The Daft Operator Theory of Pub Failures

25. September 2014 14:56

I seem to have come to a strange sort of equilibrium in that when I pass a pub I used to know but haven't seen for a long while, I exclaim "ooh look, the such-and-such has closed down" or "ooh look, the such-and-such is still a pub" with a precisely equal measure of surprise. 

It must be because it's become very difficult to make a call on whether a pub might survive based on location and physical characteristics. In cities, whether a pub is on a prominent street corner or on a quiet back street seems to make little difference to its chances. More than ever it comes down to the operator.

The effect is, perhaps, less marked in rural areas. Some pubs are so chocolate box and in such a spectacular spot that customers will always be drawn there. However, I'm a little wary of those places as they often engender complacency and poor value for money. Assuming people are going to visit whatever is a dangerous strategy.

There are pubs, too, with all the physical attributes to make them a success but some daft decisions have been made.

I recently got off a train at a country railway station in the late afternoon rather early for my appointment, and saw a pub across the road where I might kill half an hour and half a pint. The trouble was, it looked closed, and as I got nearer I began to suspect it had shut for good.

Except there was an A-board outside advertising food. Oddly (for southern counties at any rate) it emphasised the size of the portions rather than the quality of the dishes.

I peered through the window into a gloomy, empty room. I couldn't even see a bar. Intrigued, I walked round the side and spotted a door slightly ajar. I pushed it and went inside. Another empty room led through to an area where there was a bar, complete with drinks and even a few customers.

I ordered my half and started to explore a business with, I thought, considerable potential. Through the French windows there was a nice terrace and, beyond, marvellous views of the South Downs.

Only one problem: a whacking great smoking shelter had been put up smack in the way. If you'd come for the view all you'd see is a wall slightly camouflaged with foliage. I know some pubs panicked when the smoking ban came in but trampling over your best asset seems foolish.

Hopefully this pub's owners, whoever they are, are already planning to get rid of the obstruction, be a bit more positive about the food offer and do something to make sure people know it's still trading. Otherwise it'll be case of "ooh look, the such-and-such has closed down".

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A Time to Celebrate Great Pubs

16. September 2014 16:14

I suppose I get a slightly distorted view of the pub trade from where I'm sitting. Most of the time I'm meeting and writing about the success stories, in an effort to share best practice and inspire others by what can be achieved, doing my little bit to nudge things in the right direction, if you like.

I know, too, that for many publicans it's a struggle. For most of last week I was back in my old manor in East London, gasping at how many of the pubs I had once drank in had closed down. Though, of course, there are successes there too, and some great places to go to that weren't there before.

On Thursday, in my honoured role as chair of judges, I went along to the Great British Pub Awards bash at the Park Lane Hilton. It was an uplifting affair, even for an old cynic like me, and the standing ovation for the overall Pub of the Year was ever so slightly moving.

The winner was the Grafton in Kentish Town – and it's an Enterprise Inns leasehold. 

For a lot of people in the trade, Enterprise, the largest of the tenanted pubcos, is the Great Satan, systematically squeezing the life out of pubs with high rents and expensive beer. The licensees of the Grafton themselves freely admit that they've had bad experiences with Enterprise in the past. 

The problem with the pubco business model was that the scramble for market share left companies like Enterprise with huge debts and overblown estates. Tenants were, indeed, squeezed, and the pubs under-invested. The sheer scale of the operation, too, made it hard for tenants to develop the kind of business relationship with the landlord that could ensure the promised support.

Even when this situation was at its worst, there were successes, and we're lucky that the Grafton's Joel Czopor and Susie Clarke survived, learned and came back for more. They're now talking about taking on another Enterprise house.

One of the things they said after receiving the award was particularly revealing – don't be afraid of the pubco. You need to be open and explicit about what you need, not simply accept what you're given and then moan about it. 

Tenants must start out believing they're equal partners and reflect that in their approach to negotiating a deal that will make their business work and then sustain that relationship.

