This comes after new research revealed the average pub saw sales drop by £855 over key Christmas trading dates versus pre-pandemic levels, due to rail strikes and the cost-of-living crisis.
Brendan Padfield, owner of the UK’s top gastropub - the Unruly Pig, Bromeswell, Suffolk, said the festive season was a mixed bag.
To Padfield’s surprise, the Unruly Pig experienced a “great” Christmas week that was better than expected.
How was trade at your pub over the festive period?
Better than expected38%
Worse than expected44%
While December dipped in trade for a “really quiet” first two weeks, it then picked up to be “as good as ever”.
Padfield guessed this was because people had decided to let their hair down and celebrate, with many returning to visit family in Suffolk for the festive season.
Boxing Day booked was out months ago, and New Year’s Eve was “fantastically busy” with fixed menus for £85 or £120.
However, Padfield was expecting the first quarter of 2023 to be “unparalleled in its challenge”. While he had been pleasantly surprised by January’s first few days of trade, he forecasted the crunch would start next week.
“The Unruly Pig will be affected as everybody else,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not looking great.”
“You’ve got to give people a reason to come in. There’s got to be a hook.”
The gastropub was running promotions throughout January to get customers through the door. The deal of 30% off Chateuaubriand for two from Sunday through to Wednesday had so far impacted business “remarkably”.
Tasting menus had also been slashed from £70 to £49 for Thursdays, which had proved a “rip-roaring success” since being introduced in October.
“You’ve got to give things a go,” Padfield added. “You’ve got to give people a reason to come in. There’s got to be a hook.”
Marc Bridgen, operator of the Dog at Wingham, Kent said while trade picked up for the festive period, the first half of the month saw the pub operating at far below predicted levels.
Bridgen had made £125,000 in December, which was £25,000 under expected trade.
This year, he had focused on making the pub the best it’s ever been through curating the best team, the chefs and food, as well as investing in property.
Hard times ahead
Despite this the site was still 20% to 30% behind where it thought it would be. “It’s no reflection on quality of product or offering,” the owner added.
These are problems felt across the sector. UKHospitality warned hospitality businesses needed more Government to survive a "winter challenge like no other" in its storm of soaring energy costs, staff challenges, dampened consumer confidence and rail strikes.
The most upsetting thing for Bridgen was that this meant his team were 30% behind on the hours they would have worked. This presented an “alarming challenge”; he feared losing invaluable staff due to the drop in footfall.
Trade during December’s “party period” (20th December to 2nd January) was just shy of forecasted trading levels, but the first section of the month was dire, he continued, as customers opted to stay home rather than stay the night at a pub-with-rooms.
This lag in trade placed the pub under massive stress for January, February and March – months traditionally difficult for the sector.
While New Year’s Eve usually sells right up until the night, in 2022, rooms and tables were booked out for the big night in the first week of December.
However, Bridgen pointed out, this was still only 50 seats. This didn’t make up for the thousands of seats lost during December.
For Steve Orme at the Red Lion in, Shepperton, Surrey, it wasn’t until mid-December that trade started cranking up at the pub. The last fortnight, while not record-breaking, certainly saw customers going out and spending.
The team had changed their approach to Christmas this year: they ripped up the idea of a fixed festive menu and instead integrated dishes like Christmas sticky toffee pudding into the a la carte menu.
This meant expensive costs of a three-course meal were not forced on customers, who could choose to enjoy pints or burgers instead of the fixed menu.
A reason to come out
The pub also opted for a laid-back New Year’s Eve event priced at £25 per head rather than the usual £75 gala bash with DJs and casinos.
This meant there was no pressure for customers to stay all night, and guests could pop in for a meal or a few drinks. This worked “really well” as made the event accessible for all.
“We’ve had a good go through December but it’s just about battling the hatches down and losing as little as possible through January,”
Orme believed in giving guests an attractive reason to come out as opposed to drink at home. He ran a Christmas brunch where West End singers sang Christmas classics, and a wreath making workshop, which both proved popular.
He also ran a ‘advent calendar’ throughout the town where gifts like ‘Prosecco for two’ were hidden in shops for customers to find with clues. This gave back to the community, helped out local businesses and advertised the business, according to the operator.
Food spending was down a little due to the cost-of-living crisis, but drinks spend had stayed steady. While January was always a “pretty dire” month in Orme’s opinion, he hoped offers would help bring customers in.
“We’ve had a good go through December but it’s just about battling the hatches down and losing as little as possible through January,” he added.