A couple who took on one of Staffordshire’s oldest village pubs have accused pub group Marston's of driving them out of business over “misrepresentation” of overheads.
Trevor and Barbara Astin are the third tenants in the last four years to quit in a fruitless bid to make a profit out of the Old Crown, Wigginton, near Tamworth.
The Astins finally threw in the towel after nearly 14 months, and blame the brewery for forcing them to pay around double the price for beer due to tie arrangements with Marstons.
They say they spent around £25,000 of their own cash on refurbishment and improvement works, while Marston's paid just £6,000 for a new fireplace and carpet at the pub, a drinking house since 1834.
Mr and Mrs Astin’s departure follows ill-fated stints at the Old Crown by previous licensees Malcolm Johnson and Sue McCarthy.
Both quit after running up large losses, with Mr Johnson leaving in March 2008 following a two-month rent strike in protest at weekly commitments of more than £1,100 to Marston's.
Mr and Mrs Astin, both Old Crown regulars for many years, took on the tenancy in December 2010 after the pub had closed following the departure of the previous licensee.
Mr Astin said: “It broke our hearts to see what happened with Malcolm and then with Sue. We were fed up with seeing the pub opening and then closing.
“We looked into it and we thought it should be OK to make a reasonable living and we were looking at a profit of around £23,000, based on the figures provided by Marston's.”
He accused Marston's of misrepresenting figures. “They said the staff wages being paid by Sue McCarthy were £12,000 a year. In reality, they were £40,000.
“They said the fuel bills were £7,000. In reality, the figure is nearer £20,000. We believed the figures.”
The couple said the weekly rent payment to Marston's was around £690 a week but within less than a year they were facing large weekly losses.
Mrs Astin said: “If it were not for the tied system we could have made it work. We could have saved 40 to 50 per cent on beer purchases. For example, a keg of beer from the brewery costing £140 and we could get it from traders who supply free houses for £66.66.”
Mr Astin said: “We didn’t realise the massive difference in price at the outset – it’s just sheer greed. Although the rent was too high, it wasn’t the biggest factor. Saving £100 a week on rent was nothing compared to the beer.”
Trevor said: “We spent around £25,000 of our own money on redecorating the whole lounge and kitchen equipment. We spent money on a dog enclosure, and fitted a sluice for the field at the back to be used by the Camping and Caravanning Club.
“We were prepared to lose a certain amount of money; we would have stuck to it. It’s so wrong, they are killing the pub trade.
“Managed houses will always be there but good quality drinking houses like the Old Crown will struggle to survive.
“We achieved everything we wanted to achieve in many ways. We got the right clientele, the right atmosphere, the right ale – we were getting CAMRA accreditation – but no profits.”
Mrs Astin said: “I was working in excess of 100 hours a week and never got paid a penny.
"For at least three months before we quit, we tried to get someone from Marston's with more authority than our Business Development Manager to come out to see us to discuss the problems but we were just ignored – we never got past the Business Development Manager – no-one was interested. They never even had the courtesy to respond to e-mails.”
Mr Astin said: “We had too much faith in humanity. In effect, we were subsidising Marstons – we have been put out of business by our brewery – the business model they have for tenanted pubs does not work.
“Are Marstons trying to tell us ‘Malcom Johnson was wrong, Sue McCarthy was wrong and now we were wrong?”
A spokesman for Marston’s said: “The Astins were well aware of the terms and conditions of the contract when they signed it with us. The individual contract was developed in order to help their business succeed.
“Since the Astins took over the tenancy of our pub, we have put a substantial package of support in place which included business coaching and chef and kitchen consultancy as well as generous hardship support when they needed it.
“We have also given the Astins recommendations on how they should develop and improve their business along the way. The Old Crown is a good pub with potential.”