Many pubs have had to change their game after competition and the recession made alcohol less profitable. Tom Scotney speaks to three publicans who’ve had to look beyond food and drink in tough times.
It used to be so simple for publicans – if you build them, the thirsty drinkers would come. Uncounted thousands of pubs grew around the country to service the seemingly unquenchable demand for beer and spirits from the British people.
But how things change. Supermarkets started selling crates of beer at the same price you’d buy a pint in a pub. The Government increased duty and passed laws that drove smokers away from their locals. And pubs started to close in huge numbers – 50 a week at the latest count.
And now many are starting to find they have to look beyond the traditional food-and-drink model to survive in one of the harshest markets for decades.
For Ray Crawford, the proprietor of the Comedian in Tipton, the answer was a fabulous makeover for the pub.
Ray and his wife Stephanie had a business importing and selling freshwater pearls and beads for the craft market. With profits flagging at the pub, they decided to combine the two, and turn the Black Country boozer into a pub-cum-craft centre.
Ray says: “We had two businesses going. We import freshwater pearls and beads from China and we own a pub. The bead business has been climbing through the roof, but the pub business has been falling through the floor. For the past few years we have been subsidising the pub with the bead business.
“When I first mentioned turning the pub into a bead shop, we all had a laugh about it, but then I went to bed that night and thought ‘why not?’ I mean, someone recently said to me that they can remember when petrol stations only sold petrol.
“It’s a lovely environment, it’s very warm and friendly, and we have now got one of the only pubs where there are more women than men.
‘‘We are running bead classes teaching people how to make jewellery, so it’s a great concept – I’m very confident it’s going to work.”
Ray had been at the Comedian for four years, and working in pubs for a total of 11 years before deciding on a change for the establishment. He said landlords needed to start thinking about changing the way their pubs worked, rather than blaming the economy.
“You have probably got 100 reasons why pubs are struggling,” he says.
“The fact they sell cheap beer in the supermarkets, you can’t attribute everything to that. There’s the smoking ban too. You can look for all the faults you want but I think the pub industry is tired, we haven’t done anything to change the process that you work by.
“When businesses start to die, you either lay down and let it happen or you get up and do something different.”
Tony Grainger, of the Hare and Hounds, says it’s was all about community when it comes to making pubs successful during tough times. As well as being one of the best-known smaller music venues in the city, the Kings Heath pub runs a variety of different kinds of events within its walls to bring in people.
It also runs a monthly knitting night called ‘Stitches and hos’, as well as hosting record and vintage clothes fairs.
Tony says: “It’s definitely an intention to keep a positive community and good feedback around the pub. Of course one of the refreshing things is that people can come in and do things, and have a drink too, that’s what a pub can do that other places can’t.
“It seems to me that despite some of the comments about the credit crunch, if you are providing actually the quality entertainment then you are oblivious to the effects of the credit crunch.”
While pubs in the city have been looking to draw the crowds in, out in the countryside, things are different.
Rural pubs have been among the worst-hit during the recession, with dozens closing every week, along with many other village shops. But many pubs are doing the same thing as the Hare and Hounds and looking to become a centre of the community.
In Tibberton in Shropshire, the local pub – the Sutherland Arms – has had to take over the role as centre of the community after the closure of both the post office and the only shop in the village. From November last year, the pub opened a room selling newspapers and groceries to drinkers.
Landlady Sue Smith says: “Things are going okay, it’s been mostly newspapers so far. People do come in for those, and we also do bread and milk, groceries and sweets.
“It started when the people at the village shop couldn’t sell it and so decided just to close it down. Rather than be left with no shop at all, we decided to convert a room we weren’t using.
“We’ve lost our Post Office as well, so if the shop closed, it would have left the village without a heart.
“We hoped it would encourage people to use the pub more often. We do have more people coming in more often, even if it’s just to give us a hand and buy the paper.”