Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Pondering the Pub Thing Again

You know I love pubs. You don't? Look, I even owned one for a while, that's how much I love them. Owning a pub, it turns out, isn't always quite as much of a love thing as just going to one on a Saturday night, getting a bit tipsy and making slightly knob-head innuendo flirty jokes at the nice lady bar staff. Which is fun, until you get home, sleep it off, and get next day it gets pointed out by your partner, who of course was there too, that actually, you really are a knob-head. You remember through the haze of the hangover that actually, yes, you realise now, and for a few hours vow to never drink again. Or at least not quite so much. At least until next week at any rate.

The problem is, when you own a pub, and that drunken knob-head is in fact making irritating flirty jokey innuendo at your partner, you realise that actually drunk people, when you are not drunk, are very much not funny at all. But still, they are part of the territory, and you have to remain calm, as a person of responsibility, when you are the pub owner, and the person who might have to be up in the docks should anything turn nasty. Trying to square some of these circles was the reason I started writing this blog in the first place. Ultimately the stresses made us decide to leave the pub, before it got the better of us, although arguably, it already had.

I'm really going quite far off the track with this opening, but it is relevant background I think. And just to point out, we are just over a year into having our own licence on-trade outlet again1, on Millom Station. You might have heard of it, it's called Hardknott OnTrack. We like it. We'd like it to be busier, and open more often, but it serves it's main purpose, which is to ensure there is somewhere in my town we can get Hardknott Beer served the way I want it. Due to the way I have it staffed, I'm normally only found in there sober when it's closed, generally fixing something. Any other time I'm found in there I'm a drunken dick-head. The arrangement seems to work OK, most of the time.

I possibly didn't need to give you that "I think I know what I'm talking about" preamble to introduce the main theme of this post, but I think the wrapping around the subject helps to make more of what would otherwise be just a favour for someone.

Earlier in the week Frances Brace, a British Guild of Beer Writers member forwarded me some information about a pub in her village that was potentially never going to open again. Asking if I could raise awareness as the village is trying to raise enough money to buy the pub and run it as a collective. The pub is call The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham I'm only too pleased to try and help, although I'm not sure what mentioning it on my blog will do, but happy to do so.

It got me thinking, as oft times I do; If no one want's to buy and run this pub, then perhaps this is just a lost cause? Putting all your money into a pub, or even finding a bank that will help out, can be a bit daunting. Haven't you heard? Pubs are struggling, so why would anyone in their right mind want to fund such a daft idea. If you think I'm working against Frances' request, bear with me.

The trouble with owner-run pubs is that often you become too close, too passionate, too caring. Very often everything you've ever owned has been ploughed into the pub and it is the licensee's whole life, and complete existence. Couple that with long days, a need to unwind, and a pint or two at the end of the day and you can end up with an incendiary situation when dealing with the thing day-in, day-out.

Could pubs run by the community be the very thing? I used to think not. How on earth can a pub be run by committee? That's just daft.

But it does seem to be working. In Cumbria there is the Hesket Newmarket pub The Old Crown. This is reputed to be the country's very first community owned pub. Why does the model seem to work? Why should a pub that doesn't seem to thrive under private ownership seem to do OK when run under the guidance of a gathering of pub enthusiasts?

I feel I do understand a little. For a start, a pub has a large user base. People who own the pub, in a collective, are likely to want to use their asset. They are also providing a feed-back into the pool of ideas, but generally off-line, rather than as a drunken knob-head saying "''eresh mate, what syou wants to do ish..."

I've had some great ideas when I've been drunk. I've also had some really lousy ones. The trouble is, when you've had a long day, and trying to unwind, the last thing you want is some drunk trying to tell you how to run your business. Rather than being receptive to new ideas, the scenario tends to make me more determined to ignore them all, even the ones I shouldn't.

A committee of genuinely caring people, who love the pub, and can discuss collectively the ideas, hopefully whilst not too drunk, may generate a truly inspirational environment. In any case, so long as they keep the job ticking over, and the books balanced, whatever they do, they'll be maintaining the pub the way they want it to be.

Most importantly, if the pub is in the hands of the community, perhaps it is more loved. Despite the fact that most licensees work very long hours for precious little reward, very often annoyance is directed at the licensee for "ripping off" the beer drinker. At least in the case of a pub run by the villagers, and other interested parties, the price of the pint is at least going back into the village asset with full transparency of the economics involved. The pub goer is empowered and given a little bit of control, and everyone is happy.


1It is now over 5 years since we sold our first pub. It is interesting that many people are unaware that we are no longer there. Indeed, we recently decided to stop supplying that pub with any beer at all, hence no mention of the pub's name in this text.


Curmudgeon said...

As the saying goes, "a camel is a horse designed by a committee".

Of course it can work if the support is there, but if it starts making losses there's the potential for a massive bust-up.

And most pubs need to attract at least some customers from outside their immediate community.

Jeffrey Bell said...

I've being doing some consultancy work for a group seeking to purchase, restore and then run their own pub via a community interest company. if it progresses and they instruct me to oversee the rest of the project up to opening it again I'll report back and let you know how it went!

I foresee many problems with the committee model, but many advantages too compared to what has gone before at the site in question: no investment from the freeholder (a pubco) and lessees with neither the capital nor the nous to make it work themselves.

Cherry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave Bailey said...


I get your points. Indeed, I would hope that a group with the interest of making something work would realise that ideals wanted from the view of a pub customer sometimes are not achievable. For instance, making it busy with visitors, doing food, having music nights and other things that I know some pubs do, and helps drag in punters, but sometimes pisses off the regular drinker.

But, design by committee is indeed the biggest problem. A strong leader is needed, and that is often a problem with volunteers.


I think it can work, but it does need a hardcore of commitment, and broader support.

As an example, many public buildings that are run by communities survive because there is a collective interest to make them survive. For example, I'm vaguely involved with a theatre in our town. It's been various things including a cinema. Currently it is in the hands of some enthusiastic trustees. Commercially it just shouldn't work. It's a big building that is underused. But due to people willingly giving up time to make it work, it manages to just about keep afloat.

A community run pub is much more likely to get maintenance jobs done by capable volunteers when they reslise they can't afford to pay a decorator, for instance.

Although arguments about colour schemes are inevitable, I guess....

Jeffrey Bell said...

Arguments about colour schemes? See Auf Weidersehen Pet Series 1, when Barry makes the lads all vote using AV.

PS. JeffrEy, you div

Tandleman said...

"Democracy. Everyone gets what nobody wants". Barry I think said that Jeffers.

Jeff Pickthall said...

I've been experiencing this committee thing recently in a co-operative brewery start-up I'm involved with. In my experience, decisions by committee are pretty good on the whole. The downside is that it can be slow. Things that can be decided acted upon in five minutes are often delayed by needing to be discussed formally and minuted at a committee meeting - which occur every two or three weeks.