Sunday 27 December 2020

Annus horribilis

Each December, I’ve usually produced a summary of the past year’s events as they’ve affected me. This is what I wrote last year. However, from the point of view of pubs and beer, for obvious reasons 2020 has been a uniquely depressing and frustrating year. It started well, with an excellent Proper Day Out in Burton-upon-Trent in March, which I reported on here and here. One of the Burton pubs, either the Devonshire Arms or the Coopers Tavern (left and centre), would qualify as my Best New Pub Visit of the year. I’ve also added a picture of the Elms with its distinctive Bass livery, which wasn’t far behind in terms of pub quality..

There was a small cloud on the horizon, as I remember joking about seeing a Chinese student at Sheffield station wearing a face mask. Little did we know that, just two weeks later, all the pubs in the country would be closed down. They remained shut in England for a further fifteen weeks, and in this area have been closed for the last eight weeks of the year, plus two weeks before that when we were in the then Tier 3, which meant pubs could only serve alcohol to customers who were eating a substantial meal.

I’ve tried not to allow the blog just to become a running commentary on the Covid crisis, but given the way it has dominated the news agenda and the profound effect it has had on the pub trade and my own personal experience it has obviously been impossible to ignore the subject.

Exhortations to use contactless payments led to increased concerns about the possible demise of cash, which is an essential bulwark of freedom from control and surveillance.

When the pubs finally did reopen, it unleashed a surprising wave of rancid snobbery directed at those who had dared to cross the threshold. It seemed that many “beer enthusiasts”, who may in the past have given lip-service ot the idea of supporting pubs, found they quite enjoyed staying at home during lockdown enjoying supplies of draft craft beer takeouts from their local micro bar, absolved of any need to actually go out and visit any pubs and mix with the dreaded hoi polloi.

The dramatic decline of commuting into city centres raised fears that this might mark a long-term shift to remote working, with an inevitable knock-on effect on all the ancillary businesses in those areas, not least pubs.

On the other hand, some pubs really didn’t help themselves with an over-zealous interpretation of the social distancing guidelines. It seems to have brought out the inner jobsworth in some licensees.

The hospitality trade, and pubs in particular, seemed to be unjustly singled out for blame in the spread of the virus, when all the evidence suggested that their role in fact was pretty insignificant.

The new restrictions imposed toward the end of September made that swift, spontaneous pint virtually impossible, and table service was impractical and labour-intensive for wet-led pubs.

And the requirement for pub customers to wear masks except when seated was utterly insane. Even if you accept the rationale behind masks, expecting people to be repeatedly putting them on and taking them off again goes completely against the recommendations for how they should be used. At least we weren’t like some US states, where diners and drinkers were told only to remove the mask when actually having a mouthful.

It was disappointing how many trade bodies and organisations supposedly representing drinkers were happy to demand more financial help for the industry but reluctant to question the fundamental basis of the restrictions, although they have become bolder over the past couple of months. And of course there isn’t a bottomless pit of money to dole out. An honourable exception was Essex licensee Adam Brooks who was prepared to question the rationale and essential unfairness of the lockdown restrictions, especially those in the second half of the year. I’d also give a mention to Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, who has been a strong and outspoken voice for the industry.

In this area, the pubs have been entirely closed for 23 weeks of the year, plus a further two weeks at the end of October where we were placed in the old Tier 3 making them dining only. This, combined with the ongoing travel restrictions and continued closure of many tourist attractions, severely curbed my activities during the year.

During 2019, I visited a total of 207 different pubs, of which 111 were entirely new to me, the latter number boosted by four days out to towns that I had either never been drinking in before, or where I had only ever visited one pub. This year the comparable totals are 60 and 17, and most of those 17 were accounted for by the aforementioned trip to Burton and one very brief holiday in September. It is probably the lowest total of different pubs I have used in any calendar year since I turned 18.

I have only spent two nights away from home not in my own bed, which is the lowest number since infancy. I had to cancel two holidays and never got round to booking another. I have travelled less far certainly than since 2001, when circumstances conspired to prevent me having a proper holiday, although I did briefly venture across the Welsh border before they closed it. And I haven’t seen the sea at all. (I know I could easily have done so if I’d really wanted to, but I didn’t in the normal course of my travels).

The restrictions on pub visiting have also curtailed my encounters with pub cats, although I did manage to spot Felix in the Boar’s Head in Stockport, who I was told is now sixteen years old. I have been following the exploits of Artemis aka Arty of the Olde Cottage in Chester, who had turned up as a stray in the Autumn of 2019. We had planned a trip out to Chester in April which would have included calling in there, but obviously this had to be cancelled. He established himself as a firm favourite with the regulars, and was puzzled when they all abruptly disappeared. Earlier this month, he suffered some kind of injury when out exploring which necessitated an operation at the vets’ costing over £1000, although this was fortunately covered by insurance. So far he seems to be well on the mend, although still wandering round an empty pub.

Including this one, I have done 81 posts on the blog this year, compared with 93 last year, the difference being almost entirely accounted for by having had only one Proper Day Out to write up, as opposed to six.

Last year, I celebrated passing the 5,000 followers mark on Twitter. This year it has edged up further to just over 5,600, but I suspect it has now reached something of a plateau. On the other hand, Toady, who has been much more outspoken about the Covid crisis, has gone up from 3,000 to over 3,800.

I’ve recorded the highest number of posts on my Closed Pubs blog since the early days when finding new ones was like shooting fish in a barrel. For this I’m mainly indebted to Yorkshire resident Kyle Reed, who has sent me a substantial number of suggestions in West and South Yorkshire. I also spotted a fair number myself on trips out once the lockdown travel restrictions were lifted.

Tourist attractions were often very slow to reopen, but I did manage to visit one new National Trust property, Newark Park in Gloucestershire, a converted hunting lodge set in a spectacular position on a ridge of the south Cotswolds. However, even here you were only allowed to walk round the grounds. Returning from this trip, I called in to the Grape Vaults in Leominster, a pub of which I have fond memories, and was pleased to find it just as good as ever, which is often not the case. Here I had my only Ploughman’s Lunch of the year, which was also a pretty good one. This was undoubtedly, from a limited field, my Best Pub Revisit of the year.

It’s easy to imagine that lockdown would free up time to read all those books you never got round to, but in practice it doesn’t seem to work out that way, However, one book that made an impression on me was Ghostland by Edward Parnell, subtitled “In Search of a Haunted Country”, which I hadn't heard of before, but came up in a Twitter conversation. It's a fascinating and moving memoir of family tragedy woven into an in-depth analysis of British ghost stories and an evocation of British landscapes, with a fair bit of bird-watching thrown in. I'd strongly recommend it, although it helps if you're familiar with the likes of M. R. James and Alan Garner and have seen “The Wicker Man”.

Last year, I expressed satisfaction at the decisive result of the December General Election which finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of the following month. The transition period expires at the end of this month, and at the last minute we were able to conclude a trade agreement on Christmas Eve that will allow tariff-free trade to continue while restoring our status as a fully independent, sovereign nation. Amidst all the Covid-related gloom, this gives grounds for some optimism about the future.

As I said in one of the posts I linked to above, “It’s all very well saying that people should support pubs, but if the experience has been turned from something pleasurable to a grim rigmarole it becomes increasingly hard to see the attraction. And most ordinary people go to pubs because they enjoy it, not out of a sense of duty.” At present I can’t visit local pubs at all and, until the restrictions introduced in September are lifted, I really can’t look forward to much appetite for, or pleasure in, pubgoing during the coming year.

Despite the optimism surrounding the roll-out of vaccines, I expect I will still have a long wait before I am once again able to enter a pub unchallenged, walk up to the bar to order a drink, and choose to sit wherever, and with whom, I want. And I fear that much of the pub trade will never recover.

