A slight return

Anthony Gladman, on optimism amid the Covid gloom for pubs


You don’t need me to tell you that the last year has been rough for pubs. It has been tough on us all, of course, but the government seems to have singled out pubs for special treatment. Even as many tentatively re-open, with hundreds of thousands of furloughed hospitality workers returning, the true impact of that lost year is only now becoming visible.

In January 2021, market research companies CGA and AlixPartners published some shocking figures. 9,930 hospitality premises closed for good during 2020. This meant a net loss of 5,975 sites, or about 5% of the entire sector. Sites were closing at over twice the rate at which new ones were opening.

Despite continued restrictions on trading in the first weeks of 2021, government support for pubs was dwindling away. Three out of every four smaller ‘wet led’ pubs had still not received the grants promised to them at the beginning of December. (The grants themselves were pitiful: just £1,000 to cover a period when many pubs might make a quarter of their profits for the whole year. Nor are closed pubs free of costs; they can burn through £800 in a week according to some estimates.) And the VAT discount granted to pubs, which turned out to be more helpful than the March 2020 lockdown grants, was in danger of expiring before most could reopen.

Yes, things have been bad for our beloved pubs. But we mustn’t let ourselves become too downhearted. In dark times, it can be good to stop and look for the light. Because there is still hope. There are still people who care about good beer. There are still people who care about a well-run pub. And there are still people who care about the pub’s role in their communities. I should know, I’ve spoken to them.

A beacon over the Fens

In Cambridge, there are signs of renewal even during these bleakest days. One of the city’s most historic pubs, and its smallest, The St Radegund, closed in 2019. Now, under its new owners, it is returning to life bit by bit. A trio of beer industry veterans has stripped the tiny building back to its bare bones and is busy rebuilding.

Steve Soldana knows what he’s doing. He runs The Stoneworks bar in Peterborough. So do his partners, Yvan Seth and Justin Rivett; they run craft beer distributors Jolly Good Beer. Their plan is simple: to have the best-kept beer in Cambridge, thanks to Yvan’s coldchain expertise.

“We will [have] a hybrid direct draw system,” Steve tells me. “Everything will be kept at four degrees. Because of Yvan, we have access to pretty much any brand that we could possibly want.” As well as beer from the likes of Polly’s, Cloudwater, Brick and Wylam, Steve plans to stock natural wines and small producer spirits. There will also be a range of mixed fermentation beers and wines, for which Steve plans to hold tastings in The Rad’s cellar room. “Putting all those things together should be a winning formula,” says Steve.

PHOTO: Miikka Luotio

As with any long endeavour, there are good days and bad days, but despite the Covid gloom Steve says he manages to remain optimistic. “We all believe the Covid restrictions will end eventually. Once that happens, this project will be fantastic.”

There are other places to find craft beer in Cambridge, but Steve and his partners hope the standards they set at The Rad will outshine the competition. Steve wants to create a beacon of quality beer that will attract drinkers from all over. “We all think people will come to visit, not just because they’re coming to Cambridge, but because they want to visit [the Rad]. I think it will be a flagship for the country, not just for Cambridge.”

Adapting to survive

140 miles north of Cambridge, up the A1, lies South Milford, an affluent village popular with people who commute into nearby Leeds and York. Kirsty Cheetham runs The Queen o’ t’ Owd Thatch, a gastropub at one end of its high street. At the opposite end is the village’s only other pub, The Swan. Both are tied houses.

2020 was tough for Kirsty, as it was for so many others. On the few days she was able to open, business in her dining room was down 30%. She served a pared down menu, and sold some takeaway food, but still she struggled. Particularly with landlords Punch Pubs breathing down her neck for the rent.

“I’m generally not a fan of Punch,” Kirsty says. “They’ve been quite difficult to deal with sometimes during our tenancy.” Kirsty tells me Punch wanted to take most of her £25,000 Covid grant to cover the rent — “We weren’t too happy about that.” — but became more supportive as the pandemic went on. Punch refunded her for unsold beer and agreed to rent reductions once it became clear pubs would not return to normal trading any time soon. “We’re paying just 35% of our rent [now]. I think they’re realising they need to focus on keeping pubs like us going, ‘cause we will be the ones that will be able to pay the rent afterwards.”

Despite these struggles, Kirsty is preparing to take over The Swan as well. Its tenancy — under Ei Group, formerly Enterprise Inns — is coming up for renewal soon and the current tenants are moving on. “People have been asking us to [take it over] for a long time,” she tells me.

The Swan is a beer-led pub, popular with sports fans. It has seen tenants come and go during the eight years Kirsty has been working in the village. Time after time, they have struggled to make a profit. The Swan is tied for all drinks, unlike The Queen, which is only tied for beer. It has a good outside space and lies on the main road, unlike The Queen, so has a higher footfall, but it lacks a defined role in the village. It competes with The Queen for Sunday lunches, for example, but does not make enough of its differences. The Swan has both BT and Sky Sports, which The Queen does not.

