Can pubs fight back?

Can pubs fight back?

10 December 2020

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Having been fortunate enough to live in a few different countries (including the USA and Australia), and having spent a lot of time in New Zealand (having a Kiwi wife), I often find myself in a conversation about what I’d miss most about Britain, living abroad.  And the answer is simple.  Our pubs.  (Sorry Mum).

It’s an old cliché, but a true one – pubs really are the centre of our communities, and one of the very best and unique parts of our culture.  A meeting place for absolutely everyone, across all of society.  But their very existence is threatened.

Even before the pandemic, if you were to speak to any brewery CEO or individual pub landlord, they would have talked about their immense pressure to make a profit, and the number of pubs that were closing every day (994 in 2019).  The financial crisis, the smoking ban, the rise in the national living wage, increased operations costs due to inflation, cheap supermarket booze, and consumer trends around reduced alcohol intake all combined to make a very challenging environment for pubs.

And then came 2020, and COVID-19.  

Pub closures in the initial lockdown felt necessary and unavoidable.  Pub closures during the second lockdown and the continued regulations that limit their trade have been greatly challenged by the industry.  Away from this specific debate, what is undisputable is that never before have our pubs and the wider brewing industry faced such adversity and a fight for survival.

Yet amongst the crisis, I genuinely see hope.  This optimism is based on a greater appreciation for what we have, and the innovations enforced in an industry that greatly needed it.

It’s remarkable how human’s appreciate things more when they are taken away.  I truly believe that being without pubs for over 4 months this year (especially when the weather was so good) had a huge impact on many of us.  After all, according to Project Britain, as a nation visiting a pub is our favourite past time outside of the home.  And Statista state that 52.7% of Britain’s go to pubs as part of their leisure time.  The impact of their closure may well stay with us for years to come.

This impact was evident in the joys people showed when going back to pubs.  For some, it was a simple mid-week pint and catch-up that won’t be taken for granted any time soon, for others it was back to regular Friday night gatherings, finishing country walks as they should always finish, Sunday Roasts, or a refreshing drink in the sun in a pub garden.  A range of simple, yet treasured pleasures.

For beer fans it was different.  Real ale isn’t anywhere near the same at home as in a pub.  And to a lesser extent, neither are lagers.  Pubs have products that aren’t available anywhere else.  This previously felt like a ‘beer geek’ thing, but now it’s a far wider appreciation.

The pandemic and national restrictions have also led to a series of innovations that have sprung up across the country.  In times of desperation, we are forced to evolve and to innovate, seeking new ways to raise income.  Speciality real ale and craft pubs have offered take-home and delivery beer supplies for their loyal customers, perfect for weekend BBQs.  Some local pubs have tapped into the WFH trend, offering those in need of a change in scenery, a place to work –“£10 for a table throughout the day, with wifi, free tea and coffee and a drink at the end of your day” – Who wouldn’t fancy that?  New breakfast and brunch menus are extending the day and their potential audience, and other pubs have built brilliant new eating areas outside, with and new experiences, from beach huts to dining pods.

Pubs have also found news ways of communicating with their customers, finally finding the time to set up that Facebook page, and starting to build their followings.  There are further innovations that pubs must be considering, and learning and maintaining a culture of innovation may be key for their future. For example, non-alcoholic beer has been a huge growth area for beer brands in the off-trade industry, but pubs are yet to truly innovate in this area. If pubs can start to offer a high-quality range of low and non-alcoholic beers on tap, it would be a game changer for non-drinkers and drivers.  Likewise, many customers may have really enjoyed table service, especially those who can’t stand at a bar for half an hour to be served.  Can pubs keep this level of service for consumers that seek it?

When the ghastly 2020 is finished with, there will clearly be a financial heartache for many.  But we’ll also have a consumer audience with a heightened appreciation of why our pubs are brilliant and crucial to our national culture and wellbeing.  We’ll have an increased desire to support local businesses and local community hubs. We’ll have a culture of innovation and new ideas that has been forced on an industry that has largely remained traditional for so long.  And for some, we’ll have a far greater appreciation for a physical product that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

All fabulous ingredients for the future.

Most pubs can’t survive without a local, passionate and loyal following.  This is why so many have closed over the last decade.  But as a nation, we now know far more clearly how we feel when they are gone.  And the potential to treasure and appreciate what’s ‘local’, may just help our local pubs to fight back in 2021.

Written by Jamie Williams.