Unfortunately, they have less control over the individual they're dealing with, the area manager as they used to be called, and Joel and Susie seem to have been lucky enough to get a good one, open to ideas and strong enough to stand up to the bosses above them who demand too much.

We still have a long way to go in creating the kind of pub industry that can give good pubs and good publicans the best possible chance to thrive. But until then we can, and must, celebrate the successes.

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Regulation and the Pub Industry

9. September 2014 10:34

It should come as no surprise that the drinks industry questions each new regulation imposed on the sale of alcohol. That is its job. As much as anything, it's a way of ensuring regulation is effective, that the rules are workable in the concrete and complex circumstances that regulators, perhaps understandably, don't always have a firm grasp on.

Too often, though, this can come across badly. Take the new mandatory licensing conditions that come into force on October 1. Home Office guidance issued this week on how they might be applied were met with concern and suspicion.

We've known for a long time that pubs are going to have to make small measures available. In practice this mostly means the reintroduction of 125ml glasses for wine where these were withdrawn - it always used to be the standard measure.

There is a cost attached to this, of course, but it could be worse, and you could argue it's simply a matter of good service - giving the customer what they want.

The surprise has been that the Home Office wants pubs and bars to make people aware that the smaller measures are available. But I can't really see that this is a problem since it can be done by simply updating your price list, which has been mandatory to display since I can't remember when. 

Staff are also required to tell customers the measures as they order. Again, this is surely no more than the good service pubs should be practising anyway. Certainly, most operators already do it.

Another part of the guidance that's caused consternation is that one factor that might be used in judging whether a drinks promotion is permissible is whether it increases the number of customers in the pub. That does seem odd because that's exactly what promotions are intended to do.

But it's clear from the context that this factor is to be used as part of a broader assessment of whether a promotion will breach one of the four licensing objectives. If it attracts so many people to a venue that it causes a 'public nuisance', for instance. And even then, if the licensee has anticipated the problems of success and deals with them adequately, there should be no worry.

The trade has surely got enough things to bother about without finding more. And from the outside it starts to look like the drinks industry is going to object to every sensible regulation that comes along. 

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Ban e-cigs from pubs? WHO says?

28. August 2014 16:05

After much deliberation, the World Health Organisation has pronounced on electronic cigarettes. And it's not good. Not for pubs, where a ban, as for smoking, is recommended, and not for smokers either.

Ecigs should be regulated like any other product to ensure quality, but the WHO is taking a huge public health risk by seeking heavy restrictions on their use. A risk because it might deter tobacco smokers from switching to an alternative that, by the most conservative estimates, is 10 times safer. The WHO's case rests largely on the notion that nicotine is a dangerous drug, yet we have known for a long time that it's the other ingredients in tobacco that kills people. That's why doctors prescribe nicotine patches and gums for smokers who want to quit.

Those official nicotine replacement therapies don't work for most, though. There's something missing. This fact itself suggests that, as some scientists believe, it's not the nicotine alone that's addictive but the whole set of behaviours associated with smoking.

Vaping (so-called because ecig users inhale a vapour) better replicates the experience, which is why so many smokers have turned to ecigs, an estimated two million of them in the UK. A lot of them have found they've been able to give up tobacco altogether and there's anecdotal evidence that a few have realised they don't need the nicotine, either.

Instead of maximising this opportunity, all the WHO seems worried about is that non-smokers will get hooked – despite the fact that 99.9% of vapers are smokers or ex-smokers - and that non-vapers in the pub might somehow fall foul of the minute traces of nicotine in the second-hand vapour. Ironically, or stupidly, they believe vapers should therefore be banished outside to stand with the smokers, putting temptation in their way and stigmatising vaping at the same time.

Fortunately, the government (and I don't use that phrase too often) says it has no intention of banning vaping in enclosed public spaces – though the Welsh Assembly thinks otherwise. The fight is certainly on to make sure an extremely effective, life-saving harm reduction tool remains accessible to adult smokers.

