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.