I’m a simple soul with simple needs. I moved to Brighton for the pubs, and two years ago I moved to a particular part of the city for more pubs. Now within five minutes’ walk of where I live, there are at least a dozen pubs.
So I am blessed. But in recent months the local pub scene has been thrown into repeated crises; good tenants have given up - two of them consecutively at one pub. So far no pub has actually closed, but one, at least, is in grave danger. The community lives in a state of high anxiety wondering where their next pint is coming from.
In one street alone, four out of the five pubs have changed hands and the fifth has changed landlord while keeping the same tenant. It’s this pub that I want to write about because it tells a positive story with clear lessons.
When I first came to Brighton the pub was famous and always buzzing, but over the years it has slowly declined. By the time it became one of my locals, I would guess that half the week’s trade was done on a Sunday. On other days a maximum of four of five customers were rattling around in there. It was a pub that was hanging on by the parsnip fingers of its roasts.
What had gone wrong? The pub was very run down. Little had been spent on the fabric of the building. Outside the paint was peeling, the window frames rotting, and inside contained a tired old design that was falling apart rather than maturing into something agreeably lived-in. If any pub needed a refurb, it was this one. But the owner, Punch Taverns, and the tenant could not come to a deal on it. Then, at the end of last year, Punch walked away, selling the freehold to a private landlord, thus the stalemate was broken.
The pub closed for several weeks for a refurbishment and reopened two weeks ago. To say it was like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly would be hard on the caterpillar. And, without any kind of a launch party, it was suddenly packed with people - and that has gone on. I’m convinced it’s not just the novelty; a business has been transformed, overnight, from a failure to a triumph.
The success of a pub is, of course, never down to purely physical factors. You can spend a massive amount on a beautiful refurbishment but if you get the offer and the staff wrong the money will be wasted. Plus, you also have to get the financial model right.
Yet I do feel that underinvestment has been a major, if less well-publicised, factor in the current wave of pub closures. One tenant who handed back the keys of a pub down the road last year said people just weren’t going out locally any more. This latest reopening shows that, if you give them a good enough pub, those people will start coming back.