When is a Pub Not a Pub

I have read, but cannot find it today, that local Authorities do not like allowing a change of use for the last pub in a village to a dwelling because of the loss of amenity/community. Speaking, some time ago, to one of the main movers and shakers behind the purchase of a community pub, he believed that the closure of the pub would have closed his community, or words of a similar ilk.

One of our friends said in a text, “Have you seen ‘so and so’ because I have not seen him for months.” It is true that we would have seen this person at least three times per week in the pub in the afternoon along with a number of people who we were and are happy to call friends. A pub should be the focus of the community. A place to meet and enjoy a chat with other village folk. One senior member of our community recalls that when air raids were on during the war, and this area would have been one of the first to see the Heinkels crossing the coast to drop bombs on the towns and aerodromes that his flat land was purpose made to house, they were allowed to go to the pub to wait out the raids. Not that they were any safer there, than in their houses, but they would have shared the troubles, that the raids posed, with friends in the pub.

Strange, but it has not been just the pandemic that has changed the focus of many things including the pubs in the Peninsula. OK, the global virus was never going to leave things as they are. I think we are now on our fourth packet of medical-grade masks from Amazon and our fourth litre of medical-grade alcohol rub, that we decant into handy pocket-size plastic bottles. The sight of people wearing masks in shops has never stopped even though the legal requirement was suspended for a time. Look in any of my outdoor coats, and you will find a mask and a hand cleanser bottle. Our cars have a similar story. although in larger quantities.

During lock downs we lost the closeness of friends that we had spent a long time together before the virus struck. Electronically we were fine because thanks to some enterprising individual a social WhatsApp group was set up for people to keep in touch and this continued when we were released from the lockdowns to more normal times. There was always Facebook although that is targeted to a group of individuals and alarms of posts are only given when you have ‘friended’ a person. Whatsapp is not social media rather a group targeted messaging service.

Whilst you can use electronic means to keep in contact with friends there is nothing that can replace face to face contact. I have friends who still work and there is a difference between their views on working from home. Many love the concept of home working and are not missing the face to face contact with their colleagues, but others who have argued that Zoom or Teams is not the same as the positive stroking that you get for meeting colleagues. We are gregarious, the human race, and we like to live, work and play in groups, like our near genus the ape. OK so we don’t spend a lot of time grooming or delousing our neighbours like apes. Several millennia have created a group ‘no touch’ attitude to non-family members, but we like to converse and mostly not in grunts.

For the most of us, when that human interaction is removed then our complex brains cannot cope. Even in school age children that lack of age group interaction did cause mental stability problems when the pandemic forced home schooling. Despite the online learning from schools and other resources our children did not cope. Speaking to one of our friends, who is a teacher, she found that her youngest got upset because what she was teaching was not necessarily what Mrs SoandSo would be teaching. So not only do our children require age group interaction, but they need the confidence that continuous level of control and learning by an individual teacher. When I was young moving up a class year was always traumatic, because of the change from one teacher to another. You can imagine the impact of one day being at school and the next at home and, if you were lucky enough, sitting in front of a screen to get your lessons. The long term impact on our children will hopefully not be too traumatic, but apart from the second world war I cannot imagine another event that could have greater affect on our children like the pandemic. It is not just our children that suffered during the pandemic. There are many stories of increased anxiety amongst our older population evident to the point of certain individuals requiring mental health assistance.

So, how can we improve the mental health of our older residents who are as not as resilient as children. I have evidence of how quickly children can bounce back from the pressures of home schooling when they return to their classrooms.

Well the first thing is get this pandemic sorted and our scientists are working on mitigating actions. Vaccinations and anti-viral jabs are now available and even with new variants the future is looking less bleak. We are not being locked down again, so far this winter but the loneliness will still persist and the mental damage that has been done in the various lockdowns will persist also. So how can we help mitigate that loneliness that always been there in this very pretty and very lonely village, but probably made worse for some people by the various lockdowns . One of the main things can help is having places where the residents can meet. Looking around this sparsely populated area the tendency is for ‘meeting’ organisations to be targeted at ladies., “for example The WI, Stitch and Bitch and craft groups. Now, whilst I would not be so misogynistic to suggest that men cannot attend some of these they do tend to lean towards Women. For men, the traditional meeting place would have been the Ale House or Pub. Happily we have moved on from the times when ladies never used to go to the pub except with their partner. Even as late as the start of Coronation Street in December 1960, Enid Sharples, Martha Longhurst and Minnie Caldwell would only have been seen in the Snug of the Rovers Return Pub because they were ladies on their own. But, like it or not the Pub was, and still remains, a place where men could meet and interact with their mates/friends especially where they are on their own. It would have provided the essential face to face interaction that modern human beings find essential. A Pub would provide a diverse set of characters that the lonely individual can interact with.

