If you own Britain’s oldest pub and business is booming, you might sit back and let the money roll in. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, all old beams, low ceilings, oak settles and wooden floors, creaks and groans with history and sales of beer and food are going through the ancient roof.
But owner Mitchells & Butlers is in dispute with Christo Tofalli — who runs the pub on a franchise basis — about the seasonal beers he sells. He claims they want to rein in his enthusiasm for ales from smaller brewers and concentrate instead on mainstream brands such as Doom Bar and London Pride.
Tofalli says business has increased by 20% in the first three months of 2015 compared to the same period last year.
The most remarkable stat comes from his burgeoning beer sales: he now sells double the amount of real ale as lager or keg beer — and that’s a complete reversal of the situation when he took over in April 2012.
His sales of real ale are up by a staggering 40% so far this year. This is due, he thinks, not only to the national swing to cask beer but to the fact that St Albans has an especially knowledgeable customer base, fuelled by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, having its head office in the city, and to the large number of tourists that visit St Albans.
“Tourists now want to drink real ale,” Tofalli says, almost in disbelief.
In common with all lessees who run pubs owned by the big pubcos, he has to source his beers from the M&B list but he avoids mainstream brands and chooses beers from smaller independents.
His regular ales are Purity Ubu from Warwickshire and Harviestoun Bitter & Twitter from Scotland.
The other beers from the eight handpumps in the heavily beamed bars change constantly but currently Tofalli says another Purity beer, Wild Goose, is “walking out the door” and customers are raving about an American-style, hoppy IPA called Apus — a tropical Bird of Paradise — from the Navigation Brewery in Nottingham.
Tofalli sold 100 different real ales during 2014 and you might think this would keep him in M&B’s good books. His area rep says the pub’s beer sales are “amazing” but that hasn’t stopped M&B from attempting to restrict Tofalli’s beer list and concentrate on more mainstream brands.
The reason, he believes, is a simple one: the need for giant pub companies to sell the most profitable brands. The likes of M&B, Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns buy the bulk of their beers with deep discounts from bigger breweries. Tofalli says sales of London Pride and Doom Bar are falling in the M&B empire, which explains why the company wants to get them back on the bar in the Fighting Cocks.
But Tofalli thinks he is winning the battle. He told me that, after months of wrangling, M&B says it will have another look at the sales figures in the pub and decide whether he can continue to buy in the beers he and his customers prefer.
The company has also agreed to consider reducing the rent Tofalli pays — currently an eye-watering £100,000 a year. When you add on the percentage of the takings at the pub that M&B takes and the top-dollar price Tofalli has to pay for his beer and other drinks, it’s a wonder he makes a living.
But he is so committed to the Fighting Cocks that he has bought out his business partner. He comes from a Cypriot family but was born in this country. He worked part time in a pub in Radlett, in Hertforshire, and was so enthused by the experience that he was determined to run his own pub.
At the Fighting Cocks, he has busily improved the food side of the business. His chef is the up-and-coming 26-year-old Ian Baulsh from St Albans who learned the ropes with Michelin-star chef Andrew McLeish at Chapter One in Farnborough Common, Kent.
“We celebrate British food,” Tofalli says. “We’re not a gastropub but a pub that serves good food. We use local suppliers such as butchers and our fish is delivered on a daily basis.”
About 10% of the food is based on organic ingredients. Tofallio has two vegetable patches at the pub where he grows organic vegetables and herbs while Earthworks, a local charity that gives work to young people with learning difficulties, has three beds set aside for supplying the pub with fruit and veg.
Mitchells & Butlers told me: “We appreciate how important seasonal ales are to the drinks range at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. We are currently reviewing our ale range and have involved our franchisee in discussions on how we can continue to stock a wide selection of products.”
I shall monitor the situation closely. If cask ales continue to come from independents, I’ll know Tofalli has won his argument. But if I spot London Pride and Doom Bar, I’ll know who has the biggest muscles.