It’s closing time for British pubs

Daniel ‘Rant’ Leroy is a pseudo-veteran of the Australian hospitality scene, having strutted about as a licensee, general manager and operator at some impressive Sydney venues. These days he consults privately to operators in Europe, maintaining his persona of a mouthy, cigar-smoking wanker – now residing in France.

Itʼs 5 oʼclock somewhere. And that means somebody on this green earth is about to walk into their local pub for a pint, maybe two, and quite possibly a rack oʼ ribs or a pork pie.

Elsewhere in the same timezone, someone might be noticing their local lose custom. Their sanctuary from the grind becoming uncomfortably tranquil and the owners of said pub more frequently behind the bar as they can no longer afford the staff they once had.

This is happening notoriously throughout two traditional pub ‘populationsʼ, Great Britain and Australia. In Great Britain alone, depending on who you talk to, there are up to 25 pubs closing every week.

Why, you ask? Well, I decided to search for the answers myself earlier last year by coming to Europe, renting a tourer and spending the better part of six months on the road ʻresearchingʻ what makes a great pub, what makes a great business operator – and what makes a mistake. The answer isnʼt as complicated as you might think, and came from operators, general managers, licensees, owners and punters, and over a fair number of hand-pulls and chicken schnitzels.

If you’re looking at closures, you can take the closure figures alone, or you can also take into account the number of new venues that are tapping into more exciting and consumer-friendly ideas. I choose to adopt the latter viewpoint, as sadly I have found an exorbitant amount of evidence pointing to pub operators’ attitude that ʻif it worked once, itʼll always workʻ. And that is unfortunately not the case for any hospitality business model today.

People offer excuses as to why pubs are closing every week – mostly based around planning laws, property developers, and the demolition of English pub culture. But the bald truth is the majority of these pubs are just shit. They are simply just shit.

The lighting is terrible, or terribly bright. There is no music, the furniture is in horrible condition, there is no warmth, and there is definitely no vibe that is created by having those things right.

As the consumer world changes and becomes more attuned to our likes, we become more discerning towards where we will spend our money. So why in all seriousness should we spend £30 in a room that makes us feel neither welcome nor comfortable.

Current statistics from PwC says that pubs in the UK are enjoying a revenue increase on 2013, up 2.8 per cent to £22.15bn. But with so many pubs closing, are the now fewer pubs increasing their pint prices exponentially, or are they simply just taking revenue away from a venue that isnʼt doing it right?

I visited two pubs in Exeter with a couple of new local friends. One venue had all the trimmings – pool table, jukebox, a range of beers, and an amazing outlook over the River Exe. The other was up a hill, much older, hidden away and had only one guy behind the bar.

Guess which operator was having a hard time pulling in customers? My guess is you guessed incorrectly, it was the pub by the water!

This operator did nothing but complain that his business was being ruined by new smoking laws, which meant his 250 patrons now couldnʼt smoke indoors anymore, and that was the clincher.

“Yeah, that must be it,” I thought… not the fact that your business is in an incredibly prime position near a University, yet has nothing to offer a Uni student. The juke box was full of terribly outdated music and if nobody threw in a pound the house music would be set to the deafening level of zero, and the toilets looked worse than a festival at full whack.

Then we visited the smaller pub. An amazing welcome as you come in, temperature is warm, good array of not only beers but whiskeys, rums, ciders, wines and cigars – which you can smoke outside under the cover of a shade cloth and heater. Take into account the tealight candles, the cosy cushions and even a cat available to snuggle, and you have a winner! Yeah, itʼs the smokers you need to worry about.

Now, not all owner operators can afford fancy renovations, nor even a cat, but what they can afford is to spend time with their local customers and really appeal to what it is the customer wants. And if they are appealing to a customer that wants to sit at the bar in total silence drinking their bevvie and not engage in any kind of social interaction, then maybe itʼs time to upset those customers and change to what works. Lonely old demi-alcoholic getaways and pork scratchings just donʼt work anymore.

Up north in the handpull capital of the UK, Yorkshire, there is a small pub in a little village called Pudsey and I will never forget it. I would usually never call out the name of a pub, but itʼs the Fleece Inn, and it is the perfect example of how to run a neighbourhood pub; the type of pub whose closing would harm the surrounding community.

I met the operator Paul and his wife, and it doesnʼt matter what night you go in, he has always got a full house. The locals are three-times-a-week regulars and all know each other, and all welcome you. The music is always spot-on, and the furniture is so clean you donʼt want to mess it up.

He is an amazing operator, but learning his story made it even more impressive. Every pub he has operated has turned around, and his regulars follow him. How? He listens to every single customer, includes them as part of the community that their hard earned pounds support, and garners respect through a no-bullshit, positive attitude. Paul knows that his customers pay the bills, and doesnʼt act like he has the right to do what he pleases. This kind of community pub has what the French call ʻje ne sais quoi’.

Andy Maddocks, Ops Director for Mothership Group described this perfectly: “It’s about doing something that many local pubs have done for years and still do: engaging with the community.

“Putting on events that interest them is a really good way of keeping your place busy. The days when you could sit back and make your booze as cheap as possible are over. People need a reason to go somewhere. What reason can you give them to spend time in your bar or establishment?”

Without getting too much into the other factors contributing to the number of pubs closing down, I urge operators – or even people thinking of retiring by buying a pub or restaurant: Do Your Research!

Too often people think that because they know good beer, they can install 10 taps. Because they can cook a juicy salmon steak and wasabi jus, they can open a restaurant. Or because they can talk the ear off their mother-in-law, they can talk to discerning patrons.

Well, Iʼm telling you that out of the 100 people who decide “Yes I can”, there are 80 now saying “shit, where did I go wrong?” And what do they decide? It was the smokers.

Daniel Leroy


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