PHOTO: Alessio Cesario

Kirsty didn’t think taking over a second site made sense, until lockdown gave her time to think again. “Because we’ve had a bit of time off, we’ve been able to sit back and look at it and go, actually, why don’t we do it? Why don’t we have a look at it and see if we can do something with it? Because it would be quite sad [if The Swan closed].”

Kirsty plans to tweak The Swan’s offering so that both pubs can work in tandem. “We want to maximise what it can offer,” she says. Kirsty will promote The Swan’s role as a sports pub, simplify its staffing and bring in table service, with customers ordering via an app — as some pubs have tried during the pandemic. With these changes Kirsty believes she could make The Swan profitable again.

Kirsty believes keeping both pubs open is important for South Milford. The Queen was struggling with staffing before Covid, and Kirsty wasn’t making much profit despite all her hard work. With the income from both sites she should be able to secure the future of both pubs for the village. Support for her plans from the community has been amazing, she says. “People will want to go out and support the locals once they’re allowed.”

Lean on the community

Pubs play a vital role for rural communities. They are often the only shared space where the rhythms and rituals of social life can play out, keeping people connected. The Norfolk village of Stoke Ferry lost its only pub, The Blue Bell, two years ago. This left a hole at the centre of village life. But Stoke Ferry did not suffer alone. The loss was also felt in the smaller villages for which Stoke Ferry — with its school, shops, hairdresser and undertaker — serves as a local hub. The Blue Bell was the only pub for miles around.

“People are screaming for somewhere to meet,” says resident Jim McNeill. “New people are arriving in the village and I’ve no way of getting to know them.”

Jim hopes The Blue Bell will ring again, and he’s not alone. He is part of a committee that plans to transform The Blue Bell into a community pub, with help from the Plunkett Foundation. There are currently 145 community-owned pubs in the UK, and the Plunkett Foundation is supporting a further 250 groups who want to take over their local. 

People are screaming for somewhere to meet

The campaign to reopen The Blue Bell has already raised over £180,000, about 70% of the funds it needs to begin work. Jim tells me he is confident of securing the rest in time, and he believes the reopened pub will thrive.

“Community pubs have a better chance of surviving than many other small pubs. Far better chance,” says Jim. Partly this is because they are more flexible about what services they offer. “A post office counter, café, childcare, elderly dining clubs, delivering school meals. Right from the start they have a diversified business model. It’s in their DNA.”

Stoke Ferry has many hidden businesses and home workers whom Jim hopes to serve. The Blue Bell will have a ‘home office’ area equipped with wifi and USB charging points. Jim is also keen to improve the pub’s accessibility, so it can welcome as many people as possible. The planned refurbishment will include ramps, disabled loos, and a hearing loop.

But it is the welcome Jim can create in The Blue Bell that will make or break its fortunes in the end. “If you’re a miserable bugger people won’t want to come, especially in a village. You’ve got to enjoy it. If you enjoy it then the customers enjoy it and they come back, regardless of the economic situation.” In fact, Jim reckons that as the economy gets worse people are more likely to seek out pubs. “People are looking for those kinds of outlets where they can get refreshed psychologically as well as with food and drink.”

Jim says he hopes to extend the pub’s community role to include other businesses it supports. “We have a policy of using local suppliers as far as we can,” he explains. He plans to stock gin from local distilleries and beer from nearby breweries, such as Elgood’s and Duration.

Jim says The Blue Bell will reopen in late August if all goes well. He tells me the committee has big plans for its opening day but when I ask for details he demurs and says they are keeping the details to themselves for now. But, he says, it will be “all guns blazing; a lovely, lovely opening.”

A new landscape

Back in Cambridge, Steve says Covid may bring lasting changes but the pub will endure. “The traditional pub has a long standing here, and I don’t think it was ever going to go away. People crave that. It’s inherent to this country.”

The question is, which pubs will we be left with? As I write this there’s no telling when we will finally be able to go out again. Nor is it clear what state pubs will be in by then. Many will have closed. In the meantime, pubcos — which have the resources to withstand the storm — are circling like vultures to snap up empty pubs on the cheap.

“It’s unheard of, at least in my knowledge, for us to close down an entire sector this way — and without any rhyme or reason,” says Steve. “I agree with people saying that we look to be the scapegoats. I think there’s going to be a complete overhaul in what we’ve known as the service industry. And I don’t know if it’s gonna be good or bad.”

One thing that we can be sure of is that now they are gradually reopening, our pubs — particularly the independent ones — will need our support more than ever. 

Cover photo: Euan Cameron

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