The great British pub, once a busy hive of social activity, now but a lifeless shell of its former glory. What we know now as a pub is wildly different to original Roman taverns of where we began. Once the essence of our communities are now diminishing at rapid speed.
So what happened to the great British pub? Well, there are many things. I lived in a pub for twelve years. It was a family owned business, and while for the most part it was enjoyable it wasn’t without its faults. We owned this pub during a time when Britain hit a massive decline in the number of public houses. It was around about 2007 that things started to turn for the worst, which as we all know is when the smoking ban came into order. Among many other factors as to why the number of pubs out there today are at the lowest they’ve been in a long time. In fact it there are approximately 53,000 public houses in 2009 and this number has been declining every year so that now most of our smaller villages no longer have a pub. Which really when we think about it, it’s rather sad considering it’s such a huge attribute of British history and such a long lived tradition. Something that we in Britain could be proud of, part of our heritage. It was a place that people could socialise and relax, and still should be to this day. But, those numbers are going down rapidly.
There’s a few reasons why this is happening, first things first the smoking ban. Yes we all knew this was coming and was going to be a massive point in this post it’s hard to get avoid it though. The smoking ban was put in place in 2007 and it hit public houses in Britain hard. You’ve also got to remember that when this ban came in we suffered a very harsh winter. So naturally we were more inclined to stay indoors during this time. People didn’t want to cross their doors as it was. So once crossing the doors, getting to the pub, it was unlikely anyone wanted to stand in a freezing cold open smoking shelter. As I was saying before, my family owned the pub during this time and it hit us hard. We hadn’t seen figures that low in years. However, we can’t blame the smoking ban completely. And we must remember that it wasn’t all bad from a business point of view. As well as taking customers away it also brought people in. The restaurant went from the strength to strength with new customers who were more enticed by the pub now that it was smoke free. I know that we were not the only pub to experience this.
Going back to my original point though that we cannot solely blame the smoking ban to the decline, there are other factors, economical factors, that we must take into account such as the recession that we are still trying to work our way out of years later. People were out of work, people didn’t have the money to go out and spend it on alcohol. We must remember that taxes were going up, and wages were going down. Unemployment figures went through the roof. You couldn’t expect people to be coming in for a leisurely pint after work when they didn’t have a job to come in from. It was a massive, massive crisis that like I aforementioned we are not fully out of. Hence we are still declining. But wait, there’s more. Unemployment figures are not the only blow from the economical crisis that contributed to the decline.
One of the biggest factors that often people forget about is the sales in supermarkets for alcohol. It’s much cheaper to buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket than in a pub. It’s just common sense, you know this, I know this, I do it myself. I don’t go to pubs anymore, I’ve stopped, and it’s far too expensive. And this is not through fault of the business owners. It’s not the price of beer that cripples you, it’s the VAT. We used to dread VAT increases because we knew we’d get hell for it from customers. This unfortunately is out of our hands, there’s nothing we can do about it, which makes competition impossible. We must remember when your home is also your job everything matters. It makes you more determined, but it also strains you in unbelievable amounts.
My final point on why pubs are declining would be lifestyle choices. Traditions rarely stay traditional. The essence is there but we will more often than not change things, add thing, and take thing away to keep the tradition relevant. It’s an issue that pubs face a lot. Most pub owners have the standard forms of entertainment, these are:
- Live singer
- Pub Quiz
While yes most of us can enjoy this once in a while it’s not always what people was every weekend. Most local boozers aren’t the most innovative of businesses to be fair, and unfortunately this stumps their growth as a whole, and makes no way for progression and longevity.
So onto my crucial question, if we have all of this information available to us, and we understand that really pubs are failing rapidly, then why are people still buying them? I see in my local area alone that most of the pubs that I once knew growing up, places where I spent many a teenage year sneaking into, well they have shut down. They have the typical pub sign the one that announces a ‘Business Opportunity’ and to be honest from my point of view it should be stating ‘Bankruptcy Opportunity’ while yes it is a rather cynical view, it’s one that comes from 12 years worth of experience. I remain true to my statement that if I would have known then what I know now I would have never gone into such a business. But I digress, this is my opinion and my opinion alone, everyone is entailed to theirs. Back to my original question however, why are people buying pubs? Why are people in the pubs wanting to jump overboard, while those on the outside are trying to climb on board? Well the answer to this question isn’t one of complication. To be honest it’s a very simple answer that took being on the other side of the bar for twelve years to understand. It’s comes from misunderstanding and underestimations. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times a customer told me they could do my job and do it much better than myself. How many times I was told that I was living a life of sheer riley and that a pub life is a happy and easy life. Money for nothing is a phrase that I came to loathe, and it made me want to scream. Pub life is not easy, it’s stressful, it’s tiring, and it’s immense pressure. Would you tell a commission only salesman that his job is stress free? No you wouldn’t, and that my friends are what a pub is.
