Pub success: Starting out

By Liam Coleman

- Last updated on GMT

Pursue your goal: Don't give up your vision of what you really want
Pursue your goal: Don't give up your vision of what you really want

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Owning a pub is the aspirational dream for a significant minority of people who regularly soak up the atmosphere in a pub. But just what do you need to know about the trade before starting out and what challenges lie ahead for first-time operators?

The author and intellectual Virginia Woolf seemed very preoccupied with having A Room of One’s Own almost 100 years ago. That sounds like the attitude of someone who didn’t go to the local very often – otherwise, her true desire might well have been to have a pub of one’s own.

Lots of people who regularly attend their local certainly do seem captivated with the dream of running a pub. And it’s a natural desire: the pub is where people go to relax and have fun while drinking and eating, often at the cutting edge of innovation. Who wouldn’t want to be immersed in that 24/7?

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The reality though, as all operators will tell you, is that owning a pub is not the easy, laid-back, clichéd life of Riley. It is a fiercely competitive industry with a smorgasbord of legislation and business models that prospective licensees will need to get their head around before getting anywhere near owning their own pub.

The main alternative pub models

Knowing which type of pub is right for you is a key part of taking on a first pub. Here are the various operating models.

■ Freehold: The operators own the pub and are free to do as they please – within legal boundaries – and enter into commercial agreements with whichever companies or breweries they see fit.

■ Leasehold: The pub is owned by a pubco or landlord and the licensee runs the pub on a fixed-length contract. Different landlords will have different levels of involvement in the operations of the pub, but there will usually be at least some form of tie on drink offers.

■ Managed: Sites where the brewery or pubco has a significant involvement in
the pub. It will vary from company to company, but the company will often decide on price, drinks and available food. The licensee tends to just oversee the day-to-day running of the pub.

With that being the case, what do you need to know before even contemplating the purchase of your first site?

“We expect people to already have an understanding of the industry,” says David Price, who is head of franchise operations at pubco Marston’s.

“One of the things we like prospective licensees to do early on is what we call an ‘industry overview’. That would cover the challenges the industry has faced and the opportunities available around how things have moved in the past few years. We just want to see that they have an idea of what they are getting themselves into.”

The right model

Marston’s operates both managed and tenanted sites. As a result, Price knows that while the core skills are the same for all people who want to run a pub, there is a significant difference between the operational models and, therefore, between who is right for each one.

“If you are the sort that will need guidance and support, and want to operate a proven business model, that would be more of a managed opportunity. If you are looking to introduce your own entrepreneurial flair in menus and retail offers then you would be looking more at a tenanted or leased route.”

Richard Wood from pub property agency, Christie & Co agrees that it is important to know the industry well enough to know what you want before starting out.

“Buyers need to understand which type of business would suit them and their lifestyle. Do they want a business that they can grow and put their own concept on, or are they looking for something that is already up and running? My advice would be to seek out an agent that is a specialist in the type of pub they are looking for,” he says.

Dream site

Once you feel you know the pub industry enough to believe it is absolutely the trade for you, and you know whether you want to launch yourself into a tenanted, managed or freehold model, then that is the right time to seek out your dream site.

However, this need not be a daunting process. Simon Hall, director and head of pubs at Fleurets, likens it to buying a house. “You need to do your research, but instead of [parents] researching schools, you’re researching the competition,” he adds.

Knowing what the competition has to offer, both in the local on and off-trades, can give operators a strong idea on how the pub should be run. However, sticking to your dream vision for a pub is just as key in order to remain passionate about your business.

Alison Taylor recently opened Platform Ale House in Albrighton, Shropshire, with husband Craig. The couple have pumped £30,000 of their own money into refurbishing the venue and, for them, this is key to imprinting their vision on to the venue.

“We had a strong vision for the site,” she says. “It’s meant to be a good old-fashioned pub at the heart of the community that you go to for conversation and a friendly atmosphere.”

Aside from some bar work in her 20s, Taylor had no experience of running a pub and neither did her husband. That is where the helping hand of the industry proved useful.

The likes of the BII (British Institute of Innkeeping) and CAMRA offer an abundance of resources to help and train licensees that are new to the trade. However, in addition to that, the pub industry is a friendly trade with many involved willing to share knowledge, and the licensees at Platform Ale House found themselves appreciating the guidance of local brewers when starting out.

“We’ve been very lucky with the number of microbreweries in Staffordshire and Shropshire and with it lots of options for drinks. A couple of them advised us on cellar set-up, what we needed to be aware of and where to buy our equipment. We were very lucky in the amount of good, willing support we had,” Taylor says.

Ultimately, that is why so many people who step into a pub immediately want to run one. It’s an industry with an infectious level of fun and a good-natured attitude. Therefore, as daunting as taking on a pub may seem, it’s something that should be enjoyed.

As Price from Marston’s adds: “Taking on a pub is a serious decision so it is not something to be taken lightly. But our industry is really, really great fun. People should enjoy looking for a pub and setting one up.”

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