Friday 18 December 2020

Join the club

The tier system in England as at 19 December 2020

Going back a couple of months to October, although it seems much longer ago, many people in the North were aggrieved that they seemed to be being singled out for much harsher treatment than the South in terms of Covid restrictions. Even two weeks ago when the second lockdown ended, London seemed to have been excluded from Tier 3 restrictions on very flimsy evidence.

This week, though, the boot was on the other foot, with London and large swathes of the South-East being plunged into Tier 3 at very short notice. However, tempting as it might be, it would be wrong to engage in Schadenfreude over this. “I’ve been stuffed, therefore you should be too” is not really going to help anyone.

Indeed this kind of dog-in-the-manger attitude has been a feature of the whole Covid crisis, with too many people apparently far keener to wish misery on others rather than protesting about their own predicament. A prime example of this is people in hospitality complaining about shops not being required to operate track and trace, something that would be completely inappropriate and impractical.

What is particularly infuriating about the latest round of restrictions is that the rise in infections clearly cannot be laid at the door or hospitality, as the sector was entirely closed during the lockdown that ended less than two weeks earlier. Yet closing or opening hospitality is the main difference between Tiers 2 and 3. It seems that, yet again, it is being used as a sacrificial lamb. The government’s approach is that of a one-club golfer and, what is more, a club that doesn’t even succeed in hitting the ball.

It is also completely unreasonable to impose closures on businesses with a mere twenty-four hours’ notice. This might be justifiable as a one-off action in a dire emergency, as was arguably the case back in March, but it is no way to treat business on an ongoing basis. Just think of all the food and drink that had been bought in for the busiest trading week of the year, and will now end up being thrown away.

It seems that people in government severely overestimate the extent to which lockdowns actually succeed in influencing the spread of infection. A seventeen-day “circuit-breaker” was imposed in Wales a couple of months ago, which was held out as an example that England should have followed. Yet Wales currently has the highest growth in cases in the whole of the UK, and is heading back into a fresh lockdown of indeterminate length immediately after Christmas. As Einstein is reputed to have said, but probably didn’t, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

On one level, the cartoon by Bob Moran above is pointing the finger at the willingness to impose restrictions on areas that are physically and culturally remote from the seat of government. But it is also highlighting the pre-Enlightenment view that Covid is a threat that has to be propitiated by human sacrifice.

Monday 7 December 2020

Top of the heap

While writing my post last week about Stella Artois, I did a little research to find out where it stood in the league table of British beer sales. This came up with this very interesting report from the Morning Advertiser on the top selling drinks brands in 2019.

Stella is still well up there in the lager category, selling 717,000 hl in the year (equivalent to 437,000 barrels). But I’m sure I’ve read in the past that it was considerably closer to Carling, the market leader. It is now outsold by Peroni, which in many ways follows the “reassuringly expensive” model of Stella in the 1980s. It is sold at a premium price, at 5.1% it is that little bit stronger than the competition, and it isn’t sold on draught in Spoons or in slabs in Tesco. Look how the sales value of Peroni compares with that of Stella.

Carling, with sales of 2,940 million HL ( (1.793 million barrels) remains the market leader * by a wide margin, and accounts for one in fifteen of all pints sold in Britain. For it to be so consistently successful, it must be doing something right.

Moving into the cask category, the best-seller, Doom Bar, accounts for 237,000 hl, or only 8% of the volume of Carling. This somewhat exaggerates the market dominance of lager over cask, as cask has much more of a long tail of smaller brands that still do a worthwhile volume, but overall it’s still a 1:5 ratio. It’s interesting that, despite all the talk of the rise of pale beers, eight out of the ten best-sellers are traditional brown beers, and the two pales are ones that aren’t aggressively hoppy.

Of course, getting the distribution is a key factor here, and it’s well-known that Doom Bar gets into many pubs on the coat-tails of Carling. However, it’s patronising to suggest that people will drink any old swill that’s put in front of them, and the history of the British beer market is littered with examples of products that have fallen flat on their faces despite extensive launch publicity and distribution. Taylor’s Landlord has got into the Top Ten despite being a product of an independent family brewer, although sadly it is far too often sold too green and hasn’t had the chance for its distinctive flavour to develop properly.

The article makes no mention of keg ales and stouts, so we don’t know how Draught Guinness and John Smith’s Extra Smooth compare.

The figures also reveal of couple of interesting snippets about two sectors that receive far more attention than their market share merits. The biggest selling “craft” beer, BrewDog Punk IPA, only manages 66,000 hl, or 2.2% of the volume of Carling. And, apart from BrewDog, all of the top ten craft beers are owned by major brewers or firms they have heavily invested in. So much for the “craft beer revolution”.

And, looking at alcohol-free beers, the best-seller, Becks Blue, manages a mere 20,500 hl, or 0.7% of the annual sales of Carling. Yes, there is a place for alcohol-free beers, but all those predictions that it was going to account for 10% of the market within a few years look very misplaced. And, apart from Heineken 0.0%, nothing else manages more than 3,000 hl, which is about the output of a typical railway arch brewer.

* This prompted me to ask on Twitter when Carling became the best-selling beer in Britain. Apparently lager overtook ale in market share in 1986, so the consensus is that it was around then, or maybe a year or so earlier. But what did it replace – another lager like Carlsberg or Heineken, or an ale brand such as Double Diamond?

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Making a meal of it

From today, while the pubs remain firmly shut in over 40% of England, including my local area, in just over half the country they will be allowed to reopen under “Tier 2” provided that they serve all customers with “substantial meals”. This obviously raises a question of definition, as I discussed here, and government ministers have been tying themselves up in knots over whether Cornish pasties and Scotch eggs qualify. It’s easy to say “you know one when you see one”, but if pubs run the risk of substantial fines for non-compliance, it’s important that they know exactly where they stand.

For what it’s worth, in the couple of weeks at the end of October when this rule applied in Greater Manchester under the then “Tier 3”, Wetherspoon’s were happy to continue serving ciabattas without any accompaniment of chips or salad, although to be fair they are quite substantial. They come within the “includes a drink” meal deals, so if you choose one of the more expensive drink options such as premium draught or bottled lagers, the effective cost of the food is reduced to little more than a quid.

Given this, inevitably some pubs within Tier 2 that do not normally serve meals will be considering whether it’s worth putting on some kind of food offer to allow them to open. However, it’s important to think this through properly. They need to remember, which may not be immediately obvious, that it’s not enough simply to make the food available; every single customer will need to order and eat a meal. While it is permissible to contract for meals to be provided by an external caterer, they still need to be ordered and paid for through the pub: it isn’t sufficient just to put a kebab van on the car park.

It they aren’t already, pubs will need to register with their local authority as a food business. And they will need to be very careful to ensure that their food offer is genuine, and not something simply provided as a front to allow customers to drink. Any thoughts of just handing around a few stale sandwiches that are then passed on to the next customer – as once occurred under some strange Scottish regulations in the past – need to be put aside. Inevitably, the occasional customer will order a meal and then not fancy eating it, but if nobody is eating it appears suspicious, and the licensing authorities are likely to take a very dim view.

If you run a wet-only pub, by definition your customers are not coming in for meals, so to expect every visitor to eat is a massive change in behaviour. People might be happy to do it one night a week, but they’re unlikely to want to do so on a regular basis even if they really like the pub. And there will be little attraction to the person who just drops in for a pint or two, possibly before or after eating at home. Therefore, while it may well be legally possible to reopen, requiring every customer to eat a meal may not attract much business or make financial sense. I would expect that, in practice, very few previously wet-only pubs will take advantage of the “substantial meal” rule to reopen in Tier 2.

