‘We put our own savings into it’ - what is life like as a pub landlord?
PUBLISHED: 06:30 17 August 2019 | UPDATED: 18:50 18 August 2019
Up and down the country, pubs are closing, as costs rise and numbers of punters dwindle. In some corners, though, optimism remains. Lauren Cope reports.
- The traditional pub
The odds were stacked against Michelle Payne when she took over The Ingate, in Beccles, as a first-time landlord.
It had been up for sale for years. It needed renovation. It focused on drinks, shunning the gastropub trend. It was out of town, away from footfall.
But, with husband Trevor, she persisted, swapping her previous role at an art gallery to trial life as a landlord for six months in late 2016.
"I had to show that I could make it work," she said. "I had to know my customers, know my area, know what it wants. You have to guess why people would want to come here and which other pubs nearby are doing well."
Now, three years on, they are in the swing of busy pub life, and have kept their focus on drinks, offering only the occasional sandwich and a place to enjoy takeaway meals.
"So many have become gastropubs now," she said, "it's like they've forgotten how to have fun. People are screaming they want a traditional pub, somewhere they can go and feel welcome and relax. It's about more than alcohol."
And life so far? Busy. The pair take Mondays and Tuesdays as their downtime, to switch off and catch up on life outside the bar.
"We pack the dogs in the car and head to our caravan," she said. "None of the staff can get us, it's our chance to switch off. If you don't have that it's seven days a week."
And the caravan - inspired by advice from a fellow pub owner - is also loaned to staff also in need of a chance to unwind.
Between pool teams, local musicians, disco bingo, Sunday Funday, prize draws, eight screens for sport and keeping up with orders, the rest of the week is non-stop.
"It is full on, but I love the people," she said. "I was brought up locally and a lot of the mechanics and labourers still live in the area, so their descendents come in and you know the families. You know how happy or sad their lives have been. People just want to be part of something."
Mrs Payne, a mother-of-two, said she is optimistic for the pub's future.
"We are putting the pub back together again. Window by window. We're being careful with our money, but I've made a commitment, and I'm here."
- The village pub
Out of the way of passing traffic, and with a smaller community to draw in, village pubs are often hardest hit in trying times.
Helen Higgins has, with her partner Kevin Wills, been publican at the Mermaid Inn in Elsing for 17 years, witnessing almost two decades of change.
She said customers often don't see landlords' biggest challenges, including energy, water and gas bills, increases in music licence costs and new software required to make tax digital.
"The crippling beer duty in the UK is 54p for a pint of 5pc ABC beer - in Germany it would be just 5p," she said. "Increases in the minimum wage and council taxes all pose another challenge for the licence trade.
"We are up against the supermarkets for alcohol and food - all the food we buy is 0pc VAT and the food we sell is subject to 20pc, and a lot of big companies do VAT deals with HMRC so it's not really a level playing field.
"In this current climate with fewer people using hospitality there will be a lot of closures."
She said mid Norfolk was lucky to still boast plenty of pubs, and said "if every person of drinking age just popped in for half a pint once a month it would be such a boost".
But she echoed the familiar 'use it or lose it' warning - saying that "if locals want to keep their locals we all need your support".
She said she and Mr Wills discussed leaving the trade, and said they worked long hours, seven days a week.
While the idea of the pub had been to set them up for retirement, she said the growing extra costs could feel "crippling".
"We have Monday lunch times off but we have been placing orders, doing the cleaning, doing the garden, washing - it never stops," she said.
"But we like it and meet a lot of characters. We love helping and talking to people. We hold a bingo evening on Monday night for folks in the village - it doesn't bring in any money but it's good fun."
- The retiring landlords
This December, Clint Smith and Shirley Rogers will lock up the Dog Inn, in Horsford, pack their belongings into a campervan and begin a three-month stint in Spain.
It will mark the end of era - the pair have run it for nine years, and previously ran both village pubs.
But health problems, finances and a lack of custom have made it the right time to step down.
Ms Rogers, 74, said: "It is a nice pub and it is nice people, it's just that we haven't got the volume of people... If you could afford to stay it would maybe be different because you could employ more people so you had more time off, but we can't do that.
"I don't think in 10 years time you'll have many village pubs left because I don't think the people who run them will be able to sustain it. People's drinking habits have changed so much over the years, I don't think you can sustain these sorts of pubs."
