Raising the bar: Why Britain's pubs are getting creative

Report,Charlotte Philby
Saturday 16 August 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Since its conception, as a pit-stop for travellers on the Roman road system, the public house has become an integral part of our culture: "the heart of England", as Samuel Pepys once observed. And yet, the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) reports that an average of 57 pubs a month in the UK are now facing permanent closure, while the British Beer and Pub Association reveals that pubs are folding at a rate seven times increased since 2006. So, is this really a case of last orders for the beloved boozer? "People are not drinking in the same way that they used to," says Jill Gibson, landlord of the Liberty, Peace and Plenty pub in Hertfordshire, "and for many publicans, it is easier to cash in on their investment now than risk trying to carry on the business." A bleak forecast indeed; but where did it all go so wrong?

A name not far from many a landlord's lips – particularly those 200 who displayed posters in their doorways with the words "Barred: Not Welcome in this Pub" next to the chancellor's smirking face – is that of Alistair Darling. This year's budget, with its 4p per pint rise in beer duty, as well as 14p on a bottle of wine and 55p on spirits, was met with outrage from publicans nationwide. Darling's decision was, he claims, an effort to counter the so-called Binge Britain epidemic, but critics suggest that public houses are the ones being hit, not the consumers.

Mike Benner, chief executive of Camra, points out that large retailers and supermarkets can absorb the extra costs, while small pub operators cannot. The effect of this, he says, "is to drive consumers away from the pub and into their armchair to drink cheap alcohol". The smoking ban, too, has been held partially responsible for this change in drinking habits.

But it's not all bad news. From the gin palaces of Victorian England to the gastro-pubs of the Nineties, landlords have always adapted to the times. And while some are calling time, others are finding creative ways to fine-tune their survival skills. So forget such mundane "innovations" as 375ml glasses and wasabi snacks; as these case studies show, with a new breed of public house, the bar has seriously been raised.

The barbershop boozer
The Dartmouth Arms, north London

"Arlene is a local hairdresser, originally from Scotland," says pub manager Laura Stephens. "She was saying that where she is from, it's not unusual for the hairdressers to work from their local pub. We thought about it and decided that adding hairdressing to our menu, late every Thursday afternoon, was a great way to bring in trade at a notoriously quite time of the day. It's a drop-in service, so people turn up and hope that she is free. It is only £9 per cut, which is a bargain for London, so if Arlene's busy, most customers are happy to wait around until she is finished. That means they sit at the bar and have a drink or two, which means a little extra money for us. Any way of making yourself stand out, at a time like this, can only be a good thing; especially when it means gathering trade at an otherwise quiet time! There are so many pubs around here, and most of them are leaning towards the gastro trend in order to pull in trade. But this has always been a traditional pub, which is something the landlord, Nick, is very proud of. He has brought in modern aspects to the décor and to the menu, but he is keen that the pub remains at the heart of the community. Instead of seeing the pub as simply somewhere to go and have a drink, we see it as more than that – as a place where activities take place. Having a back room is a great amenity. On top of the Scrabble tournaments and quiz nights that we've added to our regular routine, we're thinking of hiring out an area to local theatre groups. Of course, this is primarily a business, and we need to get around the current climate, which isn't the best for trade, so we have been considering new ways to gather custom."

The literary saloon
The Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty, Heronsgate, Hertfordshire

"My partner, Mark Few, and I bought this place four years ago, with the sole intention of creating a traditional village pub with a focus on community values," says Jill Gibson. "It's important that we spend a lot of time behind the bar, engaging with the customers, rather than employing part-timers, who come and go and aren't part of the scenery. The idea of the pub, historically, is that it is a large living room; only one that happens to sell drinks and refreshments. Above all, it should be a place to socialise and make friends. A while back, one of our regulars mentioned that she'd joined a knitting club over in Ealing, and found it hard to get to each week. It occurred to me that having our own knitting group would make for a nice Sunday afternoon activity, so I asked around the locals and they were up for it. Four of us met up the following week for a knit, a drink and a chat, and since then it's blossomed. Now we've added a cycling club and a book club. The boost in trade is great, but also, people make connections with people they might otherwise never meet. It's great for local trade, too, as we act as a conduit for information. If someone is new to the area and needs a tradesman, we can say, 'OK, well over there is X, who is an electrician,' or 'In three hours Y will be in, and he's a mechanic.' In that sense, we've built a brand. It is a way to feed back into the community, by creating sustainable business in the area."