Clearly any dining pub that previously did the vast majority of its business from serving meals anyway will be able to reopen and see little reduction in trade, and they also won’t find the table service requirement too much of a problem. And every Wetherspoon’s in Tier 2 areas will certainly open. But many other pubs that do a mixture of drink and food trade may well look at the numbers and decide it isn’t worth it. I know a couple near me that offer extensive menus, but also attract a lot of local drinkers in the evenings, decided not to open under the old pre-lockdown Tier 3, and I read yesterday that a popular village pub in Cheshire that does attract a significant destination food trade had concluded it wouldn’t be worth it either.

It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion, as argued in this article, that the decision to allow people to eat meals in pubs, but not to just go for a drink, is motivated a strong element of snobbery as opposed to any kind of rational analysis.

Public schoolboys, middle-class professionals and most university academics will never understand on a personal level the critical importance of a pub to the community. They drink expensive wine at home and would never think to step inside a regular hostelry unless it had re-invented itself as some kind of ‘gastro pub’, complete with chef and pretentious menu...

...This is where the deeply divisive ‘substantial meal’ condition for Tier 2 comes from. It reveals a high degree of snobbery and outright condescension for anyone who might want to drop in to a pub for just a drink. Quite possibly that is because so many ordinary people simply cannot afford a ‘substantial meal’ out on a regular basis. But they are, like myself on occasion, often quite desperate for some friendly company in comfortable surroundings.

Monday 30 November 2020

More beer watering

Amidst all the excitement surrounding news of lockdowns and tiers, Budweiser Brewing Group UK & Ireland (which seems to be the new name for the UK offshoot of AB InBev) slipped out the news that the strength of Stella Artois, Britain’s best-selling premium lager, had been reduced yet again, from 4.8% to 4.6%. They came out with the usual corporate guff to justify this move:
The AB InBev-owned brewer stated that the change was in line with its commitment to responsible drinking, addressing the consumer need for moderation by giving people greater choice in how they can moderate alcohol intake without having to sacrifice on the taste of their favourite beers.

Dorien Nijs, Brewmaster at the Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven, commented: “We know that taste and quality remain the number one priority for Stella Artois drinkers, and we also recognise an ongoing health and wellness trend through moderation. We are proud that we can now deliver the same Stella Artois taste people know and love, with an ABV of 4.6%.”

The brand highlighted that the 4.6% ABV bracket has been the fastest growing in premium beer in the UK, more than doubling in size over two years.

In other words, we have sneaked this move through when we hoped nobody would notice, so we can save some duty and appease the public health lobby.

Looking back through my blog archive, it’s a full twelve years since the strength of Stella was cut from the original 5.2% ABV to 5.0. (Some have suggested it was once even stronger than 5.2%, but I’ve seen no evidence for this.) It was then cut again to 4.8% a few years later. However, marketing people forget at their peril that, at the end of the day, people drink alcoholic drinks precisely because they contain alcohol. It’s all very well going on about “the taste”, but the key reason people choose premium lagers over Carling and Fosters is not because they taste better, but because they’re stronger.

As I wrote here, drinkers in general aren’t too bothered about small differences in alcoholic strength between products in the same broad category. But I wonder whether this will turn out to be a cut too far that is perceived as taking Stella out of the true premium segment. While Stella has also suffered from a debasement of the recipe from its 1980s “reassuringly expensive” heyday, it’s not hard to tell the difference between 5.2% and 4.6%. A few years ago, Wetherspoon’s strongly promoted the 4.6% Tuborg, but it never seemed to sell well and has now disappeared off their bars.

At least, looking them up on the Tesco website, it seems that Heineken, Kronenbourg and San Miguel are still all sold at 5.0% if you prefer something with the full premium lager strength. But for how long?

Saturday 28 November 2020

Villains of the piece?

Tom Kerridge’s TV series on saving the British pub has turned the spotlight on the activities of the large tied pubcos. To many people, the pubcos are perceived as pantomime villains who are responsible for all the current woes of the industry. But where did they come from in the first place, and what can, or should, be done to rein them in?

Going back fifty years, a large majority of pubs in England and Wales were tied to breweries. Genuinely free houses tended in general to be smaller pubs in rural areas, and in large towns and cities were virtually unknown. This system had developed over the years as brewers sought to gain outlets for their products. The more pubs you owned, the stronger was your position in the market. This dominance was reinforced by post-war planning policies that ensured that any new licences issued were allocated to the major existing pub owners in a given area.

Even in the early days of CAMRA, many members were critical of the tie as restricting access to most of the pub market for the independent brewers’ real ales. However, it must be remembered that the existence of the tie saved cask beer as a mass-market product in this country. Some companies, such as Young’s, had a commitment in principle to maintaining brewing traditions, but others continued as they had before as they simply lacked the funds to upgrade brewing methods and cellar equipment. The same was true of many plants that had been acquired by the industry giants during the takeover spree of the 1960s, but were still well down the queue for investment.

At a time when traditional beer was desperately unfashionable, the likes of Hook Norton and Batemans would have vanished off the face of the earth if they had not been guaranteed an outlet for their products in their own pubs. Free trade licensees would simply have swept them off the bar in favour of flashy keg products supported by hefty advertising budgets. This is exactly what happened in Scotland, where the proportion of tied pubs was much less, and by the early 1970s cask beer had virtually disappeared.

During the 70s and 80s this dominance was slowly eroded. The big brewers were persuaded by the government to engage in some half-hearted pub swaps to reduce local monopolies. They also started to sell off lower-performing pubs, either to regional breweries or to what in retrospect were proto pub companies. Belhaven was a small Scottish brewer who built up a substantial estate of mostly bottom-end pubs in England that didn’t actually sell any of their beers. Small free-trade managed operators such as Wetherspoon’s started to get a foothold in the market. The rise of the off-trade made sales through pubs less critical, and the increasing market share of lager meant that pubs were increasingly selling draught brands that, while they may have been licensed by the brewers, were not so closely identified with them. The link between the name on the sign and the beer on the bar was being weakened.

Then came the notorious Beer Orders of 1989, which were intended to address what was identified as a “complex monopoly” in the beer market. At the time they were widely welcomed, not least by CAMRA, who were mesmerised by the prospect of every Big Six tenant getting the right to a guest cask ale. I wasn’t writing a magazine column at the time, let alone blogging, so nobody can go back and throw my words back in my face. However, I do wonder whether anyone seriously thought about what the likely consequence would be. They certainly turned out to be a classic case of “be careful what you wish for!”

One of the key outcomes of the Beer Orders was the restriction on the number of pubs that the Big Six brewers could continue to tie, which led most of them to conclude that they might as well get out of the pub business entirely. The response to this was the creation of pub companies, often led by former big brewery executives, who would take the unwanted pubs off their hands and maintain the tied house business model. But a major difference was that, while many of the old brewery tied houses were owned outright, the pub companies took on a huge amount of debt to acquire them. In a market in long-term decline, a debt burden can all too easily become a millstone around your neck, which was exacerbated by the pubcos spectacularly underestimating the negative impact of the 2007 smoking ban. More recently, we have seen a wave of takeovers, mergers and restructurings, but pubcos remain a major force in the market today.

There are plenty of things that they can be criticised for – attracting prospective tenants with unrealistic projections, providing them with minimal support, penalising success through extortionate rent increases and being all too eager to dispose of pubs for redevelopment. But many of their critics seem to ignore the fact that they are operating commercial businesses, not charities, and are doing so in a very challenging climate. Are their actions really any different in kind from those of the old Big Six national brewers? And it should not be forgotten that some of the family brewers, who are sometimes held up as examples of a more sympatheitc approach, have been pretty ruthless in disposing of surplus pubs from their estates.