Mr Smith, 54, added: "We're not making anything out of it anymore. Over the last six months we've been putting a lot of our own savings into it."
They said they'd made friends over the years, and were lucky to be surrounded by helpful customers - when they repainted the pub walls recently, several locals turned up to chip in.
But they said it could be a trying role - most days start around 6.30am to 8am, and end at midnight to 1am - and that over the years they had been forced to miss family occasions.
"People want to see the landlord and landlady and what you've got to remember is it's not really a job, it's a lifestyle and it is seven days a week," Mr Smith, 56, said.
Ms Rogers - who became the youngest licensee in London aged 21, and previously worked as a nursing home and holiday park manager - said they had offered meals at their previous pub, but struggled to compete with big chains on price.
"When you've got to sell a meal for two people for £10, when you take your 20pc off there's not a lot left and then you've paid somebody to cook that, and then you've paid somebody to wait on it," Mr Smith said. "It's all about the bottom line with big companies, but if they can sell a million meals, a million small percentages is a lot of money."
- The food-focused pub
As pressure bites, plenty of pubs are switching their focus to food.
Among them is the Gull Inn. Previously a well-known pub along the A140, in Framingham Pigot, it is now entering a new chapter.
Steve Munson has led its change, shifting its balance and rebranding it as a food inn.
"We couldn't take it on as a pub because drinking establishments are becoming unviable," he said, "and it wouldn't have worked. Whereas it used to be 30/70 wet sales, it moved to 60/40 and now it is 70/30 the other way round."
He said they had followed the lead of big chains, and said while some drink-led pubs could thrive, including those by train stations, he believed many would struggle.
"The point is there has been such a dramatic change in the whole trade to the extent that you won't see a traditional pub in the next five years. You won't see one," he said.
He put the change partly down to a crackdown in drink-driving, and younger people gravitating towards built-up areas.
"If the breweries have gone that way, and they have people looking at where the audience is going, then that's the way it will go," he said. "But it now means we can have three generations enjoying [the inn] together, nans and grandads, parents and their children. We are doing between 800 to 1,000 meals a week."
He said that while the change was a success, there were still challenges, including recruiting staff and his long, sometimes 120-hour weeks, beginning early in the morning and not finishing until midnight.
"It is tough - you're on your feet a lot and then dealing with office work, it's a crazy trade," he said.
- The beer lover's pub
While gourmet grub has become the go-to for many landlords, others hope to entice particularly discerning drinkers.
There are arguably few real ale enthusiasts better-known than Colin Keatley, who has owned the popular Fat Cat Pub, on West End Street, for almost 30 years.
In that time, he has also set up the Fat Cat Brewery Tap, on Lawson Road, where his brewery of the same name is based, the Fat Cat and Canary, on Thorpe Road, and The Fat Percy, a private function space, on Adelaide Street.
But his career began aged just 15, pulling pints in his father's Covent Garden pub in London. Spells behind the bar in dozens of pubs followed, before he became one of the youngest licensees in the country in 1971, aged 21.
"The biggest change since then is probably the red tape," the 69-year-old said. "When you run a business, everything now has to be online. People paying with cards has also obviously increased, about 30pc of our take now is on cards."
He said the customers had also changed, becoming "more discerning than ever before".
The pub has retained its reputation among beer lovers for its variety - but Mr Keatley said growing popularity of craft beer meant its selling point had become less unique.
"We have a wider range of products available, but the game is competitive in Norwich, we have a lot of good pubs. Thirty years ago when we set this up we were one of only two good boozers, and now we've got 25. We have so many products - but so do a plot of pubs now, so it's not as unique and specialist."
While running the pubs and a busy brewery keeps him busy, he said his son being in the business meant he worked a 30 to 40-hour week.
"Another thing that has changed is that 30 or 40 years ago, the landlords or landlady would run a pub and would always be there," he said.
"I don't tend to see them as much anymore though. I think it's more about staff and management running pubs these days."
- The city pub
Another city pub holding firm is the Adam and Eve, on Bishopgate.
Rita McCluskey will have been at its helm for 19 years in December, becoming a well-known name in Norwich.
