Rolling out the Barrel
Beer sales are down, and pubs are emptying and closing all over Britain. But the brewers are putting their faith in a better future for the British pub – with a programme to spend £2 billion over the next three years.
It was four years ago, on an extended eating tour of America, that Bob Payton conceived the idea of the Henry J. Bean pub. He went to eat in a Kansas city bar which he says “It’s clean, I’ts simple, It’s friendly, It’s fun, And it serves the best hot-dog in the whole, wide world. Eureka! I knew there and then. This is what must happen to pubs in Britain.”
Since then Payton has been dedicated to making Henry J. Bean happen in a country of pub goers, historically conditioned, he says, to accept “the awful, the dirty, the sleazy, the disgusting.”
Having bought the Six Bells public house in Chelsea’s King’s Road from Grand Metropolitan, Payton, who describes himself as “a 40-year-old teenager”, spent £100,000 transforming it into “very much the kinda joint I grew up in”. At Henry J. Bean’s – the name came to him during a train ride to Philadelphia – he has sought to recreate a scene from the American Dream.
Most lunch-times he can be found sitting behind a pint-sized schooner of Coke and a £2.65 Fred P. Ott’s hot-dog (like those served in Kansas City) wallowing in wall-to-wall Americans ripped from the 1950s and 1960s: Madison Avenue ads for eats, drinks, gasoline, automobiles and household gadgets: Memphis music from the heyday of rock-and-roll.
Since HJB’s opened 18 months ago, business has increased up to eight-fold, to about £25,000 a week. It sells more food than conventional pubs, and has more women customers.
That is policy; “We don’t want the dingalings who want to come along and drink pint after pint.” If the high prices – £1.30 for a pint of Ruddles ale – do not deter the boozer, evening admissions charges, due to go up to £2 this summer, will.
Payton’s outspoken views and questionable taste have antagonised the drinking establishment on either rside of the bar. He has a low opinion of traditional pubgoers. “They’re so hung up about this great institution – THE PUB. ‘Is this a pub, or isn’t it?’ they want to know. I tell them. ‘Relax folks, it’s just a joint that sells good food and drink’.”
He has a still lower view of brewery bosses. Recently he told a seminar on The Future of the Pub, organised by the high minded Institute of Innkeeping at Whitbread’s blue-chip brewery in the City of London, that of the nation’s 75,000-plus pubs, barely a third could be called good. “Another 25,000 work just because of their location; but the remaining 25,000 are so bad we should blow them up and start again.”
Ewart Boddington, chairman of the Brewers’ Society, concedes that the British pub is in peril, despite total takings last year of £12 billion. “Many pubs and clubs are on a knife edge, struggling to maintain their standards, but at a level of trade that makes it difficult to sustain profits.”
Like the breweries that own most of them, they must adapt or perish. It is not difficult to see why.
The Canalside New Inn in Oldbury was tyupical of Black Country pubs for more than a century. “It was a spit and sawdust place where men would sink a dozen pints to replace the fluids sweated away during a day in front of the blast furnace.” Graham Page, marketing director of Ansells, recalls. In its old form it could not – and did not – survive. The blast furnaces have cooled and cracked. The men are part of a local jobless rate of 15%. They neither need nor can afford to swill today’s high-priced pints.
As Boddington explained, recession has been a major factor in depressing beer trade, which has sunk back to 1973 levels in recent years. “This is especially marked in areas of heavy industry where beer has traditionally played an important part in social life. People still go to their pubs and clubs but they arrive later, stay less time and drink fewer pints.”
In such areas, pubs have perished. Figures for licensed premises are a poor guide because they do not differentiate between (shrinking) pubs and (booming) hotels. But last week’s report by the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board suggested that as many as 6,500 pubs closed during the 1970s.
Recession has reinforced social changes that were already beginning to revolutionise drinking habits. Bob Tyrrel of the Henley Centre, says pubs were once a social centre, offering an escape from houses which were often poorly heated, inadequately furnished, ill-provided with entertainment and predominantly now owned by their occupiers.