This criticism sometimes turns into a distinctly obsessional insistence on blaming the pubcos for all the current woes of the pub industry, in the manner of the man who, being in possession of a hammer, sees every problem as a nail. But, as I have explained on this blog over the past thirteen years, the decline of pubs has been caused by a perfect storm of changing social attitudes and restrictive legislation that have combined to greatly reduce the range of occasions when people will contemplate a visit to pub, especially one that is not combined with dining. It’s a demand crisis, and the effect of the way the industry is structured is pretty incidental. If this analysis contained much truth, then surely pubs operating under different business models would be thriving as compared to those owned by pubcos, but that patently isn’t the case – the decline is across the board.

It is significant that the harshest critics of the pubcos never seem to be able to come up with any credible alternative structure for the industry. The Beer Orders have now been completely repealed but, apart from the takeover of half of Punch Taverns by Heineken offshoot Star Pubs and Bars, there has been little move to return to the old vertically integrated model. With two-thirds of pub beer sales now international lager brands, and food now often more important than drink, brewing and pub retailing are increasingly divergent businesses. Unless you are BrewDog or Sam Smith’s, it makes little sense to own a large chain of pubs mainly as outlets for your own production.

In many cases, as I wrote here, the dislike of pubcos seems to stem from a generalised animus towards private business per se. This inevitably leads to critics favouring community-based solutions. However, any community-owned pub by definition involves “dead capital” that isn’t expected to show a financial return, and there’s precious little of that around at present. And, while some may hark back to the long-gone days of the Carlisle State Management Scheme, do we really want the likes of Public Health England having any say in the way pubs are run?

The favoured option usually seems to be preventing non-brewing companies imposing any kind of product tie on leased pubs. However, an immediate objection to this is that it cuts away the core business of the pubcos and undermines freedom of contract. It is also fraught with unintended consequences. For a start, in many pubs owned by breweries, the share of sales accounted for by their own products is often very small. Indeed, I can think of one or two, now closed, where it was probably zero. Is 5 or 10% really that different from nothing – and couldn’t Punch set up their own small brewery to produce a cheap house lager to get round it?

And, as Martyn Cornell writes here, the likely outcome is that, far from opening up a brave new world of free houses, such a move would lead the pubcos to, entirely understandably, do whatever they could to retain such pubs within their control.

The call has been made for a mandatory free-of-tie option to be offered to pubco tenants. I can tell you what will happen if that is brought in: large numbers of the best currently tenanted/leased pubs will be turned into managed houses, and those pubs not suitable for a managed operation that look as if they will not bring in an adequate return to their pubco owner as free-of-tie operations will be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons...

...There’s a good argument for saying that if it wasn’t for the pubco model and the support it provides licensees, even more pubs would have gone under in Britain than have so far.

That highest bidder now is just as likely to be Taylor Wimpey or Persimmon. There has also been a movement in recent years to replace conventional leases with franchise-type agreements such as EI’s Craft Union, where the licensee retains self-employed status, but the pubco exercises much greater control over stocking and the general way the business operates. These would only increase if the traditional type of leases were outlawed. To be successful, any kind of business arrangement has to offer something to both parties. Turning pub companies into mere property renters fails on that score, and that is also why they have been so resistant to the idea of the Market Rent Only option.

As Martyn hints, pubco leases provide a means of entry into the pub market for people wanting to run their own business that would not be available if they had to raise the capital to buy their own pub. Although no doubt they could often do these things better, the pubcso also provide business support, investment and a structured business framework. Running a pub as an independent free trader can be a daunting prospect that many people would struggle with. Over the years, while some of the very best pubs I’ve visited have been genuine free houses, so have some of the absolute worst, where the licensees had basically given up and were just going through the motions. There are many examples in other sectors where self-employed people run businesses under a corporate nameplate which exerts a large degree of influence on their operations.

While there is much to criticise about the actions of the pubcos, those calling for further statutory regulation of their activities need to be very careful what they wish for. In the wise words of Milton Friedman, "The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem." And we should never forget the outcome of the Beer Orders, which were introduced with the best of intentions.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Every little doesn’t count

Some people regard supermarket loyalty cards as an invasion of privacy, but I have to say I’m not too bothered about the Tesco Clubcard so long as they don’t start sending me discount vouchers for carrots. I typically spend maybe £15-£20 there each week, and every three months get a coupon for £3 or so off my shop.

Every Christmas for quite a few years, they’ve sent me a batch of coupons offering me one week of £6 off if I spent £40, and then £4 off for each of the two following weeks. Their main objective, I assume, is to encourage me to do my Christmas shopping there rather than with one of their competitors, but it’s a useful discount given that I’m spending more money at that time of year anyway.

However, this year I noticed that, in the small print, alongside the usual exclusions of petrol, tobacco, infant formula milk and the like, they had added alcohol. Now, while my weekly spend isn’t primarily on drink, there’s usually a couple of bottles or cans included, and at Christmas a significant amount of the extra spending is going to be on alcohol, either for myself or as presents. I might treat myself, say, to a nice bottle of malt whisky that I wouldn’t normally do through the year.

With alcohol excluded, I would struggle to get together enough other shopping to reach the £40 threshold on even one occasion, unless there was some particular household or clothing item I wanted, which at present there isn’t. So the upshot is that the coupons end up in the recycling, and a little amount of goodwill has been lost.

I can understand that this may have to apply in Scotland because of their minimum pricing legislation, but in England it just comes across as remarkably lacking in Christmas spirit, in more ways than one. It’s yet another small, niggling turn of the prohibitionist screw.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

A daily reminder of pub life

I was kindly sent a review copy of the 2021 Pub Life Calendar. Its creator Michael describes it as “a fun take on characters I’ve seen in my many years of visiting our great British pubs.” It’s a large format wall calendar, with each month featuring its own humorous character such as the Bandisnoot, the Gobhoblin and the Sipster.

Hopefully by next year we will be allowed back in the pubs, but you might still like a daily reminder on your kitchen wall, or know a friend or relative who might appreciate it as a Christmas gift. It’s available for £9.99 directly from the website at www.publife.co.uk.

Sunday 15 November 2020

A recipe to save the pub

I have to say I had my doubts when I heard that a TV series on Saving the British Pub was going to be hosted by celebrity chef Tom Kerridge*. What can anyone who boasts about how his pub in affluent Marlow became the first pub in the world to gain two Michelin stars have to say about the vast majority of ordinary boozers? However, I approached it with an open mind, and have to say the first episode on Thursday night was a lot better than I had expected.

Kerridge himself is a surprisingly down-to-earth and affable presenter and, rather than following in the footsteps of Alex Polizzi with a hackneyed “pub doctor” format, the programme mixed case studies of individual pubs with wider consideration of the general pressures affecting the industry. He did say at the beginning that the three important factors in any pub are the drinks, the food and the atmosphere, which obviously doesn’t apply to all those pubs that are primarily or entirely wet-led, but in fact only one of the three pubs he looked at came anywhere near to the expected stereotype of the country dining pub.

This was the White Hart at Chilsworthy, overlooking the Tamar valley in East Cornwall, close to the Devon border. Ian and Amy had sold a four-bedroom house a couple of years ago in order to realise their lifelong dream of running a country pub. They had succeeded in being named CAMRA’s Cornwall Pub of the Year in 2019. However, they weren’t really making any money out of it, and this moved Amy to tears. Amy seemed to do the lion’s share of the work, but to be fair Ian had kept on his day job as a gas engineer and, as Tom politely suggested, Amy possibly found it difficult to delegate.

