Sam Smith’s have abruptly closed a substantial number of the pubs in their estate. Where the pubs have car parks, they are often crudely barricaded with large rocks, as shown in the two photos below of the Bird in Hand at Mobberley in Cheshire.

I don’t get the impression that, by and large, this is happening because the pubs in question are unviable. The Bird in Hand often seems pretty busy, and hosts regular gatherings of cyclists who I doubt would be welcome at the other gastropubs in the village. And I was recently in York where the York Arms facing the west door of the Minster was firmly shut: in the right hands that should be a goldmine.

The answer lies more in the company’s difficulty in recruiting new managers, following numerous press reports of their high-handed management practices. The managers are also put in a difficult position by being expected to enforce unreasonable policies such as the blanket bans on swearing and mobile phone use. Added to this, there appears to a reluctance to employ relief managers, thus leading to pubs closing entirely when there are no permanent incumbents. This seems to be a very short-sighted policy – not only will there be a loss of revenue, but regular customers may be lost and the fabric of the pub deteriorate while it is closed.

Two of the five Sam’s pubs in my local CAMRA branch area – the Turnpike in Withington and the Sun in September in Burnage - have been closed for some time with no immediate sign of reopening. The Bird in Hand, which I have written about here, is one of the most congenial pubs in their Cheshire estate, and one of the few proper country pubs remaining in the county. Let’s hope they are able to get it open again before too long.

31 comments:

  1. I hadn't thought about their reluctance to employ relief managers but makes sense. The historic Wortley Almshouses in central Peterborough was closed for more than a year before reopening this year (without cask, madly). Goodness knows what their regulars did.

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    1. The hourly rate for a decent relief manager will be a lot more than that for a permanent one, so it's not surprising that Humphrey is reluctant. But in the long run it's a false economy.

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    2. How many pubs do they have? I was an in house relief manager for Thwaites when they had about 60 managed pubs and there was a few of us. The wages were not better than management, as it was seen as a stepping stone to becoming a full manager

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    3. I think they have between 250 and 300 pubs. However, I was thinking about them employing reliefs on a contract basis. Given that they can't fill their permanent vacancies, I doubt whether many people would want to work for them as an in-house relief manager.

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  2. Some years ago the York Arms was a gay pub, at least in some evenings, and I can imagine that Humphrey might have been scandalised when he found out.

    I wonder where he gets the rocks from? I hope they're not stolen from one of the National Parks. At a guess, I would not be surprised if he wanted something big enough to keep the 'travelling community' out.

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    1. I saw an ad for new managers for the York Arms, which stated their objective would be to "take the pub upmarket." Maybe that's code.

      I would have thought in York, where there are several Sam's pubs, a simple way of clearing out the riff-raff would be to charge 20p a pint more, but that's against Humphrey's principles.

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  3. A feature of pub market is that the appeal of tenancies as a low entry cost way into starting a pub business has gone down the toilet.

    It isn't just the poor reputation of large pub co's selling duff business opportunities to the gullible. Why would you buy a lease with any family brewer? Your own Stockport Robinsons may appear a respectable outfit but you will be taking on a pub where you have to charge £3.50 for a pint to cover your overheads when the Trooper is on sale for £1.99 in the Spoons along the road. You could take on a Sam Smiths but as you say, you are at the mercy of an autocratic oddball so you better get that contract taken apart by a decent lawyer before you sign up.

    You might want to get a trainee managers job to learn the trade at someone elses expense, but go into business with them?

    Money is cheap. Empty pubs are ten a penny. Empty shops are twenty a penny and the councils will cut you a break on the business rates for a few years. Buy your beer on the open market. Stock what you like & with thousands of brewers undercutting each other, you can source some quite well priced stock.

    For plenty of people, the dream of running your own beer business is still there. Though it's not a childhood dream. It's more often than not a middle aged reaction to the prospect of spending the second half of your working life on the office treadmill and thinking how wonderful going balls deep into your homebrew or pub going hobby would be.

    That dream is best served by going freehold on a pub or buying a lease on a shop and not signing up to a tenancy with anyone that would lock you into a supply contract. Seems that people are not daft. Most have figured that out.

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    1. True enough, but I ought to point that Sam's pubs are virtually all managed, not tenanted.

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    2. A crap job with a crap boss may be a better deal than a partnership that'll rob you blind. You can walk away having learned something. Apply, Mudge, and have your own pub cat.

