It would be a feint silver lining if the growth in restaurant numbers represented an increase in small independent businesses; but sadly, the branded chains that straddle the gap between pubs and family restaurants are leading the charge.
But before we make plans for the funeral of the community local, it’s worth looking at what’s happening behind the headline figures.
One of the few success stories in the trade in recent years has been the explosion of micropubs, which represent a return to a nearly extinct wet-led pub model, independent of pubco-owned premises and their spiralling rents and beer ties.
The micropub movement and some other noticeably busy freehouses demonstrate that there is a healthy demand for the small-wet led bar, but they need to keep costs low and choice high to thrive (which is why they don’t work under the tie).
We have witnessed unprecedented numbers of new brewers coming into the market and the end of the beer brand loyalty that we grew up with. In the face of these seismic changes, the lack of product choice afforded to tied pubs has turned too many backstreet boozers into unloved dinosaurs; out of step with the demands of modern beer drinkers.
I’m not alone in drawing this conclusion: keep it quiet but the pubcos are in complete agreement. If the denial of customer choice through the tie hasn’t been a complete disaster for their tenanted pubs why would the same companies be putting such focus on their ever-increasing variety of products in their new, shiny managed house concepts? They have learned their lessons, even if they are restricting the benefits to the pubs they run directly rather than lease.
To those of us like myself, who’ve been in the trade since Methuselah was in nappies, this switch from tenanted to managed is an all too familiar part of the industry cycle. We are rapidly approaching peak management model; a bubble inflated by shameless plagiarism and restricted ideas as the big players spend millions on rushing out copycat concepts of a ‘Wetherspoons’ division, a ‘Loungers’-style offer, a better-burger and craft beer house and a gastropub brand.
Following the herd to the same sites and market segments makes for a homogenised industry where every high street, shopping mall and entertainment complex has the same sad collection of bland brands until margins get too squeezed in the battle for territory.
Then the bubble bursts and next year’s industry prophets decide that individuality and entrepreneurship are vital to spread risk and drive new ideas forward so they all start renting their premises to enterprising tenants at reasonable rents and switching their investment into leased estates.
All very agreeable until they start getting greedy again and unfortunately we all know where that leads. Think of it as the circle of life for the British pub industry, only sadly lacking the majestic vistas, Elton John songs and some cuddly lions!
Tony Leonard and his partner, Dominic McCartan, run the Snowdrop Inn, Lewes and the Roebuck Inn, Laughton.