Thursday, 28 January 2010

Pub Closures – A Thought

This post by Woolpack Dave has got me thinking about pub closures.

We regularly see the scary statistic "52 pubs closing every week". Or 36, or 19. Whatever the number is, it signifies some sort of change or upheaval in Britain's socialising habits. Costs for pubs have increased and notably the historical core of the pub business  – blokes drinking lots of pints – looks fragile.

Ten years ago my brother and I were in the midst of a two year search for premises for our own beer evangelism business (please overlook the ghastly photograph, it was a much nicer place than the image might suggest). Steve and I love pubs. What we really wanted was a pub but it quickly became apparent that to do what we wanted – to sell what might termed the esoterica of the beer world – our chance of finding a pub in which to do it was zero.

The essential requirement was that whatever premises we took on it would have to be free-of-tie. To buy the freehold of a pub was way out of our budget. Free-of-tie pub tenancies and leases in London are conspicuous by their almost complete absence. So we had no choice we had to look for premises other than pubs. That's why we ended up adapting a former furniture shop.

But what had we created? People socialised, drank beer and ate food in convivial environment. A pub, in all but name. But no, the appropriate description was "a bar".

Had we been doing this now, would our business count as a pub opening? Are pub closure statistics limited to the bricks and mortar bearing the name "pub"? Are the statistics neglecting new business that are pubs in all but name? I suspect there are many others who have experienced the problem we had.

But why does that problem exist?

Obvious really. The structure of the pub industry. Pub companies owning thousands of pubs. Sure you can get your hands on a pub: but it will have to be tied. Wave goodbye to your local market knowledge, your specialist skills, your ability to innovate. Or go for a bar or cafe.

I feel sad when I see boarded-up pubs; I feel happy when enterprising people are opening bars and cafes. There's no short of people willing to invest in and run food/drink/conviviality businesses only pubs are off-limits because of the structure of the pub industry and its weapon of mass-destruction, the tie system.

If the stranglehold on the pub trade was loosened would the picture be rosier? Would the likes of Microbar, North Bar, the Rake and countless others, beer-focused or not, be thriving pubs? I think so.


StringersBeer said...

Excellent. And what about those other kinds of non-pub boozers - licenced venues / "art & media centres" we've got a few of these 'round here.

Richard said...

Good point. I don't think replacing traditional pubs with licensed venues is any kind of replacement in most people's eyes, though. There are a million things you like about a pub apart from its license... the architecture, the character, the history... none of which you usually get in new builds.

Curmudgeon said...

If you look on Fleurets website you will find very large numbers of pubs across the country for sale free of tie. The idea that you can only get into the pub trade by taking on a tied pub is a thing of the past.

StringersBeer said...

Yes Mr Curmudgeon, but that's the Fleurets website. Not the world. For instance, in "London" Fleurets list 69 (and "London" for these purposes goes as far as Northhampton!) with various tenures and tie arrangements. In the "North-west" they list 148, 132 of those are freehold/long lease (free of tie, you'd suppose) of the other 16 (regular leases) it appears that 5 are free of tie. I suspect that most of the "opportunities" aren't handled by Fleurets.

These aren't "very large numbers" relative to the size of the pub industry, are they? Mr Pickthall's observation seems fair to me.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Thanks Jon, I was just going to say something like that.

Jeff Rosenmeier said...

Jeff, you've hit the nail on the head. The Tie is the root of the problem. Not the neos, not the supermarkets, not the economy, not stupid publicans.

Sure, they don't help, but The TIE is the biggest problem! It is anything but a free market for beer here in the UK and if you're thinking of refuting that, you better know what you are talking about, cause I'm not having a good day...

Curmudgeon said...

Given that Fleurets are just one of several estate agents with a large licensed trade business, and they are currently listing 664 pubs on their website, which is well over 1% of the total number in the UK (plus they do not cover Scotland) I would say as a proportion of the total that is actually a large number.

Certainly in the North-West you would have no problem snapping up a free-of-tie property, in many cases in or close to town centres.

StringersBeer said...

Mr Curmudgeon. You should probably go back and read what the post said. In case you can't be bothered, I'll help: "Free-of-tie pub tenancies and leases" and "To buy the freehold of a pub was way out of our budget". OK? Got that?

Now, back to your Fleurets thing: Sure there are 664 records returned if you search for "Any Tenure" nationally, but only 146 of those are not Freeholds or long leases.

In the "North West" there are (see above) a handful only.

So even though you're happy to claim that "in the North-West you would have no problem snapping up a free-of-tie property" you have no evidence to offer to the discussion. Which, to be clear, wasn't about buying the freehold of some end-of-life former pub in an abandoned town centre.

StringersBeer said...

Sorry Jeff. I should have let you.
I'll shut up now.

Woolpack Dave said...

I'm quite pleased to have been a catalysts this debate.

I am sure that the tie has its place for small estates but there is for sure a real problem when you add in the bar/pub/cafe planning restrictions that also limit free enterprise from making rational business decisions about the use of property.

Is North Bar in Leads, Sheffield Tap, The rake or The Porterhouse pubs or bars?

But I'm going to shut up now as I have a post subject this will start to encroach upon.