The local pubs thriving despite nationwide closures
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Pubs continue to close at an alarming rate in Gloucestershire and beyond. Latest figures show that across the country, 29 are closing every week. But it is possible for pubs to not only survive but thrive. Paul Keenan spoke to two landlords about how to buck the trend.
Mike Huysinga believes the rate of pub closures that has changed the face of some parts of the UK will now start to slow down but that the “cull” was necessary.
Mike, who runs three pubs in Cheltenham with his wife Georgina, says the country simply had too many pubs and that many were being run so badly, closures were inevitable.
“We are like any other business,” he said. “You are only viable if you have customers. In our case that means customers coming to the pub.”
We were talking in the bar of the Exmouth Arms on Bath Road and we are surrounded by a surprisingly large number of young mums with pushchairs. It’s the first clue that one of the reasons that this pub is succeeding is because it attracts such a wide range of different customers.
Another clue follows as Georgina is served a pot of mint tea.
Part of the reason the Huysingas are thriving is because they took the decision to diversify.
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Mike said: “The cull was inevitable for a number of reasons. The smoking ban meant some people stopped using pubs as regularly and people had other places to spend their leisure pound. The rise in the number of restaurants and places like out-of-town cinemas all meant there were other places to go than pubs.”
Georgina said: “The impact that supermarkets have had with their prices meaning it is cheaper to drink at home also had a big impact.”
The mint tea isn’t just Georgina’s choice, it’s a good seller at the Exmouth, presumably particularly with those young mums, who are here for a baby pilates class in the function room.
“We have reinvented ourselves to cope with the demand that is there,” said Georgina. “In some ways the function room is like the village hall for the area and our beer garden is like the village green.”
They never stand still. A pizza oven has just been added to the garden and the pub has been refurbished, with an impressive copper bar now the centrepiece.
Any conversation about the demise of pubs, inevitably turns to the pub cos, blamed by many for forcing landlords out of business so the buildings can be sold to developers. And one name that always seems to come up is Enterprise Inns.
The Huysingas are in a better position than most to comment. They lease the Royal from Enterprise, have a tenancy with Arkells at the Exmouth and run the Strand on a private lease.
“We’ve always got on well with Enterprise,” Mike said. “They invested a lot of money in the Royal before we took it over and people in Charlton Kings welcomed that.”
What about the pub cos’ reputation for repeatedly pushing up rents to levels that make the job unviable?
“If you pay your rent and buy their beer they leave you alone,” said Mike. “I’ve had one rent review since we took over in 2009 and it was in line with my expectations. The chief executive has been to visit and he is positive about the pub.
“If you think a review is unfair, you can take it to mediation, which Enterprise has to pay for. They have to accept whatever decision is come to.”
At the Strand, the private lease enables the Huysingas to offer a range of beers that has made it very popular with real ale enthusiasts.
But back at the Exmouth, there are also benefits that being fully tied to Arkells brings as well, with the brewery funding that recent refurbishment.
Mike said: “We do operate in different ways at our three pubs but we’re here to run a business. A lot of people decide to take over a pub because they like going to pubs but you’ve got to have a proper business plan in place. You’ll never see me getting drunk in one of my pubs. We’re here to work and have some great people working for us.”
Just up the road from the Strand is a pub that has a well deserved reputation for the quality of its real ales, crafts beers and lagers.
So much so that the Sandford Park Alehouse was not only named Pub of the Year by the Cheltenham branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in 2014 and 2015, but was in the top 200 in the UK this year.
Not bad for a pub that was only opened in April 2013 by owner Grant Cook.
And here is a man who is making a success of the pub game in a very different way from the Huysingas - to Grant the beer is everything.
“I’ve never seen an advertisement for a pub that includes a picture of the cellar but if you’re running a beer pub like this, it’s the first thing you should look for,” he said. “When I converted this place, I was never going to compromise on the quality of the cellar. The infrastructure has to be right at the start.”
A long-standing member of Camra, he could have been an accident waiting to happen - a beer enthusiast who was earning a good living as an IT consultant but always believed he could run a better pub than the ones he drank in.
And while he was always going to want to run a pub free of a tie to a brewery, there is one focus for Grant’s concerns with where the pub industry finds itself - the banks.
What should have been a straightforward investment in the former nightclub that became the Sandford Park Alehouse was far from that.
Grant had invested his savings from his IT work in pubs in Leicester but moved to Cheltenham when his girlfriend Heidi (the couple are to marry later this year) landed a job in the town. By 2011, he’d sold up in Leicester and the couple’s home in Cheltenham had no mortgage.
His search for the right venue for a pub in Cheltenham was getting nowhere but then he saw in January 2012 that gay nightclub EXS in High Street was closing down. He was so certain the building was the right place for his pub that he didn’t let the fact he was about to go holiday to Thailand stop him.
He emailed an offer from Thailand, which was accepted immediately. But it took until November of the same year for him to actually buy the place.
“The bank seemed supportive at first,” he said. “I was looking for about £300,000 against our home and they liked the business case I had put together. If anything, they thought I was being conservative. But then I was told they wouldn’t be able to support me. The same thing happened at bank after bank. The truth was, at a time when the coalition government was saying that banks were lending again, there was a definitive policy in place not to lend to pub ventures like mine.” Grant turned to his family and friends, many of whom he had met through Camra. They agreed to buy shares in his company Mainly Beer Limited and, once one business acquaintance supported him with a secured loan of £100,000, Grant’s project was back on.
“They believed in me because of what I’d done before and that should have been enough for the banks as well,” he said. “My message to others would be not to take no for answer. But also make sure you have your finances in order. Always have some slack, particularly if it is a new venture.”
In Grant’s case that slack was needed for the building and renovation work. The delays meant dry rot had set in and there were mushrooms the size of the windows on the upstairs floor. “I know about beer,” said Grant. “But what I know about building you could write on a matchbox.” But there have been positive surprises too, like the success of the beer garden at the Sandford Park.
“There used to be three tables out there when it was a club. Now we can seat 100 and it has given us an extra dimension. As soon as we get a good spell of weather it is full and attracts different customers from the regulars who are with us all year round.” Not the sort of diversification that has worked for the Huysingas, but it’s given this popular pub something extra. And both businesses show that pubs can be a success in 2015. Just make sure you give the customers what they want.
Rallying around The Red Lion
There have been times when it hasn’t been down to an individual landlord to ensure the survival of a pub - but the local community.
So it was in Arlingham when the village’s only pub The Red Lion was going to be sold at auction amid fears that it would never open again.
Local solicitor Edward Davis came up with an action plan to run the pub as a community venture and, within 48 hours in June 2013, villagers raised £300,000 to save it.
The Grade II listed building dates from the 16th century and has been running successfully ever since.
It wasn’t the first time villagers had pulled together to save a village asset - clubbing together to keep Arlingham chapel as a village hall amid concerns the site would be developed for homes.