At one time there would be a pub on every street corner and at least one in every village. If you look in a previous blog ‘The Peninsula’s Lost Pubs’ you will read of the pubs that have closed, leaving only one in some villages and in others none. The statement made at the beginning of this blog that Local Authorities do not like the last village in a pub closing I believe is, perhaps, a recent planning rationale. In the BBC News Website in September 2010 an article appeared that stated that Village life was dying out because Village pubs were closing at an alarming rate. I would like to add an addition to that coda of Village life could also brought about by the change of a Village Pub from the tradition pub to something more akin to a restaurant. We have seen this happen to so many Pubs in Villages where the owners, landlords, or managers consider that to survive you must maximize your profit by concentrating on food exclusively and the wet sales to only accompany the food served, rather than as an additional singular offering to food. These Pubs are uninviting to the sole drinker who could slake his loneliness by slaking his thirst with alcohol at home. The pop-up Pub is a modern feature of pub-less villages, and I am sure that it is not just to create a profit but to provide a community service, meeting place, when the last pub has closed. Usually these pop-ups are held in Village Halls where the Village does not have the amenity of the pub.

To my mind when you take on a Village pub you are becoming part of that community and to ignore the duty of care to that Village by only having just a restaurant is ‘nose thumbing’ to the parishioners in the same way as we have seen so called entrepreneurs who buy up pubs and attempt to turn them into a single dwelling. If you commit to your community then generally your community will commit to you. Offering a food and beverage pub will allow your community to spend time and money in your pub and should provide you with a profit. There are many pubs near and far where a balance between food and wet sales can make money for the owner/landlord. I meet a lot of people from other other Villages on or off the Peninsula and I always ask them about their pubs. “Does it do food,” and “but do you feel happy going in just for a drink.” and the majority of people I ask say yes with a bit of a questioning look as if to say to say “why ever not.”

I like, and so do many people in and around here, to ‘go out’ for food and unlike the visitor it will be for the whole year not just the summer months. We have friends who eat out every Wednesday and do not venture and further into this area than the Unruly Pig. That is 52 visits out each year at least. They drive to places, they are not short of a bob or two and three courses each time. So to manage to get this repeat business your pub must be welcoming, with no evil eye stares, and an acceptance that the food must be balanced with drink. When you have a quarter full restaurant in your pub you need to add to the income by selling drink on it’s own. Some profit is better than no profit at all. If you have the staff in, that you are paying for, then get them to serve drink. There must be profit in drink. All comes back to, it is a long hard winter on the Peninsula when the grockles have gone.

This balance between food and wet sales got me thinking about and meandering through the question ‘what does it take to keep a pub open on the Peninsula’. The obvious answer is profit. It takes a very comfortably off philanthropist with a very keen sense of benevolence to keep a pub open that does not make money. I have no food and beverage experience (F&B, I always like that short form for some reason) so what I have written below is logic and the best that internet can provide in information to the question ‘How do pubs make a profit?’

We are a special area and this village in particular. I am not just talking about an area of natural beauty etc., but the special nature and volume of its inhabitants. During the winter, you can pretty much guarantee that the volume of people living here is at its minimum. Not sure what the number of permanent residents Shottisham has because we are still waiting on the 2021 Census results that will start to be published this year. What we do know is that there were about 130’ish registered electors a couple of years ago, and that will not include the second homeowners who spend some of the week here but are not registered for voting. Not very many people, but it expands, or maybe explodes, in the summer months. We have at least three campsites in the immediate area and a number of ‘holiday homes’. So you can imagine that in the summer and the half terms either side the pubs need to be making their money to keep them going during the cold, quiet months of winter.

So what would you expect to be the métier of every pub landlord when they come to decide on a strategy to keep them open and solvent. There is more than one, it appears to me, and here are a few.

I think you have to know your market. There is little point in trying to make a pub on the Peninsula a fine dining establishment. The Unruly Pig has that accolade, and I suspect that there is probably not room for another. Look at their menu and their chef, and you can see that the owner set out to make it so and has succeeded thus far. He is probably not really interested in the ‘local trade’, and an article in one of the national dailies makes sure, perhaps, that his clientele come from far and wide.