And should a ban come in, the authorities might find it a lot harder to enforce than the smoking ban. The latter gained such a high degree of compliance because, in general, people accept tobacco smoke is a killer. They could see the sense in it.

But so far no one has died from vaping. We haven't heard so much as a cough. So how are they going to sell that one?

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Beer, Pubs and the Children of Cruickshank

30. July 2014 13:10

Musing over an unseasonable pint of (shell-on) oyster stout at the Bull in Highgate last night my mind wandered back to the 1980s and a formidable woman called Sally Cruickshank. My reverie was prompted by a chat with the Bull's owner, Dan Fox, who you could construe as a child of Cruickshank, even though I'm not sure he ever met her.

The story begins in 1981 when she took charge of a dodgy pub in Parson's Green called the White Horse. Probably, the idea was that Cruickshank, with her cheffy background, could turn it into some forerunner of the gastropub, and she certainly did introduce high quality food. But she did something else, too. She did beer.

When I first visited the White Horse, or Sloaney Pony as it became known thanks to a following among the Chelsea smart set, I was astonished to find that it was a Bass managed house. In those days brewers would not think of selling anyone else's beer through their own pubs, yet here was a representative range of cask ales from regional brewers around the country.

What if Bass found out one of their managers was buying out of the tie? But of course, they knew. Cruickshank was an exception to the rule. I heard that new area managers would turn up at the White Horse and wonder what on earth was going on. She would simply point at the astonishing sales figures and dare them to defy her judgement. And she was, as I say, formidable.

One of the early regulars was a City economist called Mark Dorber, a beer enthusiast who found himself helping out in the cellar. Over time he took a growing role at Cruickshank's side, and when she retired in 1995 he took over as manager, developing the beer and the business even further.

And when he took a lease on Adnams' Anchor at Walberswick in Suffolk in 2004 it was Dan Fox who stepped in as manager.

The Bull has the mark of the White Horse - serious about beer, serious about food and with a creative, bold, fun edge to it. It has its own tiny brewery in the kitchen and Pete Brown, the beer writer, is currently booked to host a beer and music matching evening. The mind boggles.

And there are, thank goodness, quite a few pubs springing up like this that are moving the industry into exciting new territory – and taking customers with them.

They rely on entrepreneurial individuals who, like Sally Cruickshank, make a stand for what they believe in. I'd like to think that, metaphorically at least, they are all her children.

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Serious Drinking, Silly Drinking

21. July 2014 17:04

Seriously now, what to make of that Portman Group ruling that found almost the entire portfolio of Direct Beers in breach of its code of practice?

I'm not going to fall into the trap of repeating the complete list, which you've probably already seen, and it'll only start people giggling at the back of the class. Suffice to say all 10 beers play on childish, scatological, bawdy humour, and are extremely silly.

My first response was a 'hurrah'. I'm a serious drinker, you see, and I really do like beer with all its complex flavours and powers of refreshment. Whatever the quality of the brews in these bottles, that's not the reason people buy them.

In fact, it seems that mostly they're bought as a joke. Many might not even get drunk. What a waste. For similar reasons I'm also a big fan of Jeff Pickthall's Pumpclip Parade, which sets out to expose calumnies of cask ale branding. This is doing the brewing industry, and beer drinking, a great service.

But now I'm feeling a bit sorry for Direct Beers, a small, independent business that found a market niche and must have been doing all right, considering it's been going seven years. Mainly, it sells on the internet and direct from stalls at events. It's very marginal to the drinks industry and is probably better thought of as being in the rude novelty sector. It seems unlikely that it's actually done anyone any harm.

In fact, no one much seems to have noticed before Newcastle City Council's public health team decided to complain to The Portman Group.

Once this process was under way, there was never any doubt that these brands were in trouble. And if Direct Beers withdraws them from the market it will be no great loss - except to Direct Beers. But it raises questions about the code, and our understanding of drink culture. The Portman Group's Henry Ashworth said: “There is a place for humour in alcohol marketing... but it is important to know where to draw the line.”