The bar seemed busy enough with locals, but the dining trade was struggling, and Tom suggested knocking through the wall between dining room and bar to integrate it better with the rest of the pub, and open up the magnificent view. I have to say I’m rarely a fan of knocking walls through, and Ian was sceptical, saying he didn’t want somewhere with grey walls and a sofa in the corner, but they went ahead, the work going on in the early months of 2020 while the bar remained open. They were looking forward a good Spring and Summer with their new look. And then a bombshell struck!

The second pub was the Prince Albert in Stroud, Gloucestershire, a wet-led pub standing high above the town centre with a well-established reputation for live music. One problem Tom immediately identified was a lack of parking, which is a major deterrent to attracting trade beyond the locality, but didn’t make any more of it. The pub seemed to do a healthy trade, but licensees Lottie and Miles, as tenants of pubco Punch Taverns, were making very little money out of it.

The first thing Tom suggested was to review their prices to make sure they were getting a decent margin on all their beers. However, £4.50 a pint for Landlord already didn’t seem particularly cheap, and chasing margin can be a recipe for disaster. Yes, if you increase your prices by 10%, and trade goes down by less, you’re gaining, at least in the short term, but it’s a drug where the dose has to keep being repeated to gain the same effect, and gaining a reputation for high prices is not going to attract new customers even if regulars put up with it.

This predictably moved on to taking aim at the pubcos in general. While there is plenty of criticise about the actions of pubcos, they are really a symptom of the decline of the industry rather than a cause, and this needs to be traced back to the disastrous Beer Orders of thirty years ago. It is all too easy to portray pubcos as pantomime villains, but their critics can never come up with any other realistic business model for the industry, and they, like every commercial business, are surely entitled to try to make a profit. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for a pubco to want to set the rent under a Market Rent Only option to recover the profits lost through no longer being able to sell beer to the tenant. In next week’s episode, Tom is going to put these criticisms to the MD of Punch Taverns, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

The third pub was the Golden Anchor, a monumental street-corner pub in South London that for many years had been popular with the local Afro-Caribbean community. But the business was now struggling, and again Lana, the licensee of over twenty years, was moved to tears. One problem was that a substantial section of the clientele was elderly West Indian gentlemen who came in to play dominoes but put very little money across the bar during the course of an evening.

This was an example of where the “pub doctor” approach was more appropriate. An area previously only used as a concert room was opened up for general use, and the domino players were politely shifted to a less prominent location. To attract a wider cross-section of customers, Tom suggested that Lana put on a selection of real ales and craft beers, which the pub hadn’t offered before. An open evening was arranged to promote the new offering, and this seemed to be successful in bringing in a more diverse crowd, so on the face of it this seemed the most successful intervention.

An inherent problem with this kind of exercise is that the reasons for the success or failure of specific pubs are very different from those behind the overall decline of the pub trade. For most struggling pubs, it is possible to identify some concrete actions they can take to increase their custom and profitability. But most of this will just mean attracting customers from other pubs, not people who didn’t go to the pub at all.

Over the past three decades, the pub trade has been affected by a raft of changes in legislation and social attitudes that overall have greatly reduced the range of occasions when people will contemplate a visit to a pub. People still like the idea of pubs in theory, but in practice they visit them less and less. Of course it is still possible to do well in a declining market, but that should not be allowed to obscure the wider picture. By and large, the reason so many pubs have closed is not because they haven’t been run as well as they could have been.

And it was disappointing, if not entirely surprising, that an entire hour discussing the decline of the pub trade passed by without a single mention of the legendary Elephant in the Room...

* One of the few things I remember about Tom Kerridge, not being a connoisseur of the work of celebrity chefs, is that a few years ago he made the news for losing no less than 150 lb in weight. He doesn’t drink alcohol now, which may be connected.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Junking business

No chance of being able to advertise these tempting artisan cakes

Still deep in the Covid crisis, and with the end of the Brexit transition period fast approaching, you might imagine that the government had its hands pretty full. But they have still found time to launch a consultation on a total ban on Internet advertising of so-called “HFSS” (High in Fat, Salt or Sugar) food products.

The ostensible aim is to combat childhood obesity, but it seems to stem from the “something must be done” school of policymaking. The thought process seems to be that, if children spend a lot of time on the Internet, banning advertising there will reduce their exposure to it and thus their consumption of such foods. However, the government’s own estimates assume that average calorie consumption will be reduced by a mere 2.8 calories a day, and that itself is an increase from an initial estimate of just 0.3 calories. It is also very poorly targeted, with many items included that have little or no appeal to children. How many, for example, go out shopping for cooking sauces?

As I reported last year, the definition of HFSS foods includes many items that are generally perceived as wholesome and natural, such as orange juice, butter, full-fat cheese and milk, and many meat products including bacon. The lazy assumption is that it just applies to crisps and burgers, but many companies who perceive themselves as being in the health food market are taken aback to find themselves in the fiiring line too. Small artisanal producers are affected just as much as the big boys, and may indeed find the impact even more severe.

As Christopher Snowdon points out, the proposed scope of the restrictions is quite breathtaking. Not only does it include anything with added sugar, such as biscuits, jams, ice cream and yoghurts, but also a long list of savoury items as shown in the graphic below.

It’s hard to think of many food items involving any processing whatsoever that will be excluded. These aren’t just a small subset of particularly harmful products, but a huge swathe of what most ordinary people actually eat and enjoy as part of their normal everyday diets.

The Internet is no longer just a fancy little add-on for companies, but the principal channel of advertising and promotion. Deprived of that, it is much harder to do business. As I have pointed out before in the context of tobacco and alcohol, advertising bans have little effect on underlying demand, but what they do do is to ossify the market. It becomes difficult or impossible to launch new products, let alone for entirely new competitors to enter. This will especially affect small start-up companies wishing to challenge the dominance of existing players. It will be a kick in the teeth for thousands of small businesses. It seems redundant to express surprise at such a policy being floated by a Conservative government when they have spent most of the past year being just as authoritarian and anti-business as anyone else.

The government have been generous enough to still permit factual listings of product details on company websites, so it won’t stop online sales, either direct or through supermarkets, or takeaway ordering. But will it even be acceptable to show a photo of the product concerned? And you certainly won’t be permitted to advertise the fact that you offer these products anywhere else. How, for example, will a wedding cake maker be able to inform anyone that they provide that particular service?

The government spends a lot of time promoting distinctive British food products around the world, but it would be ironic if they were extolling the virtues of Lancashire hotpot, Wensleydale cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies while at the same time preventing them from being advertised in their country of origin. And, if you imagine that none of this is going to be applied to alcohol over the next few years, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Sunday 1 November 2020

Singled out

Yesterday, Boris Johnson announced a new national lockdown lasting four weeks until the end of November. Not surprisingly, as before, hospitality bore the brunt of the restrictions, with pubs, restaurants, cafés and coffee shops unable to serve customers on the premises in any way. This is despite official government figures showing the hospitality sector as responsible for an utterly trivial source of infections outside the home – a mere 2% according to the chart below.

Given this, it is hard to see that this particular part of the restrictions will have any significant effect in curbing the number of cases. It seems that, yet again, hospitality is being unfairly scapegoated as it forms an easy target. Indeed, the whole package comes across as an ill-considered example of the “Something Must be Done!” school of policymaking.

To add insult to injury, looking at the small print of the regulations reveals that licensed premises are even going to be banned from selling alcoholic drinks for takeaway. For plenty of pubs this was a lifeline during the first lockdown and allowed drinkers to continue enjoying cask ale. To prohibit it now seems completely unreasonable given that supermarkets and specialist off-licences can continue selling alcohol. You have to wonder whether the anti-drink lobby have managed to sneak it in under the radar.