We tried an evening session thereafter, a very successful visit for Sunday lunch. More about Sunday lunches later. Unfortunately, it was not long after the said article had been published, and although we booked some time in advance, we were sat on a table for two in what appeared to be a corridor. The whole experience was less than satisfactory. We had diners and servers constantly walking past our table not more than six inches from my shoulder. This was in one of the pandemic rule relaxation periods pre-vaccine, so being of some age, we would be classed in the ‘vulnerable category’ and that close to that number of people was not very COVID friendly. We kept our masks on even when seated. We were allocated a dining experience of ‘two hours’, and we just managed to keep within that because of the slow service. We will not go back there, but I suspect the owner and his staff will not let that affect their sleep. I am sure that the experience was down to the place’s popularity as I am sure that no establishment would set out to have that sort of service, or perhaps they do, because we were the smallest number of customers seated so our meal cost would have been at least half of the fours, sixes and eight person tables that seem to make up the majority of the place. As a final part to the Pig write up I was sent an email by the owner announcing that they had been voted ‘Gastropub of the Year’ so less chance of having a fine dining establishment anywhere close to the Pig.

So my opinion, fine dining is not a possibility if you are restricted in the type of chef that you can attract. If you do attract an excellent chef, then you are restricted in the kind of clientele you can draw. Have a look at the areas where the pubs are situated on the Peninsula, and maybe you would you agree that there is only one other that could support some kind of ‘upmarket experience’ and that is the Ramsholt Arms. It does have boating visitors, and as such, they are perhaps more likely to ‘shell out’ on a more expensive menu. I must admit that the Ramsholt is in an area that is as pretty as a peach, and it does pull them in in summer.

They did some strange things post the last lockdown, but I am not going into that here. Going back to the previous lockdown release, we booked a lunch meal in what was the same COVID relaxation period that we visited the ‘Pig’. We always eat early, so we arrived just as it opened and shared the indoor ‘window area’ with a boating family just off their sailing tug. You could tell that they were a boating family. All were dressed in ‘just off the gin palace in St Tropez’ type clothes. Lots of Ralph and Hugo with the elder male with a cashmere top tied around the shoulders and Brunello deck shoes worn without socks. The children, definitely not Suffolk accents, but more Chelsea, were similarly attired. This was a fine day following some pretty wet weather. The menu was quite straightforward and typically ‘pub grub’, so easy to choose from because of the limited number of dishes as was to be expected in the wake of the first national lockdown and the imposition of local rules. Now the point of this part of the blog is the type of the people you will get coming ashore in Ramsholt. This group got their drinks and their menus and carried on chatting with the menus left untouched until the waitress retuned sometime later and was informed that they had not looked at them yet. She went away and the menus remained untouched. How rude, because she came back twice more before she was able to extract their choices. The world obviously revolved around them. So you can imagine that in a lockdown free Suffolk with a skilled chef the Ramsholt could make a go of, if not fine dining, then an exclusive menu of selected dishes. Pre-pandemic we got a couple of prawn open sandwiches, with dressing to die for on a walk from here to there and back and it was better than any lunch meal that I have seen or tasted on the Peninsula, but it was not cheap!

Fine dining or even up market dining cannot be exclusive except perhaps in the summer crush, but then you are alienating your ‘don’t fancy cooking tonight’ customers.

So a balance between pub classics and a few unusual dishes would probably suit the winter. It is a long winter and apart from the occasional grockle and hikers, pubs are very much reliant on the locals for their bread and butter trade. What I have found in Suffolk is that the local populace has very long memories. So the horrible stare from the pub manager when you ask to book a table or being told that you cannot be served drinks because the staff are serving food will not endear that populace to ‘come back soon’. OK so it may have been summer on both of those occasions, and busy, but it is a long hard winter.

One of the treats for a lot of our locals is Sunday lunch down the pub. Cooking was never a particular thing in our household growing up. Not sure why, maybe it was something that my mother never learnt from her mum and consequently the meals remained pretty much the same. nutritious and filling in that post war rationing time, but lacking a great deal of variety. The one thing she mastered, before she worked in a school kitchen and learnt a more varied cuisine from the cook, was the Sunday roast. A good piece of beef, roast King Edwards, two veg and a Yorkshire pudding to die for. I even had the gravy made with Bisto used to thicken the meat juices, and no cauliflower cheese. Where the hell did cauliflower cheese for Sunday lunch come from! Apparently cauliflower comes from Cyprus and was introduced to us by the French when they ruled that island between 1142 and 1489, so it probably has a long history here. But who the hell decided to put cheese on it, maybe the Cypriots, but then serve it with roast is a mystery.