“In recent, more affluent times, there has been a shift towards the self-service or take-home leisure economy.” The home is used not simply as a place to eat and sleep but also to enjoy, relax and entertain.
Pubs, like cinemas, have suffered from the growth in home entertainment and such activities as do-it-yourself.
According to Boots the DIY brewing market is now worth £71m a year and growing at an annual 6%. Stay-at-home trends have further been reinforced by increasingly punitive drink-drive laws.
The brewers respond, with justification, that they have repeatedly withstood the challenge of new, home-based attractions. “How many times have I read the obituary of the pub?” asked one. “In the past, the culprit has been music hall, pianos in the parlour, cinema, dance halls, wireless, allotments, DIY, television, the coming of ITV and so on. Yet the pub survives.”
But even the most red-blooded brewers accept that the pub, hamstrung by archaic licensing laws, is fighting an increasingly uneven battle. The fight for the leisure pound has never been fiercer, both inside and outside the home. “The alternatives are so much more sophisticated than they were,” Charles Tidbury, of Whitbread, warned his fellow brewers.
Pubs, too, have suffered from the switch from passive to active leisure. “There is an unprecedented concern with personal fitness,” Tidbury says. “Millions jog or take part in marathons. Aerobics has become a major growth industry with Jane Fonda having the most profound influence on women since Mrs Pankhurst.”
The health lobby will not hit alcohol as it did smoking, but it means that pubs will be seen less as places to swill beer. As Ansells’ Page says, “like the blast furnacemen’s jobs, the beer bellies have gone.”
The influence of women has grown. “They want to go out as well – and they want to with a slim man.”
Now women are the new target, as belatedly brewers adjust to the disappearance of their traditional constituency. Big beer drinkers among the unskilled workforce are increasingly impoverished; there will be 10% fewer of the heaviest drinkers – those aged between 18 and 24 – by the end of the decade, the Henley Centre calculates.
The outlook is not one of unrelieved gloom. Disposable incomes and leisure time are rising and overall spending on (a wider range) of alcoholic drinks has continued to increase, from £8.6 billion six years ago to £14.5 billion in 1984, according to the Henley Centre. But the principal beneficiaries have not been the pubs, but off-licences; restaurants, cashing in on eating out; and supermarkets catering for the big growth in demand for wines and, to a lesser extent, spirits.
The combined effect of all these developments hit the brewers hard, says John Spicer, sector specialist for Grieveson Grant, the brokers. Despite some hurried management reshuffles, such as that earlier this year at Allied, there is no sign of the big brewers losing their nerve. Rather they have struck back with a strategy that combines prudent defence with unprecedented aggression.
Spicer calculates that over the past five years 15 major breweries have closed.
The big brewers have chosen to spread their business risk by diversifying into the wider leisure market and more widely within the drinks market. Bass, for example, already heavily involed in the holiday business, recently increased its stake in the travel company, Horizon.
Brewers have also sought to increase their stake in the take-home drinks market. Whitbread is estimated to have bought about 400 wine shops last year in a £20m spending spree. Allied-Lyons owns 920 Victoria Wine outlets, Bass more than 1,000 under the names Augustus Barnett, Galleon and Wine Sellers.
Pubs, too have become major players in the restaurant business.
Like Payton, the brewers have twigged that it is preferable to attract six people who drink perhaps one pint, but buy a burger to go with it, than one person who buys six pints. By the end of the decade food sales could account for half the turnover of many pubs.
Most big brewers are going further and investing heavily in in-house restaurants. Whitebread has built up its Beefeater steak house chain to the point where it is now bigger than the Berni Inns operation. Allied has its Cavalier steak houses and New England Diners and Exchanges.
The move into the take-home and eating-out market is evidence of a marked change in philosophy on the part of brewers, according to Spicer of Grieveson Grant. “It is the movement away from attempting to keep breweries full to capacity at any cost towards utilising the public house as a retail outlet which sells a variety of products.”