So moving on, my next question would be who exactly are buying pubs then? Well unfortunately it’s not many young people I can tell you that much. While yes I do understand that with age comes experience, and with experience comes success, this is utterly invalid if you are stuck in your ways and are unable to innovate your business. The truth is that you’re dealing with the public, and you’re dealing with a younger clientèle. Younger people tend to spend more, and also tend to bring more custom to the pub. Understand that your older customers are extremely important still, and pleasing them must be on your radar, but it’s the younger crowd that are going to pay your bills. In essence what I’m saying is that things change, times change, and you mustn’t be stuck in old ways. You have to keep adapting and changing the way you think about business, and the way that you operate your business. So my first tip for a successful pub would be to:
Stay current, watch your market, and do your research. It’s a business at the end of the day, treat it like one.
Okay the next problem would be in understanding your business. This thing is when you go into a pub a lot of the times there will already be an established clientèle. If you’re comfy with this then don’t change things. I know this completely contradicts my previous point, but honestly if you have a pub that have a reputation for being a bit scruffy. Somewhere that fully welcomes work boots and mud. Chances are that if you change the decoration then they will up and leave. We did this ourselves, and it didn’t pay off. So my second tip would be:
If you are going to revamp the pub, do it well. You must push the boat out to its fullest, and do your research before making any decisions. Remember that the clientèle that you desire may not reside in the same area as your pub. Research, research, research!
Point number three, location. If you’re going to take the plunge and buy a pub I would suggest that you invest your time in researching the local area. Find a location that is picturesque, or has a lot of footfall, or is around a lot of local businesses. Your location if hugely important to your success. Avoid a pub that have close rivals. The one I owned had approximately 5 – 10 surrounding pubs. This meant that competition was fierce to say the least. If you must buy a pub in an area with a lot of competition, use this to your advantage. Scope them out, and gather whatever you can from them. You will have to be on top of your market research game to pull that off. So tip number three is:
Chose your location wisely, it’s linked to your overall success.
Moving swiftly onwards, point four is a reality check. It’s about customers. When you own a pub it’s like living in a goldfish bowl. You’re watched contently, you’re judged constantly, and due to this you’re in work mode constantly. You don’t switch off, and it’s stressful far beyond what I could possibly describe with words. Going out shopping people do recognise you, they will look in your basket, and they will talk you about you. The pub I lived in didn’t have a separate entrance to the flat above it. So when bringing in my groceries I would have to walk through the customers. They felt an entitlement to stare into my bags, to pass comment on anything I’d bought, and one thing that our customers gained great pleasure from was the joy of announcing that they had bought your shopping. Oh yes, you didn’t earn that loaf of bread my friend, that customer on the bar stool gave it to you for doing nothing. You do nothing, and your job isn’t important. You must also remember that when you own a business people think you’re rich. More often than not, it’s the furthest thing from the truth. When people think you’re rich they will try to take advantage. So my tip number four would be:
You need to build up one hell of a thick skin. If you don’t toughen up, you will not cope. The saying in one ear and out of the other is very appropriate in pub life.
My final point will be the most crucial. It’s food, yes simple as that. The fact of the matter is that without a restaurant your pub is most likely not going to succeed. If you’ll excuse the poor pun, the money from your restaurant is your bread and butter. When all else fails this is what will keep you afloat. Remember that the price of alcohol is on a constant rise, people aren’t drinking as much, people aren’t visiting pubs as much. You need something that will entice the public. If it’s home-made, and it tastes good, they will come. Be creative and create a menu that will stand out. Make good use of the local produce. Offer a breakfast service. If there are any local businesses you can offer them a lunchtime delivery service. The possibilities are endless. So yes, my final tip would be:
Hire a chef, or don the whites yourself. A restaurant pub is a successful one.
So that’s it really. Take from this blog whatever you like. The British pub is part of our heritage, it’s our culture, and it’d be nice to keep it alive. If you are reading this and are looking to go into the public house industry I hope you found it insightful. It’d be a shame to come out of a twelve year business and not have learnt a thing. My experience of pub life wasn’t an overall happy one for many reasons. To be honest it’s mostly due to my personal circumstances. But despite the stress, forgetting the hard times, and pushing aside all of its other faults. My time in The Cow & Calf was one hell of an experience, and it’s one I’ll never forget.