The thing about Sunday lunch for me is not cooking it yourself. So a trip to a pub to sample their offering is a must. Just check out the Unruly Pig on a Sunday and ask the punters cramming into the place why they chose the roast. Looking around the Peninsula and checking out the availability of a Sunday Roast – Pig, Yes – Shepherd and Dog, yes – Ramsholt Arms, yes- Sutton Plough, yes, before it closed – Sorrel Horse, not that I can see unless the Chimichuri Bavette counts, I very much doubt it. I think you can fill you pub up on a Sunday if you offer a Roast. I wrote part of this in a pub/hotel in the middle of no where and the previous day was a Sunday with the two restaurants and the outdoor tables full of people eating roast such that when I got to order at about 7:45 there was no beef left. It appears to be about what the Market wants. Long hard winter for the pubs on the Peninsula!

Another key driver for profit, or non-profit, must be repeat business Because of the nature of the summer trade the repeat business of winter will not come from the visitors. OK, so if your visitor comes to the area a couple of times a year then it is likely that he will repeat his visits to a pub. So what four of five visits max for the holiday maker.

Not a driver for profit but a way to not lose it, must be the control over waste and the amount stored in stock. The only waste food that should go in the bin has to be that left on the customers plate, that if your chef is good, should be very little. The only drink to go down the drain should be that left in customers glasses. So how do you avoid waste.

Starting with drink it must be keeping stock commensurate with demand so that there is no waste or too much money tied up in stock. One thing that I have learnt from the recent fuel shortage is the amount of fuel that garages do not stock. They operate on a ‘just in time’ stock replenishment. Unlike high street stores who need to have stock to temp the customer the petrol stations fuel stock lives below ground and they only need to text their suppliers to get replenishment. So what does a pub need in the way of drink. You need to keep the customer satisfied whilst not throwing stock away. New to me is that beer has use by dates, so it is pointless packing your pub with beer that will never be sold in time. You need to plan and that plan can only be based on past sales. Stock what you can sell and that needs to be sold within the requisite time. OK so you need to have stuff on show and this will be the pumps in the case of draft and the array of bottles in the case of bottled beer. Specials are always a pull, or as they seem to be known now Guest Beers, but a word to the wise, try before you buy. If it tastes undrinkable to you it is going to taste the same to your customers. Having a couple of kegs of Guest Beer in you cellar unsold is trying you profit up, perhaps never to be recovered.

As pubs have moved into the food trade then wine has become a popular sale and as far as I can tell wine in its better forms will not have a sell by date, in fact it seems to improve with age although it can suffer by being ‘corked’. So, many wines have moved away from traditional corks to alternatives that appear as good as cork and not likely to react with the wine. So without a sell by date it is a matter of how much do you keep in your cellar. It is back to what are you likely to sell and how much do you need to keep. Having a wine list and not having the wine on that list is a bit of a no no. It is also a matter of good stock taking. ‘How much am I likely to sell and how quick can I get more’. I heard an excuse in an hotel when we asked for some crisps of nuts and we got, “we are waiting on a delivery,” Is the crises in HGV drivers going to be used when ever a retail operation does not have something to serve a customer. It is similar to the excuse ‘health and safety’ being used when an organisation etc, cannot be arsed to do something. Have an emergency plan so if you do run short you can make a dash to the wine wholesaler for replenishment.

Next on the list of ‘no waste’ is food and this must be down to the quality of the chef and the type of food being served. A pub, I and the internet believes, should operate on a just in time basis, whether this what is being served or what is taken from a freezer. Apparently most chefs believe it is not possible to run a business using fresh food alone. This is where planning must come in to play. How many customers am I going to get in, what will they like and what I am prepared to waste, what do I take out of the freezer and will, or has. the supplier delivered enough and the right type of fresh food. You can completely rely on frozen food but only as I make do. I believe fresh veg and fruit is a must in certain dishes.

Using frozen food is all about the preconceptions of chefs and customers. Customers want good food and don’t really care about whether it came from a freezer or a cold store. Provided chefs can overcome their exception to ‘frozen’ the customers will not mind. To punters, ambience and good service, tasty food and not the evil eye are key to making them come back. A survey by the British Frozen Food Association reports that 85% of chefs use frozen food regularly.

Way back in the 70’s we used to frequent a food pub that was breaking the mould of steak and black forest gateau and the chef regularly tried out new recipes on the customers. He would not charge the full price of a similar meal for and that was the first time I had seen ‘a special’. A special is always worth trying provided it matches with my allergies even though the food may have a sell by date one of two days ahead. Bit like when you find a can or package with a sell by date the next day. Do you throw the package away? No you cook it and serve it to the family. Same as the skilled chef if he/she finds a product going out of date he will no doubt find some dish to make with it or include it in. That separates the chef from the ‘cook’. When a pub employs a chef it looks to him to make profit and for that profit to continue in all circumstances and all times of the year. There is little point in making profit in the summer months to loose that profit in the winter. There are of course other reasons to have a special. One that springs to mind is a deal for ingredients or an ingredient from the supplier. Take those, cook a dish, make it a special so that it temps the unsuspecting customer who does not know that they are, it could be argued, overpaying for the base product, but then why should the chef care if his mark-up is better than average.