Ten years ago, about 75% of brewers’ investment was in production and distribution and only 25% on retailing. Now the proportions have been reversed. Over the next three years the industry will spend £2.7 billion. More than 80% will go on pub development and improvement, says Ewart Boddington.
More than £2m daily is being spent on pub improvement, not only in London but in the provinces too’ and not only by brewers, but by brash, new entrepreneurs, such as Payton, Richard Branson, now leading pubs for the Virgin empire, and specialist designers like Alan Lubin and Roger Myers, who opened Peppermint Park in London’s Covent Garden.
They are changing the face of the British pub, though as Tidbury admits, it is not a simple job. “The tricky part is finding a formula that competes with other options, but does not change the essential, traditional environment of the majority of pubs.”
The slogan on the drinks list of Joe Robertson’s Newcastle chain of pubs said it all.
“Take a trip round the best pubs in town, turning drinking habits upside down.”
First at Rick’s Cocktail Bar – housed in former Victorian tea rooms – and subsequently at wine bars with such names as Legends, City Vaults and the Brahms and Liszt, Robertson brought razzmatazz to a trade that was as droopy as its stereotype customer, the flat-cap male swilling his pint of brown ale.
A former rock-band manager, decorative mirror maker and hairdressing salon owner, he enlivened his pubs with parties, barbecues, fashion shows and beauty competitions. At Sloanes, near Newcastle civic centre, he hired a portrait artist to draw free picture of his customers. Happy hours – where drinks are half-price – complete with a nightly champagne raffle, were introduced.
“We did with our pubs what the big breweries failed to do.” Says Robertson, a millionaire at 37.
Belatedly, the big brewers are learning fast and spending big, Mintel reports: “Theme pubs are all the rage in the industry now. Pubs that are hardly pubs at all have begun to appear. Some offer particular attractions to women such as art deco and fresh flowers, others are especially designed to appeal to a particular interest group, such as sports fans.”
Today’s drinkers are as likely to be surrounded by videos of cricket matches, South Sea flora and fauna, Elvis Presley memorabilia, old colonial décor and psychedelia, as timber beams and horse brasses.
Some of these developments appal Tony Millins, chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale, which is active in the field of pub preservation. Its manifesto says the pub is a “unique and precious part of the British heritage” now threatened by “closure or by improvement”.
Millins is apprehensive about theme pub developments and talks of Host Group’s attempts to create concept pubs – “with a uniformity of product from Penrith to Penzance” – in terms reserved in the past for such bogey beers as the Tartan Terror and Watney’s Red Barrel.
He would probably approve of what Ansells, through its group brewers Holt Plant and Deakin has done to the New Inn at Oldbury. It is now reopened as the Brewery Inn after being modernised back in time with exposed brickwork bar, Victorian-style lampshades, kitchen range and original mosaic tiled floor. Centrepiece of Vic Norton’s refurbished put is the brewery run by a biochemistry honours graduate, David Rawstorne. Each week it produces two brews – about 7,500 pints of real, “hoppy” ale.
While brewers and professional customers, like Camra members, may differ over matters of taste in both beer and décor, they agree that an all-round improvement in facilities and services is badly needed if the pub is to survive.
The reaffirmation that these universal, but often neglected, “basics” still count for so much should come as some consolation to the embattled brewers searching for a winning pub formula. It is impossible to please all the people, all the time – as Bob Lewis would be the first to admit.
He had the arresting idea of turning the Brandling Arms at Jesmond, on Tyneside, into a police theme pub. The Old bill, as it was called, was fitted out with bars in the window, a courtroom with “dock” for drinkers, dummies of “Bill Sykes” robbers carrying swag sacks, and a model policeman with notebook menus, and police telephone kiosk.
Looking back, Lewis says it was not these so much as the murals of policewomen, scantily dressed in blue shirts, suspender belts and stockings, that provoked the raid by militant feminists.
They sprayed his murals with aerosol paint and “turned the model policeman into a piece of pornography”.
Lewis says the Old Bill was a commercial success, but he sold it shortly after the raid. Now it is the Brandling Arms again.