Wednesday 29 November 2023

The death of the pub industry

 How many pubs have we lost in London and the Borough of Barnet over the last few years? I was having a chat with some friends at the Mill Hill Services club last night and we were reminiscing about night in various pubs. In Edgware, we've lost the White Hart, The White Lion, The Beehive and The Railway, alomg with the Edge of Town. The only pub left is the Three Wishes which wasn't a pub when I used to consider Edgware a place for a night out. In Burnt Oak, the Bald Faced Stag, The Prince of Wales and The Broadway have gone. In Mill Hill, we've lost The Mill and the Railway/Royal Engineer as well as The Bell that opened and closed on The Broadway. 

What is interesting is that when I talk to people who are not really 'pub people', they say that this is because the traditional pub model is outdated and that to 'survive' you have to become a trendy Gastropub. As far as a I am concerned, the term Gastropub is a misnomer. The places are restaurants. For me, you can only really call a pub a pub if its primary business is the selling of ales, wines and spirits. There are plenty of pubs operating to this model that do very well thank you. I'm not a fan, but Wetherspoons have made millions from concentrating on selling beer and not being trendy. Then there are the local, niche pubs that do a fine job and sell decent, real ales that you simply can't get at the supermarket and provide a pleasant environment to consume it in. 

The biggest myth of all is that people go to the pub to drink alcohol and 'get pissed'. If this was the target, the cheapest way to do it is to get a bottle of vodka and drink it at home. People go to the pub because the human race are sociable beings. We like the company of other people and when we have a few drinks, we become less inhibited. If we are chatting to our mates, we get into deeper conversations than we would when we are sober. When we are in the company of the opposite sex, we drop our guard and help to ensure the ongoing future of the human race. 

But someone, presumably a bean counter, decided a few decades ago that providing a warm, friendly environment for people to talk b@ll@cks and drink beer was not the way to make money. If you server up some vaguely edible food, you can make more money. The idea was that there would be a whole new, different market that would fill up your pub estate and you'd make far more money. Then they realised that ordinary boozers, who were the core market, put off these new, mythical customers. So why not put the prices up? That way the new customers would spend even more and the old customers would bugger off elsewhere. 

It was also expensive to keep real ales properly and you needed people who knew what they were doing. Why not just sell dull, keg and bottled beers that need no great knowledge and care and employ teenagers on minimum wages. They then realised that there were all manner of 'fiddles' for want of a better word, that Landlords were running, that ensured that they made a decent bit of money on the side. Why should staff, not shareholders get this cash. So they brought in computerised tills and stock control systems. The switch to payment cards meant that it was almost impossible for Landlords to do any 'cash sidelines'. This meant that for best and smartest Landlords, who knew how to fill pubs and make a few quid, there was little or no incentive to work in the industry. 

So now, we have a situation where these clone pubs, selling beers that are marketed by brand gimmicks, rather than taste proliferate. They are operated by bean counting pub co's, most of whom have no real interest in the industry they are in. They are staffed by the cheapest staff, who have little or no interest in their job and see it as something to do for a few moths/years, whilst they are waiting for something else.

It is no wonder that most are struggling. Worst still, the pubco's know they can make more money selling pubs for development rather than deveeleoping profitable pubs, which sadly requires hard work and investment. 

There are still some wonderful pubs in London. I was out in Clerkenwell last Thursday and was delighted to see that the pubs we visited on our pub and curry crawl were packed and many of the punters were young adults. They served decent beer and people were enjoying the ambience. The beer was not extortionately expensive in the pubs we visited, in fact you'd spend more on a pint in some pubs in Mill Hill than these central London watering holes. It doesn't seem to occur to any one in the 'hospitality' industry that if you price your customers out of the market, they don't come. The pub model works when pubs are busy and local people can turn up, knowing that there will be a few mates to have a chat with. Pubs used to have pool, dartboards and all manner of other things, that have disappeared from most. I've no idea who came up with the idea that soggy fish and chips would make pubs more enticing than decent beer and a chat with your mates, but they have a lot to answer for. 

Of course some pubs still do what they do exceptionally well, which is why I love playing with my band at The Dublin Castle in Camden. Why not come down on 23rd December and see how you can run a decent music pub, pack it out and do alright. Tickets here   

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