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    3. Sams solitary tenanted pub is the Ebor Inn, Bishopthorpe, York.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie27 September 2019 at 11:28

      CL,
      Yes, I could never understand why anyone would consider paying Punch or Enterprise £50,000 a year for a lease and then £110 for each firkin when they could buy an equivalent pub freehold for £200,000 and then get firkins for £60.
      And of course now shop units are cheaper than Proper Pubs freehold and a unisex toilet and random furniture costs very little.

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  4. Another problem in the North West (at least) is that here Humphrey acts as his own 'area manager' so the pubs will come under even more beady-eyed scrutiny. Given his reputation it's hardly a surprise that people are not preapred to work for him (as you say, virtually all the pubs are managed.)

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  5. The eccentric owner's draconian policies regarding mobile phones etc are at odds with most of their customers, any half decent landlord can manage a situation if swearing is upsetting anyone.

    I have visited a few Smith's pubs in London this year, and their policies are not enforced, maybe London is off the owners radar. I can't see landlords chucking out tourists into the street any time soon.

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    1. I get the impression that the mobile phone policy, whether formally or informally, isn't enforced much in London. And the pubs take cards. Does anyone still use cash within the Circle Line?

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    2. "Does anyone still use cash within the Circle Line?" Of course they do. That's a very patronising statement. Anyone would think you had a downer on the capital, Mudge.

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    3. Sorry, forgot that humour has been outlawed. I'll also have to try to avoid comments about everyone in Shoreditch having well-toped beards, especially the women. But it has been widely observed that the take-up of contactless payments in central London seems to be greater than anywhere else.

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  6. Might the car parks being 'stoned' also have something to do with pubs not wanting to be responsible for people drinking and driving? A couple of years ago, the Mermaid in St Albans was genuinely worried they could be held accountable by the authorities when a woman marched out of the pub after arguing with her husband (with 5 pints of lager in her) and drove home.

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    1. The stones probably have more to do with preventing certain "mobile home" dwellers from pitching up.

      It's quite common in this part of the country to see entrances to fields and farm tracks, blocked off with large immovable objects.

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    2. The usual practice with other operators seems to be using pre-formed concrete barriers rather than rocks.

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  7. Are you all afraid of saying "Gypos" ?

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    1. You never know when Pedro and Melissa might be watching.

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  8. The owners may believe,with the large car park, that they have a good site for re development which may be why they have closed the pub.

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    1. Not in this case, and nor with pretty much any Sam Smith's pub.

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  9. Just occurred to me that Sams policy of making everything in house appears to extend to the large rocks which surely came from their quarry subsidiary?

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    1. Tadcaster is actually known for its limestone, so it wouldn't surprise me if Humphrey had a stake in Highmoor Quarry.

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    2. I think that's his, but apparently he owns three.

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  10. Another one! The rocks look very familiar... https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/17939620.landmark-pub-buckles-inn-closes-doors/

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  11. Having been a regular at the Bird in Hand Mobberley for over 30 years, I have seen many many changes of management.
    So often have we seen enthusiastic new management teams come in gushing about how they are going to make a great success of the pub. They ignore the warnings from regulars about working for Humfrey and how their many predecessors have faired. However, without exception they have all lasted at most 2 years, having beaten into submission by the uncompromising policies put in place by the chairman. As soon as anyone approaches the time when they are entitled by law to employment rights such as redundancy, Humfrey makes up some reason to move them on. Then what happens is the manager understandably takes his £1000 fidelity bond from the takings and leaves.
    This has been going on for so long that possible new managers have become wise and will not take the risk of working for this man, and he is now forced to close more and more pubs.
    This is from the brewery's website, I suggest that they need to change this because their pubs are shutting all the time:
    Samuel Smith’s Brewery operates in the region of 200 pubs; most are small pubs situated in the former mill, mine and steel areas of the north of England. Many pubs in such neighbourhoods are closing but we keep ours open and well maintained serving the local community and offering value for money. The pubs only stock Samuel Smith’s Brewery products.

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    1. Some of their pubs, such as the Boar's Head in Stockport and the Blue Bell in Levenshulme, do have long-serving licensees, though, and are all the better for it.

      While they have closed a lot of pubs temporarily, I can't think of any around here that have been closed permanently, although there may be some in other areas where they cluster more thickly. They have kept some going in unpromising locations (e.g. parts of Rochdale) where most others nearby have closed.

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  12. I am sorry to report that no new licensee yet in evidence at BiH today. On a happier - tho' slightly more costly - note it gave us an excuse to check out the Church Inn where fine Brightside beer was available. Happy daze! http://brightsidebrewing.co.uk/our-beers/

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