Yet it could be that crossing the line, transgression, is the whole point. Will Haydock invokes the notion of 'carnivalesque' to defend the Direct Beers range in his latest blog*, hinting that we're not  protecting children here, we're taking away the pleasures of adults behaving like children, indulging in a momentary liberation from their grown-up responsibilities.

But perhaps that's taking it all too seriously.

http://thinking-to-some-purpose.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/kidults-and-old-school-beer.html

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Health and the drinking guidelines - Getting to the heart of the issue

14. July 2014 13:42

So, just one drink a day is bad for your heart, according to the latest research. Is this true? I have no idea. It seems strange that, in order to be sure their cohort were accurately reporting their drinking, the team at London's School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine selected only people genetically disposed to limit their drinking to moderate levels. I've never heard of that gene before, and it seems wise to ask whether the condition might have any confounding effects on, say, the heart.

Another question might be, is it really relevant?

For a couple of years now, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has been reviewing the recommended drinking guidelines, and the researchers hope their findings will help clarify things for her. It seems unlikely. Studies into the possible protective effects of alcohol are constantly flying about, in all different directions. It's hard to come to any firm conclusions.

Take my grandfather. He drank nothing apart from a dram of whisky every night which he believed was good for the heart. He lived till he was 72 (back in 1972) and died of a heart condition. What does it mean? Impossible to say.

Of course, the larger number of people you study, the stronger the epidemiology. But there are so many confounding factors I can't see how we can ever be sure one way or the other about the impact of very small quantities of alcohol. That's why I think the drinks industry is foolish to go on about the health benefits. It's not an argument it's going to win. At least not in terms of hard science.

As for the guidelines, it's well known that the ones we have now resulted from a consensus within the medical profession, and are not based on firm evidence. That consensus was informed, as much as anything, by a political pragmatism about what kind of limits will be acceptable to public opinion, and what limits might actually work to get people to actively reflect on how much they're drinking.

If you set the limit too low (and half a unit a day has been suggested) they're simply going to reject it, and you've lost them.

The benefits of moderate drinking exist not in whether it prevents this or that disease but rather lies in a general well-being and in the sociability of a pint or two. That's something most people are not going to sacrifice on the off-chance it might be doing them harm. After all, they've got a life to live.

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No future for pubs in England's dreaming

26. June 2014 12:31

As a sorry England team sloped home under cover of another Luis Suarez regression to a nursery school tantrum, pubs were counting the cost. Or, rather, counting the sales that might have been. A firm called Real Business Rescue attached a number to it, a 13 million pints a day gap between England being in and being out of the tournament.

Exactly what difference this makes, though, depends on what your expectations were. So here comes the bit where I talk inexpertly about football.

Real Business Rescue calculates a total £1.2bn cost to the UK economy based on England reaching the quarter finals, “widely accepted as being par for Roy Hodgson's men”. But it wasn't widely accepted until quite late in the day.

For most of the run-up to the tournament expectations were low. Lower than anyone could remember for an England team. This was reflected by noticeably fewer flags in the streets and on cars. People were saying that was good, because it takes the pressure off.

The draw was inauspicious. With Italy and Uruguay in the group, England were up against it from the start. The team was 'in transition', a phrase that indicates a mixture of players that were either too old or too young to excel at international level.

There are always surprises, of course. Hodgson's selection gave hope that youthful pace through the midfield could produce a shock. As the kick-off grew close that hope built into expectations that were, perhaps, unrealistic. And when the surprise actually came from table-topping Costa Rica, finishing bottom was a just conclusion to Group D. Even if, within their limitations, England did play promisingly well.

Any pub budgeting on the probability of them reaching the quarter finals would have been foolish. Hopefully, like a good striker, they simply made the most of the opportunities they had, and specialist sports venues would have used the matches – and not just the England ones – to build their reputation as a great place to watch the game all year round.

