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.

20 comments:

  1. Kerridge seems to have a good grasp of the trade. He's a pubco lessee after all, but doesn't need beer sales to make money or pay the rent. As for the elephant in the room, if smoking inside business premises hadn't been banned then, it would have been by now, and it's never coming back anyway.

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  2. All in all it was an enjoyable programme to watch, much better than I was expecting. As mentioned before Kerridge seems to know what he's on about in general though I doubt the price hike strategy will work long term unless the pub has a substantial offering behind it.In the bigger picture the cure for the disease that is afflicting pubs is going to be hard to come by, and I'm not talking about Covid.

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  3. I am not sure that price of beer in pubs is so problematic now. A generation ago, a penny on a pint was potentially a call for open revolt by the regulars , but social attitudes have changed, the card tapping generations are hardly price driven. Consider the number of readers of this blog who happily spend their money in , say , The Petersgate tap in Stockport when they could enjoy good beer 50 yards away in the Wetherspoons at almost half the price. In Stoke Newington, where my son lives, the millenials pay £5 to £6 a pint in a gastro local 250 yards from a Wetherspoons selling good beer at less than £3. Most of them have never been in despite their middle class socialist pretensions they dont want to mix with the great unwashed.

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    1. Professor Pie-Tin15 November 2020 at 13:34

      Look at the plus side Jabez.
      You don't have to mix with these crafty gombeens either.
      And while you stroll home after a few cheap pints they have to get an Uber 200 yards to their front door to avoid being caught in crossfire from warring drug gangs.
      Timbo twigged this years ago.
      It's why he's filthy rich and they don't have a pot to piss in after paying 6 snots a pint.
      I'm all for the man-buns keeping themselves to themselves.

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    2. Excellent Prof. But going back to our host - I have never quite understood why, when you don't brew beer, you are entitled to tie pubs you own. That's a law I'd bring in. Own pubs and brew enough to supply them all? Tie away. Property company that owns pubs - no tie. This argument needs expansion of course, but that;'s the bare bones of it.

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    3. The bulk of what Robinson's and Hydes sell in their pubs isn't their own production. And if you banned the tie, pub owners would simply shift pubs to management or franchise-type agreements to get round it.

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    4. not all pub groups are like Enterprise or Punch though,some of the smaller concerns who manage maybe between 5-10 pubs max,really look after the pubs they own just as much as any freehouse owner does and build those relationships with local brewers often better than a freehouse who is just churning through what looks popular.

      Equally not all brewery owned ties are that nice either, but Im not expecting Tom to sit down with a brewery owner in meeting to air some of those publicans complaints in a later episode.

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    5. To be clear, I don't wish to abolish the ties, but to modify to avoid property companies screwing tenants etc.

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  4. The Prince Albert definitely had a USP, they just needed to reflect the cost of providing high quality live music better. Happy hours or cheaper pricing when the pub isn't hosting entertainment?

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  5. it was better than I expected, though it felt more part documentary more than pub nightmares, and I do wonder if Covid altered how they approached putting this together in the end.

    Tom is an affable presenter & guide, but I didnt feel he offered any earth shattering revelations, make use of the location & view youve got, pubs need customers who buy drinks, and youd have thought someone who had spent 20 years running a pub wouldnt need to be told maybe consider raising prices because high turnover low profit is not a sustainable business model. Landlord fwiw is a total outlier thesedays on cost & price, Timothy Taylor seem to be selling it as a premium premium cask, which seems really self defeating as the price you have to sell it, and £4.50 is about average, then flattens sales when everything else is £3.50,which means it takes longer to shift a cask, which means the quality of the beer inevitably decreases.

    And you know what in a full hour of an episode did they mention quality of the beer once ? you can take ambiance of the venue, and the view and the cost and they all mean nothing if the beer you are serving up tastes rubbish, was it just a given the beer was ok because there were a couple of CAMRA awards and cask marque stickers about. We dont know because Tom never quizzed any of the pub goers extensively about why they chose that pub to drink in above anything else, or checked out the context of other pubs they were competing against, or even why people werent going to those pubs, its not alway about needing car parks for Porsches

    Ill watch the remaining episodes as you want to see how it turns out, even though obviously the covid impact is still here, but Im not expecting the promoted chat with Punch to be enlightening at all.

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    1. Yes, not speaking to any of the customers was a significant omission. But we'll see what happens in the remaining episodes.

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  6. I'm not sure I ever saw him trying any beer, even once, so the massive issue of beer quality is likely to go unaddressed. Without sampling the product it's hard to understand it, and without understanding it it's hard to know where to go with it.


    (There can be exceptions. Martin Hayes founded the successful Craft Beer Co. chain, despite being a non-drinker himself, and it set phenomenal standards for beer quality in London. But, crucially, he surrounded himself with very knowledgeable and beer-savvy people from day one and took their counsel almost religiously.)

    The 'PubCo problem' is far from unique to this industry. Whenever a middleman creams off profits, without adding value it's damaging to everyone else in the chain. It's not even Economics, just basic maths!

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    1. He doesn't drink. As I say in the footnote, he used to be hugely overweight, and I suspect he might have had a problem with it.

      Martin Wood, who runs the Fool Hardy Brewery in Stockport, doesn't drink either.

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    2. I'm hugely overweight but I'll be fucked if I'm giving up beer. A lot of other stuff gets jettisoned from the diet first.

      But even without 'drinking' in any sort of serious sense, he could try a tiny sip, check the aroma and mouthfeel, get an idea if the condition is fantastic, acceptable or totally fucking awful. There were precisely zero gestures in this direction, as if the beer didn't really matter.

      And then he advises a low-turnover pub to stock cask...

      It doesn't have to be this way. There are brewery reps who check beer quality on a daily basis, consuming so little alcohol in the process that they are able to drive between pubs.

      But being an evangelical 'non/ex-drinker' who proclaims the fact loudly and proudly should, surely, in any sort of remotely sane world, render him very poorly qualified to front this programme. You're not going to 'save the pub' by changing the definition of what a pub is into something where alcoholic drinks don't really matter, and for all the shitetalk about 'atmosphere' it's surely undeniable that the atmosphere in pubs is largely fuelled by drinking and the way that human beings interact with one another when they've had a drink or two.

      I've never had anything particularly against Tom Kerridge until now, but this series is rapidly putting me off him.

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie17 November 2020 at 10:19

      BV,
      Giving up beer to lose weight is as daft as everything else from 'the Health Lobby'.
      With lockdowns I've not drunk a pint a month since mid March but remain at precisely 12 stone, and I think the Stopfordian Mudgie can confirm that before March I would manage a pint or two a day.

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  7. Judging by some of comments on Trip Advisor about the grossly overpriced poor quality meals served up at his pub in Marlow, Kerridge would be well advised to concentrate on bringing that up to standard before telling everybody else how to improve their businesses.

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    1. From his website:
      " I don’t go in for that temple of gastronomy thing "
      From his menu:
      £67.50 for steak and chips.
      I hope the greedy fucker goes under.

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  8. Episode 2 was a bit of a disappointment, failing to get anything from the pub co guy.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie21 November 2020 at 16:16

      Citra,
      Yes, Chef Tom didn't give the Punch CEO the grilling he deserved.

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    2. The grilling lacked punch!

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