Widely believed to be the oldest pub in the city, and as picturesque as they come, it benefits from a steady stream of tourism trade, thanks in part to appearances in guide books around the world.
While times may be tough in smaller communities, Mrs McCluskey, who has worked in the industry for almost 40 years, said one of the biggest changes in Norwich was the number of new city centre bars.
"Lots of places which used to be businesses have become bars, turning potential customers into potential competitors," she said.
She cited Queen Street as an example, saying that, some years ago, just one building - today Brewdog - was a bar, and the rest was office space.
"Everything is getting harder," she said, "but that's not special to the pub trade. If Tesco is having to shut Tesco Metros, you'll see it everywhere."
She said things had become easier since she secured the freehold of her pub last year, and said she was optimistic for the future.
"The upside for me is that I have such a fabulous place and I'm now a freehouse, which I have been for just over a year," she said.
"There's lots of brilliant traditional pubs, like the Red Lion and the Ribs of Beef, that are pulling people in.
"You have got to go with the trends and people are very demanding, but there is a lot of positivity.
"You can't please all of the people all of the time."
When asked what an average day is like, she summed it up in one word: "Chaos."
"Challenging is actually probably a better word," she added. "You just never know what's going to happen. You get up in the morning and suddenly find none of the machines work, or there's a power cut. It's challenging."
- The micro-pub
Costly overheads have driven a rise in smaller drinking spots - dubbed micropubs.
It was two years ago that a former taxi base in North Walsham was transformed into micropub The Hop-In.
Run by former taxi driver Richard Cornwall, friend Nigel Davies and their partners Sue Squires and Jane Edrupt, the pub has a handful of beers on at a time, can seat 45 people over two floors and doesn't serve food.
And it has proved a hit with both locals and real ale lovers.
Mr Cornwall, 63, said: "It's not a conventional pub. We don't have loud, blaring music, spirits or food and mainly it's about real ale.
"That's where it really started. It's straight from the barrel and it's a growing trend which is filling the gap in the high street.
"We were apprehensive to begin with, and we did have people come in and ask for things we weren't really doing.
"Some of the pubs in North Walsham do offer real ale, but it is few and far between, so it's going quite well so far."
Mr Cornwall said they swap their beers on a regular basis, and try to meet requests from discerning customers.
"Getting the balance right is probably the challenge," he said. "Everyone is different, it's like wine really - everyone has their favourite wine.
"We try not to upset people but you can't please everyone all the time."
With everyone at close quarters, he said it encouraged conversation between regulars - and kept costs low.
"We are very small," he said. "We haven't got the big overheads and the volume of staff that some chain, or bigger, pubs have."
- The community-run pub
As landlords retire or breweries sell up, determined communities are banding together, raising cash and launching a fight back.
Among the growing number of pubs now owned by the community is The Fox Inn, in Garboldisham, near Diss, which was reopened after a decade in December 2016.
And retired firefighter Eddie Theaker, a director at the Garboldisham Fox Community Interest Community, said it had been a learning curve for its team of volunteers, which includes a former train driver, architect and teacher.
"When it started, everyone wanted to see it open and running, but none of us knew anything about the industry - we didn't have a great understanding of how it worked, and had to learn on the job.
"We perhaps saw it with rose-tinted glasses, but everything takes time. When you open the door you haven't just opened up, you've had to prepare for it. And when you close and the last customer leaves the premises you don't go straight to bed, you have to go round closing down."
A major challenge for the pub has been its condition - Mr Theaker admitted it was something of a "money pit" and said repairs were desperately needed.
"The Fox had been closed for 10 to 12 years," he said. "It had been vandalised, it had been set on fire, copper pipes had been ripped out and it had been flooded. It will need to be rebuilt, over time."
He said it was a shame to see the growing number of community-owned pubs.
"The reason I think that is it's because the breweries look at the return, decide [pubs] are not viable and get rid of them," he said. "[The Fox] has become the focal point of the village."
He said they now welcomed community groups, a "rammed" monthly café, a running group and visitors who pop in after a walk or church service.
Currently, the pub is open at weekends, and hosts street food nights while it waits for, down the line, a kitchen to be installed.
"We are aware that everyone is volunteers, and they have a social life and family life," he said. "But we wouldn't be able to do any of this without our volunteers, or customers. It's thanks to them we're still going."
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