However, it has not gone unnoticed by industry groups such as UK Hospitality and SIBA, and hopefully pressure can be brought to bear to get this reversed before the lockdown comes into effect next Thursday. Johnson said that this lockdown wasn’t like the first one, but on this evidence it seems to be even stricter!

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Table disservice

My local pub was built in 1939 and its fabric remains little altered since then. Around the walls of the lounge are a series of little push-buttons that once were used to summon waiter service. They have not been operational since I first started going in there 35 years ago, but show that this is something once commonplace in pubs. It had pretty much entirely died out by the time I started drinking, although I believe it lingered on into the 1980s in a few pubs. Presumably, increasing labour costs were the reasons for phasing it out. To some extent, the provision of waiter service justified the charging of higher prices in the lounge, something else that has pretty much entirely disappeared.

Since the middle of September, all pubs in England have been required to operate table service for drinks. I’ve mentioned on several occasions how this is proving problematic, but I thought it was worth its own post to explain why it just doesn’t work.

Of course table service is the norm in restaurants, but there is a significant difference there in that the customer experience follows a predictable pattern. They come in, are given a menu, place their order, are served with starter, then main course, then are given the opportunity to order a dessert and coffee, and eventually are presented with a bill which they proceed to pay. As long as the staff keep an eye on where diners are up to, it shouldn’t be too difficult to move them smoothly on from one stage to the next. It should be a touchstone of good service that the customer is always approached before they actually feel the need to summon a waiter.

Despite this, over the years I’ve had numerous experiences of utterly execrable service in restaurants and dining pubs, either forgetting the order entirely or being totally ignored once a particular stage had been completed. This cannot be blamed on simply being busy, as often it has happened when the place is virtually empty. If I had infinite reserves of both time and patience, I’m sure I could have qualified for quite a few free or discounted meals – indeed I have received one or two.

The main responsibility must lie with the restaurants themselves, in failing to recruit, train and motivate their staff properly. However, it has to be said that some of the staff come across as lackadaisical and unobservant. I’ve never worked as a waiter, and to be honest wouldn’t be cut out for it, but I’m sure I would understand the basic requirements of the job, especially keeping an eye on where the various tables you are looking after are up to.

However, the situation for drinks service is very different, in that the predictability is lost. The waiter does not know how long a group will be staying, how fast they will be drinking, or when they will want refills. Hence they are much more likely to need to call for service, which is why pubs used to be fitted with service bells. To be reliant on hailing a passing waiter introduces an element of stress and uncertainty into the simple process of getting another drink.

This isn’t, at present, the pubs’ fault, as they have been placed against their wishes in a very difficult situation at the same time as being put against the wall financially. In a small pub where all the seats can be viewed from the bar, it may not cause too much of a problem, especially considering the reduced customer numbers. However, in a large venue, with various nooks and crannies and remote areas, being able to summon service could become quite a challenge. My limited experience of using table service in Wetherspoon’s without using the app suggests that ordering a second drink can be something of a hopeless quest. One solution would be to actually ring the pub up on their public number, but that might not go down too well! If the only way to obtain service is to accost a passing member of staff who is in the middle of doing something else, then the system has failed.

Using an app for ordering alleviates this problem to some extent but, as I have discussed, it creates issues of social and digital exclusion, and still does not deal with the question of how to summon staff if you don’t actually want to order anything, such as my problem with a cloudy pint.

It appears that the current restrictions are going to be with us for some time, and so pubs, assuming they are allowed to remain open at all, will no doubt learn and adapt to cope with the situation better. But there is no getting away from the fact that table service is much more labour-intensive than bar service, and this is only covered up at present by the limits on customer numbers. If revenues have been slashed, pubs are in no position to pay for the extra staff they need.

It’s often said that bar work should be valued more highly, but the only way to reflect that value is to charge higher prices. In Continental countries where table service is the norm, bar prices for alcoholic drinks are often markedly higher than in this country despite the lower rates of alcohol duty that apply. It is a completely different model of operation that British pubs are ill-placed to adapt to in the middle of an existential crisis. As Glynn Davis says in this article:

I’d argue they are very much geared up to this in terms of service and also their customers are used to this method of operation. Also the economic model has been built around it. At my local pub, sales levels had rather healthily increased by 50% quickly after lock-down but I understand staff numbers had doubled in order to deal with the extra effort of table service. This suggests a lot more work for the same levels of profitability.
And, for drinks service, unless your venue is absolutely teeming with staff, it is going to require one or both of a modern equivalent of a service bell, or some other means of calling someone to your table.

Sunday 18 October 2020

Death of the swift pint

When the new restrictions on how pubs could operate were imposed in the middle of September, many people expressed the view that their combined effect would largely destroy the spontaneous pleasure of just popping into the pub.

This theme has been echoed in an excellent article in Retail Insider by Glynn Davis entitled Extra restrictions kill the swift pint option…

Many times over the past couple of weeks at the end of the day I’ve thought about popping out to the pub for a quick pint while I read the paper. But I’ve then changed my mind and instead cracked open a can of beer or poured a glass of wine at home. Once lock-down ended, I reckon I was more excited than the majority of people at the ability to again simply go for a drink in a convivial atmosphere that wasn’t my own garden or house. But what has transpired has not been particularly appealing because of the growing number of steps you have to go through before you get to the point of having a glass in your hand...

...But when you then throw in the 10pm curfew, the situation becomes dire for businesses and customers. After its introduction, like-for-like sales fell 21.2% compared with the week before it was brought in. With this, food fell 19.1% while drinks declined 23.2%, according to S4labour. I’m clearly not alone in finding the creep of extra restrictions limiting the appetite for socialising. According to a CGA Consumer Pulse Survey conducted on 22 September, two in five (40%) of people stated they would go out less often as a result of the measures. This compares with a much more modest 14% who intend to go out more often.

I had said the same a few days before that, while the pubs are mostly still open, the experience just isn’t the same. I’ve always found the fact that nobody questions what you’re doing in a pub, or really cares, to be a major attraction. And another Twitter commenter said much the same in response to Glynn Davis’ article. It’s not one single thing, but the cumulative effect of the several different measures put together. As Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s said, customers “find it too much of a faff.” Previously, it didn’t seem too onerous to give your name and phone number to a member of staff, or write them on a slip of paper, but expecting people to check in using the NHS app adds another layer of formality, and anyone unable to use it is marked out as a little odd. Plus, many people seem to have difficulty connecting with it, leading to queues developing on entry.

The queues are exacerbated by table service, which means that everybody has to be allocated to a table before taking a seat. And then there can be a long wait to actually get someone to serve you. A ten or fifteen minute wait makes that swift pint not so swift, and as for asking for a refill...

While many people have become inured to wearing masks, it still seems a ludicrous charade to be expected to put one on for a minute or two when entering a pub or going to the toilet, and this must represent a significant psychological deterrent. And, if you have a medical exemption, you will need to steel yourself for a potential confrontation with officious door staff, and run the risk of barracking from other customers when going to the toilet.

While I’m not personally too concerned about the 10 pm curfew, I know for many people a couple of sociable pints towards the end of the evening is their favoured regular routine.

The pubs themselves are not to blame for this, as it’s something that has been imposed on them from above, although it has to be said that some don’t exactly help themselves in their approach to implementing the regulations. If people have a compelling reason to go to the pub, then they may still be willing to jump through the hoops, although of course now across large swathes of the country you can’t even meet up with anyone outside your own household. But that swift pint on spec – forget it. Plus the arbitrary restrictions over and above the official regulations which I referred to in the post linked above make going to any pubs beyond your regular haunts a complete lottery as you have no idea what kind of welcome you will receive.