I think the final thing is stocktaking. In one community owned pub when they found that they had lost a vast amount of cash stated that ‘they had told the staff to do a stock take but they didn’t.’ First rule of managing people tell them, no ask them, to do something and then ‘blanking’ check that they have done it. As one successful publican put it you need to be a cross between a friend and a slave driver. I did do a short stint in a supermarket and I did take stock of the goods in store and this was seen by the chain as a key diver for keeping the store in profit. If you ain’t got it you can’t sell it and if it is out of date the same is true. Easier now is that with modern IT stock taking applications it should be a breeze keeping waste to a minimum. If you have got too much stock, that is profit tied up. Check your sell by dates and put the soonest dates at the front or on the menu.

One pub chain website has 5 key ingredients to make a profit.

Be honest and realistic. Take stock of what you pub is and what your customers want. On the Peninsula, and this village in particular, you have two types of customers. Those summer migrants who will feed on the bounty that you offer, like our feathered migrants will not care a tinker’s if the feeding ground, your local, is not there next year. There is always somewhere else to holiday. The others are the locals who, generally, are desperate for you to succeed so that they will have a ‘community type pub’ to meet with friends and enjoy a pint and a meal when they ‘go out’. These tend to be the ‘stoppers’, non-migrants, and will be there season after season, year after year if look after them.

Identify the right products to premiumise. (Looked that word up – obvious what it meant but not in common usage). Get to know your customers and try not to alienate them by replacing their favourite products. The migratory customer will not care if you have Peroni or Moretti provided its is over 4% alcohol by volume, he can drink it out of the bottle, and his partner can have a vodka soda lime with straw. He knows that his local will still stock his favourite premium foreign lager when he gets back home. But for heavens sake your local residents will drink a particular beer so it keep it topped up throughout the year and try that wholesale’y cheaper beer as ‘Guest’. The residents will love you for trying something different and it will give them something to moan about when they have four pints of their ‘usual’.

Customer Service. Making sure there is a bit of theatre when you serve the grockle adds to the feel. Premium gin poured from the bottle over lots of ice in a special glass will enhance the migratory experience. On the other hand if a resident comes in every day during the long winter months it does not add to his experience if you wait for him to ask for his drink. You should know what he liked after by a few visits and his request should be replaced by a question from you, Wherry Bill?

Ambiance. Oh how I love this one and yes it is important, but if you don’t have customers it is not. By all means put premium products in the loos with hand cream and nice towels etc. Make your food and drink properly up market. Above all make your pub a nice place to come. Giving the evil eye to customers or not serving them because they are not having food does not add to the ambiance or pull them back in.

Don’t forget there are two types of customer the migratory type and the residents and the feeding ground should suit them both. And above forget your winter customers at your peril. Summer, Half Teams and Christmas will not keep you going year round.

One last question; so why would you concentrate on making your pub a restaurant to the exclusion of the walk in drinkers? It must be profit. I did look and see if there was an easy guide to the difference between the profit on drink and the profit on food but there does not appear to be one. I have got the calculator out for this and I will compare two ‘servings’ a beer and a steak meal looking at the wholesale prices.

For the beer I chose a west country ale from Butcombe Brewery at £94.40 for 9 gallons. That works out at a cost price of £1.31 (94.40/9/8). Call it a guest ale and charge close to a fiver say £4.45 or call it a special and put it down at £4.00 a pop. Either way you are looking at between £2.69 and £3.14 raw profit which is not a bad return.

Let us take the steak. Say an 8 oz. I think if you can get a 8 oz from Waitrose for less than £10. Add the veg for say £1.50 and sell for £22 and you are looking at £10.50 profit. Of course to both of these you must add electricity etc, but not staff cost because from raw profit point of view these can be excluded. Looking at overall profitability of the concern these would need to be factored in.

I believe a balance between wet and food sales will give you a good return and a profit. OK so you make more from food but the resource cost is heavier than wet sales. To get your profit from food you have to have the customers to eat it.

One last thing. If your pub is only a restaurant then you only get diners and not necessarily from the local community. The diners will see the pub as a restaurant and use it as such because there are plenty of other places to eat. Add a drinkers part to your pub the drinkers, the locals, will see it as ‘their pub’ and will remain loyal and will eat their as well.

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