Thursday, 14 October 2010

If we don't act now, pubs will disappear

(from The Times today, by yours truly)

The pub is broken. The trajectory of its long-term decline got steeper yesterday and there is no help at hand. Punch Taverns announced that 1,300 of its 6,700-strong estate have “no future” and will be closed or sold. We are used to hearing that 50-odd pubs a week are disappearing, but if the closures are accelerating soon whole areas of the UK may lose access to draught beer and a community gathering place. 

What has gone so horribly wrong? Why are our pubs, once the mainstay of the urban street corner and heart of every village, no longer viable? The death of some is inevitable. Noone is going to suggest that we suspend the drink-driving laws which have killed off any inn unfortunate enough to be situated on an A Road roundabout (‘one for the road, anyone?’). But what of the rest? Why is the pub dying?

The pricing model is broken - supermarket booze is too cheap. The supermarkets routinely use beer as a “traffic driver”, selling it below cost price to draw in customers for their weekly shop. Asda was recently selling 20 tins of Stella Artois for £9 (hope your fridge is big enough). And a price war in 2007 saw own-branded beer for sale for as little as 22p a tin – David Cameron’s much-quoted “20 tins for a fiver”. Leaving aside the appalling social and health impact of unsupervised drinking at these prices, how can the hard-pressed pub-goer justify £2.50 or more per pint against this backdrop?

The regulatory environment is broken. The smoking ban has alienated many customers. Hard-pressed independent landlords (surely the future of the industry) are swamped by bureaucracy and box-ticking unmanageable for a small business without access to an HR department. Last week yet another set of new rules, passed by the last government, came into effect stipulating that all pubs must offer wine by the 125ml measure – by law. This means new menus and glassware for a measure that research shows nobody wants.

The pub ownership model is broken. Brimming with free market zeal the Tories forced the breweries to sell off their pubs in the 1980s. The dogma of the day said it was anti-competitive that pub tenants had to buy beer exclusively from their brewery owners. Fuelled by oceans of debt (Punch Taverns, for example, owes more than £3 billion, or £464,000 per pub) smart City types formed the ‘PubCos’ which acquired these estates. But the insanity is that the ‘tie’ which obliges the tenant to buy beer from its landlord, remained in place in the majority of instances. So now most pubs are not only paying large rents, but also have to buy their beer at grossly inflated prices from their landlord, prices which if charged by a supermarket would cause a customer to shop elsewhere.

Pubs themselves are broken. Challenges arising from supermarket pricing, regulation and punitive leases all have a cost. And that cost is a poor selection of the cheapest brands of beer, ‘ready’ meals, poorly trained staff and management, delayed refurbishment, increasingly desperate price promotions and so on. In other words, a disheartening experience for the customer creating a spiral of decline, leading sooner or later to yet another closure statistic.

Pub owners and staff up and down the country, if they have got this far, will be cursing me for the calumny I heaped upon the industry in the last paragraph. And of course there are many honourable exceptions. Prosperous metropolitan and suburban areas still support a thriving, well-run, increasingly food-led pub trade. Pubs are not closing in these areas. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to buy licensed sites in Notting Hill, Mayfair or Islington.

But we are talking about pubs in non-thriving areas, i.e. much of the country outside the prosperous South East. What’s the recipe for revival? This is a crisis, and emergency measures must be taken.

Government has a big part to play, loath though I am to admit it. Nowhere is the bonfire of regulation more needed than in our trade. Tax on draught beer should be slashed and a minimum price for alcohol set – Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy asked for this himself this year. Business rates must be reduced (ours were up by as much as 25% this year).

The hardest nut to crack will be reform of pub ownership. But crack it we must and brighter minds than mine must help. The high rents and tied leases set by PubCos must be stopped. Currently the PubCos cannot change lease terms because of loan covenants. With heavy debts and fewer customers it is in their interests to find a better way to do business. The government may have to step in too, they own the banks after all. The goal must be to make pub ownership and attendance affordable for everyone, everywhere in Britain.

Charlie McVeigh, licensee at three Draft Houses in SW11 and SE1

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Slider Cometh?

Draft House Northcote is outgrowing its kitchen. It's just too darned busy. But rather than turning you good people away on a weekend, we are looking at our most popular dish - The Draft House Burger, famed the length and breadth of Northcote Road to see if we can reduce the cooking time.

Mindful of other disastrous tamperings with a classic (New Coke anyone?) chef Sabrina Gidda and I are proceeding with care.

The inspiration for this blue sky burger research came from a conversation earlier this year at one of all-round NYC food expert Daniel Young's Burger Monday events. We were talking about the elements which give the humble burger its unique irresistibility. One of them, undoubtedly, is the char on the exterior of the patty. He posited that the ultimate burger is the double, with four sides of char.

Given that our chunky 9oz Draft House Burger takes 14 minutes to cook to medium thereby slowing service on a crazy Saturday, we wondered whether two might be better than one. See picture above.

The experimentation continues. Thoughts welcome, people.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Why only one Cask Ale at Tower Bridge?

Well, we started with three and I wasn't happy with the quality. Nor were some of the punters. Among them was Hermano Primero ("The older and let's face it, cooler half of the Dos Hermanos blogging crew") who described his pint of Wandle at Tower Bridge as "flat as a pancake". This sparked some lively debate on-line with some coming vigorously to our defence. And certainly those - like myself - who think the Wandle at Northcote and Westrbidge is as close to transcendental as you are likely to get - were riled. But the bugger had a point. It was, well, flat.

What does flat mean for a cask ale? At its best a good pint of live cask ale has a bright clarity and a raciness in the mouth which never, and I mean never equates to fizziness. It is a glorious, fecund foaminess. Imagine the primordial soup controlled by superhuman genius for your pleasure. It's that lively. 

The trouble with this unholy, beautiful stuff is that unlike pasteurised keg beer it is alive and if any of a number of factors are not absolutely perfect than it is, well, shite. Or flat. And one of the key things required is turnover. And at Tower Bridge, with twenty-four choices (21 of them in keg) we just weren't getting the turnover on the cask pumps. So following Hermano-Wandle-Gate we dropped down to one which we are rotating cask-to-cask. As turnover increases (and boy is it ever) we will of course be adding to the roster. Watch this space.

Currently on the hand pump is a cask lager - Schiehallion from Clackmannanshire. I indulged in a little quality control and can confirm that everything, and I mean everything, about it was just, well, right.

Next blogpost - re-engineering the Northcote Burger - the Slider cometh.