It’s all very well saying that people should support pubs, but if the experience has been turned from something pleasurable to a grim rigmarole it becomes increasingly hard to see the attraction. And most ordinary people go to pubs because they enjoy it, not out of a sense of duty.

I recognise that not everyone will see things in the same way, but it’s a common fallacy to believe that your own perceptions are representative of the whole, and from what I’ve seen on social media there are plenty of previously regular pubgoers whose reaction has been the same.

Friday 16 October 2020

Supping with a long spoon

Last Sunday I tweeted the following from one of my local Wetherspoon’s, which was met with a surprisingly vituperative response. The most frequent charge was “Why aren’t you in a proper pub?” But my explanation for that was pretty clear. I’m certainly not an unequivocal Spoons fanboy, and over the years I’ve often criticised their venues’ lack of atmosphere and deliberately unpubby layout. But it can’t be denied that they’re a very successful company who have seized opportunities that were available, but which others didn’t take. They attract people into pubs who otherwise probably wouldn’t be there at all, and Spoons often has a wider social mix of customers than anywhere else.

In many places such as smaller non-tourist towns or city suburbs, they can offer by far the best (or even the only halfway decent) selection of food and drink. In an urban area on a Sunday, there may well be nowhere else to eat in a pub apart from a family dining outlet, or a gastropub with its inevitable high prices and snobby atmosphere. The idea that there’s a whole stratum of independent places serving quality, locally-produced lunchtime pub food at reasonable prices is pie in the sky.

If I just wanted a drink, then I certainly wouldn’t be in Spoons. But there are only three proper pubs in my particular corner of Stockport, and all of those have piped music and TV football which, to their credit, Spoons don’t. We might benefit from a Sam’s pub, although there are a couple in the town centre and another just over the Manchester border.

The question was also asked “why are you using the app?” Now, I’m certainly no great fan of either apps or cashless payments, but I’m not a total technological Luddite. I’ve got it on my phone and often use it to order food in Spoons because it makes the process quicker and easier and means there’s no risk of someone else nicking my table while I’m up at the bar. Mandatory table service also seems to have made them grasp the nettle of getting their current guest ales reliably listed. Plus, from my experience of using table service and paying cash in another branch earlier in the week, it would take an age to actually place my order.

The issue with the cloudy pint exposes another drawback of app ordering – what do you do if you want to summon a member of staff but not actually order anything? Fortunately in this case the beer arrived before the food, so I was able to send it back when the food appeared, but if they had come at the same time I would have been waiting for an indefinite length of time to accost a passing server and had nothing to wash my meal down with. Perhaps I could have marched angrily up to the bar, but you’re not supposed to do that, are you?

Maybe they’re hoping that when this area gets moved into Tier 3 that a pint of soupy beer will qualify as a “substantial meal”.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Soaking up the virus

On Monday, the government set out a system of tiers of lockdown restrictions to standardise the various local rules in place across England. Licensees in Greater Manchester breathed a sigh of relief that pubs in the area were not to be closed, as had been widely feared. However, further down the Mersey, the “Liverpool City Region”, which includes Halton unitary authority as well as the former county of Merseyside, became the only area of the country to be placed into Tier 3, the highest tier.

Somewhat to many people’s surprise, this does not require the complete closure of pubs, but allows them to stay open and serve alcoholic drinks so long as every customer consumes a “substantial meal”. On the face of it, this seems to represent unfair and arbitrary discrimination against wet-led pubs, many of which have bent over backwards to comply with the ever-changing restrictions. It also reflects a long-standing official prejudice against drinking in pubs as such, and seems to assume that, without a filling meal, they all become scenes of riotous debauchery.

However, without justifying it for a minute, I think the decision was arrived at from the opposite direction. To close all restaurants, as applied throughout April, May and June, would effectively prevent anyone having a sit-down meal outside their own home and would represent a massive restriction on economic activity. However, if table-service restaurants are allowed to remain open, then it would be grossly inconsistent to require food-serving pubs to close, especially given that many are effectively restaurants in functional terms anyway. Yes, it is unfair to wet-led pubs, but to close all pubs while keeping restaurants open would be unfair to food-led pubs.

A rule such as this, though, clearly requires definition. It wouldn’t be seen as acceptable for a packet of scratchings to legitimise a lengthy drinking session. In Ireland it was defined as a food item costing a minimum of €9, which is £8 at the current exchange rate, although more like £6 at purchasing power parity. This, however, is a very arbitrary rule given the wide variations in food prices between different pubs. In some high-end gastropubs, it wouldn’t even buy you a starter, whereas the £3.95 meals spotted by Martin Taylor in the Colliers’ Arms at Cheslyn Hay in Staffordshire, shown below, look pretty substantial to me.

Ireland also had a maximum visit duration of 90 minutes to prevent a meal turning into a lengthy drinking session. Frankly I’ve been in restaurants in this country where you would struggle to get your meal ordered, eaten and paid for within that time-frame.

If you are not going to have an objective yardstick such as price, then you will need to resort to a more subjective definition. Government minister Robert Jenrick* tied himself up in knots by saying that a Cornish pasty on its own wasn’t a substantial meal, but put it on a plate and add chips or salad and it magically becomes one. Few would dispute that a burger and chips would qualify, and the health-conscious should surely be allowed to substitute a salad for the chips. If a burger, then surely also a steak ciabatta, which is in principle the same kind of thing. And a cheese or hummus one for the vegetarians. Before too long, you have a cheese toastie with a couple of lettuce leaves qualifying.

Some might dismiss this as nit-picking, as you know a substantial meal when you see one. In the majority of cases, this is true, but if any regulation is to be enforced by law then it requires a watertight definition. We will see how this evolves over the next few days. But I would imagine under these rules, however interpreted, that most food-led pubs, including Wetherspoon’s, will consider it worth their while remaining open.

(Wetherspoon’s do not yet appear to have updated their app for their Liverpool pubs to reflect any reductions in menu)

* When contesting the Newark by-election in 2014, Jenrick was nicknamed “Robert Generic” as he seemed to perfectly fit the stereotype of the identikit, principle-free, careerist politician. And he succeeded in rising without trace to become a member of the Cabinet in just five years.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Putting your wares on the table

The bar counter is a key element in a pub. It allows it to showcase the products that are available and highlight any new launches or lines being promoted. The customer can scan the rows of handpumps and taps, peer at the contents of fridges, cast their eye along the spirit bottles on the top shelf or even peruse the display cards of snacks. In many cases, product names and logos are created to make an impression in a bar service environment. Deprived of that shop window by the introduction of mandatory table service, pubs have to find other ways of selling their products.

The easiest option is to do nothing. Most customers tend to drink the same thing, or simply order a generic product, and they know what is on offer. The occasional question as to what lagers or white wines they have can be easily answered. Even if they can’t see the bar from where they are sitting, customers are likely to pass it on their way in, or to the toilet, and get a general impression of the range. The risk with this approach is that it will lead to a concentration on familiar, best-selling products, and anything more niche or marginal will be sidelined. It also makes it very difficult to introduce anything new.

The obvious solution is to produce a printed drinks menu, although for hygiene reasons this may need to be a disposable paper item. Yes, you can also put it on a website or app, but that won’t be available to everyone, and a sheet or paper is more visible and in-your-face. Wetherspoon’s have been doing this for years. This will force you to analyse your drinks range and possibly rationalise it – maybe you really don’t want to list that bottle of Sheep Dip whisky that’s been sitting around behind the bar for years. It could possibly make it more likely that people will choose some of the more obscure bottled beers or spirits that ordinarily they wouldn’t notice, and if pubs are so inclined they could even add tasting notes.