The heavenly hostelry
Seven Stars Inn, St Austell, Cornwall

"Holding the Sunday service in our pub was actually the reverend's idea, but it was just what we needed," says landlady Ameena Williams. "The general climate has been on-the-down in St Austell, since the town went under redevelopment a while back. We're only a small market town, and before, visitors would come here to do their food shopping at the supermarket, then they'd pop into the various smaller shops. Once they'd done that, they might come in here to have a pint or two, which meant guaranteed business. Now they have pulled down the Tesco, the smaller shops have been driven out of the area, and that has hit us hard. There were only four pubs here for years, but a big chain moved in and that really messed with our custom – and the smoking ban didn't help either. It has been a really tough time. Then the reverend suggested that we hold the Sunday service at the Seven Stars, because he wanted to bring the Christian message to people who would not necessarily make the decision to attend a service. For us, it was an opportunity to make a bit more on Sundays – which we have. We've held two services here so far. There has been great interest and the congregation was considerable. I am open to any new ideas, and would happily hold a number of events from the pub. The whole industry is struggling, and I am willing to try anything I can in order to help my business survive."

The rock god's retreat
The Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London

"The summer's probably the toughest time for pubs, especially those without gardens," says events organiser Paul Lillie. "Despite this, the Old Blue never really has a problem drawing crowds. There are loads of really nice pubs in this area, but there is a certain crowd who will always come to this one. We are owned by the Vice brand, which has really good contacts within the music industry so we manage to book bands that other pubs would be unlikely to get hold of. The Arctic Monkeys and The Rascals are just two of the bigger bands who have played 'secret' gigs here. People know that if they come here, they're likely to catch big bands that are used to packing out stadiums and huge venues, and rarely do such intimate gigs as playing in the upstairs room of an old pub. There's never a shortage of performers or an audience. This is a really old venue, built in 1866, and what we've done is to keep that aspect intact, while making it stand out as a music venue, as much as a drinking place. Other pubs have music nights, but we go further than that. Every night we have either a band or a DJ, working from the 120-capacity venue upstairs. We try to keep entry free – or at least at a minimal cost – where possible. We hold a lot of launch parties and events here, and we always try to make them as different as possible. Recently, we bought in a load of cut-out platforms with scenes drawn on them and holes for your head, like you get on the beach. We just want our nights to be a bit different. Even if someone doesn't fancy a big performance and just wants a quiet drink and some good music, in the main bar there's a free juke box that has been provided and stocked by [record label] Rough Trade, so people who are into certain types of music know that here they'll get to listen to stuff that they wouldn't get in other pub juke-boxes. We have a huge diversity of genres stocked here, not just what's hip at the time. By carving a reputation in one area, ie. as a venue and music-based pub, we can tap into a particular scene. We draw in customers who might otherwise end up going elsewhere and make sure they come back again."

The illusionist's inn
The Farm, Hove

"Our philosophy is if the pub industry in general isn't doing well," says The Farm's co-owner Noah Hearle, "let us see what can be done to make that work in our favour. Rather than dwelling on a slump in the market, we're finding ways to make our pub stand out. It's never enough just to serve drinks. It's important that we don't sacrifice the quality of our food and ale, and we're wary of succumbing to the gastro trend. When my business partner, Martha Herbst, and I found this place, under a year ago, we found a real pub, and that is what we wanted to play on. In order to attract new custom, we'd rather complement what we already have – a beautiful old venue – than mess with the basics. And we've found lots of exciting ways to bring in trade: Mondays are comedy nights, where we showcase five or six acts a pop, from all over the country. On Tuesdays, we have fully qualified magicians, while a tarot reader works away on the pub floor. Other nights we have DJs and live musicians. There is no door charge – though donations are, of course, welcome! Together, Martha and I have a background in graphic design, club promotion and web development, so we use things like well-designed posters, a proper website and even a Facebook group to get our name out. There are more everyday ways to reach target customers; even small things, like offering a Sunday roast from midday through to closing time means we get customers that others miss out on."

The bring-your-own-grub pub
Ye Olde Seven Stars, Kidderminster

"The traditional British pub is dying out, and the days when the landlord ran the bar while the landlady cooked the hotpot in the kitchen are well and truly over," says landlord Robin Copeman. "This means that the infrastructure of the pub has to change too. We're situated in a deprived area of town, surrounded by takeaways. In the old days, this pub was renowned for bank managers eating their shepherd's pie from the pub kitchen, with a pint. But the emergence of takeaways changed the way people eat and drink in the area. When this trend first started, people would come for a pint while they waited for their food, and then disappear home to eat it. One day I asked a customer who was doing this: 'Why don't you get the wife down and you can eat it here while it's fresh?' The whole concept just snowballed from there. The bring-your-own-grub scheme has allowed us to adapt to the current climate – not to mention avoid dealing with stroppy chefs. We have a choice of local menus at the bar, customers have a beer while they decide what to have, drink another while they're waiting for their delivery, then two more as they eat – it's a captive audience. We provide the cutlery and do their washing up, so customers have the leisure of a takeaway, while being able to meet friends and enjoy a pint or two. This area has a strong community feel, and by working with the takeaways, we're helping to feed money back into local businesses, while keeping hold of our own."

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