Is the great British pub making a comeback?

The World Cup has helped boost sales for the region's pubs - but is there more behind their tentative comeback? Picture: Ian Burt

The World Cup has helped boost sales for the region's pubs - but is there more behind their tentative comeback? Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

The decline of the British pub has been headline news for years – but new figures suggest some entrepreneurial establishments are reversing the trend.

Norfolk publican Victoria MacDonald. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY.Norfolk publican Victoria MacDonald. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY.

While the World Cup and warm weather have brought a gold rush for hundreds of East Anglian pubs, there is evidence to suggest that the industry’s upturn could have stronger foundations.

Pubs and bars are among the businesses which have suffered hardest at the hands of a disposable income squeeze which has been ongoing since the financial crash in 2008.

Data from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) shows the number of pubs has declined by 17% since 2000, citing higher taxes on pints, the smoking ban and the increasing price of food and drink as well as the recession.

Companies and organisations had thrown their weight behind efforts to encourage more people back to the bar, including Suffolk brewer and pub giant Greene King with its To The Pub campaign and the Prince’s Trust’s Pub is the Hub drive.

The beer garden at the York Tavern has been packed for England's World Cup games. Picture: James WatkinsThe beer garden at the York Tavern has been packed for England's World Cup games. Picture: James Watkins

But new research suggests the tide is turning.

BDO’s summer 2018 report on bars and restaurants revealed like-for-like sales in pubs have risen 3.5%. It said “wet-led concepts” – establishments not focused on food – are making a comeback and have shown “resilience” while counterparts in the casual dining sector and food led pubs continue to struggle.

And with the World Cup packing out hundreds of pubs and bars across the region and warm weather encouraging people outside, the report has predicted a “bumper summer” for British pubs.

Tom Barnard, director at BDO, said: “A pub can appeal to a broader audience than a casual dining restaurant and often the fit out [cost] is lower, but the all-day trading can be stronger – look at Wetherspoons coffee sales to see how a traditional view of a pub has changed dramatically.”

Rob Fink (left) and James Kindred, co-founders of Big Drop Brewing in Ipswich. Picture: Big Drop BrewingRob Fink (left) and James Kindred, co-founders of Big Drop Brewing in Ipswich. Picture: Big Drop Brewing

What do publicans think?

Pubs in East Anglia say sales are on the rise, helped by the good weather and live sports.

James Watkins, operations manager at the York Tavern in Norwich, said turnover at the pub for the summer so far had almost doubled year-on-year from 2017.

He put the increase down to its renovated 300-seat pub garden, which holds bi-weekly festivals and has been hosting World Cup match viewings.

David and Rachel Holliday, at the Norfolk Brewhouse. Picture: Rae ShirleyDavid and Rachel Holliday, at the Norfolk Brewhouse. Picture: Rae Shirley

Mr Watkins, who also manages operations at the Marlborough Arms and Ten Bells in Norwich and the Boars in Spooner Row, said pubs have had to “up their game”.

“You cannot just rely on traditional products now,” he said. “Pubs like ours have gone in a different direction, down the craft beer route at the York Tavern, and we have gin distillery tours at the Ten Bells.

“You have to give customers reasons each week to come back.”

Victoria MacDonald, who runs the Cellar House in Eaton, Old Ram at Tivetshall St Mary, White Lodge in South Norfolk and Buck Inn in Thorpe St Andrew, said a good spring was turning into a prosperous summer for her pubs.

The White Horse, Upton. Peter Crook, left, and Malcolm Steward.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe White Horse, Upton. Peter Crook, left, and Malcolm Steward. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The 10 years since the smoking ban had seen a lot of change in pubs, she said – but they have retained a “uniqueness” over casual dining restaurants.

She said: “It used to be about the three Fs: food, family and females. We have seen a big change in how pubs operate – it is about families and you do have to serve food but there is flexibility in how you do it. We have also seen a rise in good-quality wines and the incredible rise of gin.

“If you embrace all those changes and keep a clean pub you are going to weather the storm. There have been tough times but as an entrepreneur you have to look at the positive side.”

She added: “There will be some pubs that continue to close and that is just a reflection of the change in society and the competition.”

Paul Sandford is the Landlord of The Railway Tavern in Dereham. Picture: Ian BurtPaul Sandford is the Landlord of The Railway Tavern in Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt

The craft brewing effect

The explosion in craft beer has drawn new crowds through the doors of British pubs in the past five years.

According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) the number of craft breweries rose from around 1,200 in 2012 to almost 2,000 in 2016 – a level not seen since the 1930s.

David Holliday, co-founder of Norfolk Brewhouse in Hindringham, said brewers have a part to play in supporting “on-trade” business – sales in pubs and bars as opposed to shops.

“The key to getting anyone out of their home is to offer them something they cannot get at home. That can be done by providing innovative craft beers and a place to enjoy them,” he said.

“We have at least one new beer every month that will be sold only to pubs rather than shops. It is our way of supporting the pubs.

“It is our responsibility as brewers to keep that innovation going so people keep an eye out for what is on the horizon, but it is also important to keep quality and consistency in your core beers.

“Over the last few years the quality of beer in pubs has gone up considerably. Pubs have really raised their game – brewers are doing the innovation and pubs are doing the perfect serve.”

The World Cup factor

While not all the ground made by pubs in the past few months has been down to sport, the World Cup has brought a major boost to many establishments.

Data from Barclaycard showed that on the day of England’s first World Cup match against Tunisia, June 18, pubs’ takings across the country were up 33% year-on-year.

The figures showed overall pub spending rose by 9.5% in June compared with June 2017.

The tournament has provided opportunities for pubs to get creative.

Paul Sandford, landlord at the Railway Tavern in Dereham, erected a grandstand and giant screen outside his pub for fans to watch the games on.

Victoria McDonald said her three pubs had taken different approaches. One showed no games at all – an “oasis” for those escaping World Cup fever – one had a TV in a side room and in the third a screen took pride of place.

Low-alcohol options

A drop in alcohol consumption has also impacted the pub trade.

With one in five people in the UK now calling themselves tee-total – and with the younger generation leading the charge – pubs and breweries are thinking of new ways to attract non-drinkers.

Big Drop Brewing, based in Ipswich, brews a range of beers – from stouts to sours – which are all below 0.5% ABV.

James Kindred, who co-founded the business with Rob Fink, said their business was forged from a gap in the market for low-alcohol drinks which were not “sugary pop, hot drinks or sugary juices”.

“We do not want to preach to people that they should drink less, what we are about is giving people the choice. People are starting to go back into pubs and want that choice,” he said.

“There are some very interesting creations coming out of this space and pubs are starting to see the opportunities in a culture that is not so much about alcoholic drinks any more.”

Community successes

Pubs around Norfolk have found success in community ownership.

One such pub is the White Horse in Upton, which was bought by villagers six years ago. After a shaky start a new committee took charge and set about building a business from it.

Their moves to bring in professional staff and systems contributed to the pub winning Small Business of the Year at the 2016 EDP Business Awards.

Jo Aldridge, general manager of the White Horse for the past three years, said it had been a learning curve for the community volunteers still involved with the pub.

“It is nice to see it going from strength to strength,” she said.

“The profits for the last couple of years have been put back into the building and that is how the continuation of sales will come.”

The White Horse supplies beer from Norfolk breweries including Woodforde’s and has a number of Norfolk gins among its 33 varieties of the spirit.

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