But what a fixed list will do is militate against having a rotating beer range, which supplies the bread-and-butter business for many small breweries. Many customers will scan the row of handpumps or keg taps for something unusual that takes their fancy. Of course a pub can produce an update of its drinks list each day, or print out an additional guest beers supplement, and in smaller bars and pubs a beer board may be visible to most customers without much difficulty. But there can be little doubt that, overall, the introduction of table service will lead to reduced opportunities for guest beers, especially in the more mainstream pubs where the pumpclip on the bar is what sells them.

Some people have said that the introduction of table service creates an opportunity to train bar staff to become more knowledgeable about the products on offer. However, at present, when pubs have their backs against the wall financially, this comes across as a pious aspiration. It also always seems to be very beer-centric – why shouldn’t they also know more about the range of wines or whiskies? It’s something that might be reasonable to expect in a specialist beer bar, but it’s not realistic to imagine that a server in a sports boozer will be able to explain the difference in flavour profile between Stella and San Miguel.

In Sweden, to buy any alcoholic drinks in the off-trade beyond weak beers, you need to visit a state-run Systembolaget store, where in the past you had to order your drinks from a printed list and have them brought to the counter from a store-room, Argos-style. Nothing was on display. Maybe having table service in pubs could be seen as a dress rehearsal for a future alcohol display ban in this country, in the same way as already applies to tobacco products.

As I’ve said before, there is nothing inherently unfeasible about table service in pubs, but it can’t be denied that it is much more labour-intensive than bar service, which is something that pubs will struggle to achieve in the current climate, and which in the longer term will inevitably push up costs and prices. Cooking Lager has some interesting things to say on the subject here.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Barriers to entry

The official NHS test and trace app was launched last Thursday, and has reportedly already been downloaded more than 10 million times. It is now mandatory for pubs and other hospitality venues to display the poster featuring the QR code and to accept usage of the app as a customer sign-in. However, a problem is that the app only works on relatively new smartphones, so anyone with an older phone will be unable to download or use it, let alone anyone without a smartphone, or who doesn’t use a mobile phone at all. The government guidelines make it clear that pubs should continue to operate a manual sign-in system for people unable to use the app.

In England, you do not have to request details from people who check in with the official NHS QR poster, and venues should not ask them to do both. Venues must not make the specific use of the NHS QR code a precondition of entry (as the individual has the right to choose to provide their contact details if they prefer). Should someone choose to check in with the official NHS QR poster, a venue should check their phone screen to ensure they have successfully checked in.
However, I’ve seen a number of reports of venues including pubs refusing entry if the app isn’t used. The phrase “MUST NOT” is an indicator of illegality in the Highway Code; I’m not sure that it quite is here, but it’s certainly strongly deprecating that behaviour.

I struggle to understand why any establishment should choose to do this, given that they’re excluding a substantial proportion of the population. I can only conclude it’s rather like refusing to accept cash, that it’s a sign of how modern and progressive they are, and that they don’t want the custom of the old, the poor, the thrifty and the nonconformist.

There have also been numerous reports of pubs and restaurants insisting on customers downloading an app to order, which raises exactly the same issues of social exclusion. A further problem that has been reported is a pub insisting that customers who sign in manually provide ID to back up their details.

I’ve also seen a report of a pub asking a customer with a medical mask exemption to specify the nature of their condition, which is unquestionably illegal. And surely it won’t be too long before a pub refuses entry point-blank to a mask-exempt person.

We are being exhorted to support pubs in these difficult times, but it has to be questioned whether some are really deserving of support. Obviously people will establish what the restrictions are in places they regularly use, and make their own decision as to whether they find them welcoming, but it makes visiting less familiar pubs a complete lottery.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Time is called

I’m conscious that this blog has turned into a running commentary on the government’s Covid policy, but given the way it has dominated the news agenda and the profound effect it has had on the pub trade it is impossible to avoid or downplay the subject. Back in July, there were hopes that things would start to slowly improve and return to normal but, especially following yesterday’s announcement of draconian new restrictions, we now seem to be descending ever deeper into a dystopian nightmare.

Some people in the industry have tried to put a brave face on the new measures, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that they will lead to severe damage. The 10 pm curfew is the time by which all customers must leave, not last orders, meaning that even a pub nominally closing at 11 will lose 90 minutes’ trade, one closing at midnight or later considerably more. Some have talked about it increasing speed drinking, but I suspect the reality is that many customers simply won’t bother coming out at all. People can’t simply come out earlier if they have other things to do first.

For many restaurants, it won’t be just a case of losing a hour’s trade, but of losing one of two sittings during the evening, and thus half their entire business. And one well-known Manchester pub has already announced that they don’t see that it will be worth trading at all while the curfew is in force. From a personal point of view, it will scarcely affect me, as I’m very rarely in pubs in the late evening, but I recognise that for many pubs, especially urban wet-led locals, that’s when they do a major part of their business.

Then there is the requirement for pub customers to wear masks at all times except when seated. I have already discussed this in depth in the context of Scotland, so I don’t propose to go over all of that again. But I have made the point before that what people may grudgingly put up with when doing something essential like grocery shopping may not be so welcome when taking part in what is supposed to be a relaxing leisure activity. This is certainly the experience of one pub landlady.

It is also the case that pubs are likely to be expected to enforce the mask rule, even though in practice it is impossible to do. In general, shops have not made any attempt to do this, taking the view that it is not their job to enforce. Under the 2010 Equalities Act, it is illegal to inquire as to the nature of someone’s disability or medical condition or to refuse them service on those grounds. As someone who works in the retail trade says “Where I work, we're told not to confront people who come into the shop without a mask. We have to assume they have a hidden disability, which we can't ask about either.”

But there will be a public expectation for pubs to do it, even though it is a legal minefield. “Look at that pub letting all those people in without masks”. And, to be honest, some people with no valid grounds for exemption will inevitably try it on. If someone states they are exempt, there is nothing a pub can do. This may well lead to an unwelcoming atmosphere for people who do have genuine exemptions, and the possibility of harassment from other customers.

It’s also going to be well-nigh impossible for pubs to make customers don masks to go to the toilet or outside for a smoke, especially once they’ve had a few drinks. But pubs will inevitably be blamed if they don’t. The whole thing is going to cause huge difficulties and put licensees in a very awkward situation.

A further problem is the restriction of all licensed premises to table service only. Yes, some have pointed out that this is general practice on the Continent, and that some bars are successfully doing it already, both of which are true. However, British pubs are simply not set up to operate this way, either in their layout or their working procedures, and it will take some time to adjust, retrain staff and devise new ways of operating. It seems to have been dreamed up by people who never visit pubs and have no idea how they actually function.

It is also by definition more labour-intensive, as multiple trips to the service point now have to be done by staff rather than customers. This is why, on the Continent, the gap between bar and off-trade prices is generally much higher than in this country, despite the lower rates of duty. Yet financially hard-pressed pubs will be in no position to take on additional staff, although in practice the sheer lack of customers may mean this isn’t a problem.

It will also raise the perennial issue of how to actually attract the attention of waiting staff if you want a refill. In the past, many pubs had waiter service on the lounge side, and push-button bells around the walls to summon a server, but these have largely disappeared now, and even where they still exist they are no longer functional. I have written several times before on here of the often lamentable standard of restaurant service in this country, and I wouldn’t hold out much hope of it being any better in pubs with limited numbers of poorly trained staff. If you’re in a location distant from the bar, or in a beer garden, you may have a long wait to attract anyone’s attention.

I wrote last week about how winter is coming for the pub trade, and following this announcement it sadly looks as though it may well turn out to be a nuclear winter.