Those that rolled a big screen and stuck up some bunting for a couple of weeks in fear of losing customers can now, at least, go back to putting their more serious efforts into building a sound business on more solid foundations.

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Proxy Purchasing – a parent's dilemma

19. June 2014 15:37

Great progress has been made in stopping under-age drinkers buying alcohol. It's now virtually impossible in pubs, and a new report on the Challenge 25 schemes operated by most supermarkets and off-licences shows just how effective it's been.

As someone who believes it's better to drink down the pub, I think we should still give credit where it's due. The 'evil' off-trade has invested a huge amount in making sure staff are trained to avoid making under-age sales, and those staff who come in for stick from customers for obeying the law deserve support.

Progress has come at a price, though. The same report notes an increase in proxy sales – where adults buy drink for under-age young people.

The first thing to say is that this is not about unsavoury characters hanging about outside corner shops soliciting school kids. Most proxy purchases are made by parents.

Another new piece of research, by Drinkaware, reveals that 23% of mums and dads are planning to buy booze for their children to help them celebrate the end of exams this summer. In fact, most parents admit to having given their offspring alcohol at some point. And a whopping 86% have given them a drink when they've asked for it.

I don't think this is quite as shocking as it sounds. It's not easy being a parent of a teenager. You might well conclude that it's a lot safer for them if you're supplying the booze rather than them going off and getting it from goodness knows where else.

A friend of mine, for instance, reluctantly gave in to his 16-year-old's pleas for cider for a party, but was careful to choose drinks with a low abv. It's called a harm reduction strategy, and it might well be the best thing to do in a situation where there are no perfect solutions.

A parent's decision is also influenced by the fact that it's perfectly legal for them to buy a drink for their 16 or 17-year-old when they're having a family meal in a pub or restaurant.

Yet some supermarkets are now instructing staff not to sell alcohol to parents when they're accompanied by children, just in case it's a proxy purchase. There was even a story going round about Waitrose refusing to let a woman have a bottle of wine because she had her daughter with her – and the daughter was 22!

To be absolutely sure, they could extend the ban to any adult who looks like they might have kids or grandchildren. But that, of course, would be prohibition.

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First they came for the drunks...

12. June 2014 16:28

Drink is a deeply political matter, and has been for several centuries. Our attitudes to drinking are shaped, and warped, by other concerns, by motivations other than those directly concerned with alcohol.

Whatever you think of the NHS, and the reforms the current government is pushing through (not to mention the government before it), there can be no doubt that it's having an impact on alcohol policy.

Shockingly, a think tank has now come up with the suggestion that people who end up in A&E as a result of their drinking should be made to pay for their treatment.

Julia Manning, who is chief executive of 2020 Health, says that “too many people are using alcohol irresponsibly, thinking that A&E can mop them up”.

I have to admit an interest here, having been 'mopped up' by A&E after falling out of a bus some years ago (don't ask). I certainly felt foolish - and extremely grateful to the NHS. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds Manning's proposal quite frightening.

It clearly fits nicely with a politics that ultimately sees patients as 'customers', and an inconvenient drain on NHS resources, rather than looking at it the other way round and asking how a health service might best help people through the various injuries and sicknesses that a life with anything interesting in it invariably brings.

People are blamed for falling ill and falling over, and drinkers are, of course, an easy target. They could, after all, drink less and save a lot of money and trouble. But where do you draw the line? To borrow an example from Professor David Nutt, how about horse riders? Should they be made to pay for being put back together after an accident? It was their choice to get in the saddle. Unless they're a professional cowboy or something.

The fact is there is a moralism at work here. We're allowed to enjoy ourselves in some ways, but not in others.

And drink is being used as the thin edge of a fat wedge that could eventually get us used to paying for health treatment. If you get sick, you must have been doing something wrong. So it's not just about drink, it's about a whole attitude to the welfare state.

First they came for the drunks, then they came for the horse riders.

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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to www.philmellows.com
You can also follow Phil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/philmellows

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