Thursday, 7 March 2013

We should probably admire the glass-half-full attitude ... Inapub March 2013

We should probably admire the glass-half-full attitude that that David Chubb of accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers brings to his role.

Chubb, a business recovery partner specialising in the hospitality and leisure sector, recently speculated that the fact that the insolvency rate in the pub sector is roughly level year-on-year, while the rate in other sectors is falling, “may suggest that the sector is stabilising and this is the normal rate of failure to be expected in a quarter”.

Leaving aside the fact that insolvency specialists calling themselves ‘business recovery partners’ is a little like Count Dracula calling himself a ‘blood donation adviser’, it requires a special kind of cock-eyed kind of optimism to take the view that that it’s fine for to pubs to expect a higher failure rates than any other business sector.

Thankfully, it’s also an attitude that’s starting to seem old fashioned. The days when pub companies built tenancy turnover failure rates of around a third into their recruitment estimates, if not quite gone completely, are fading. Admittedly, change isn’t happening without a certain amount of government arm-twisting, but alongside those structural reforms, pubs have been quietly reinventing their place in the market.

Douglas Jack, the widely-followed hospitality analyst with Numis Securities, recently categorised the current state-of-play as a “golden age” of innovation for the pub sector.  He told the Financial Times that pubs “have always been adaptable. They keep surviving and they reinvent themselves. They've moved to food and they are doing it better than restaurants and at better value for money.”
This view is supported by industry analyst Horizons, whose research shows that pubs now account for 20% of eating out occasion, and that pub operators have been steadily taking market share from the branded restaurant players, a trend forecast to continue during 2013.

I’m not, for a second, suggesting that running a pub is anything other than hard work, and I know some businesses fail despite the enthusiasm and dedication of their owners. But in a market where pub food is the first choice for many consumers when eating out, planning for higher levels of failure seems to be the wrong approach.  

On the menu this month:  On one of my regular jaunts into London’s glamorous West End, I was enjoying a pint and a spot of light jazz at the recently-refurbished Hippodrome on Leicester Square. One of the bar snacks caught my eye – for £2.50 patrons can enjoy salted pork crackling served with an apple sauce dip. Sorry, but that’s just pork scratchings with a posh name. Stop showing off.
This 'Pub Food with Porter' column appears in the March 2013 issue of Inapub 


What makes a great pub? Fuller's Tenants Extra, March 2013

What makes a great pub? These days, a warm welcome, a well-kept pint, good food and generally high service standards are more or less the price of entry – any pub not getting the basics right is unlikely to still be in business.

So what is that makes a business stand out?  The short answer is, of course, that it’s mainly down to personal taste, and one man’s Pub of Perfection is another’s Hostelry from Hell. All of which is fine, and what a dull old world it would be if we were all the same, as my cross-dressing Uncle Matt used to say as he donned his ginger wig.  
However, with everyone from trade magazines to tourist authorities queuing up to hand out awards to pubs, there also need to be criteria for picking one pub over another. I have to hold my hand up here, having been involved in judging, and even organising, my share of industry awards.

When shortlisting for the now-defunct Pub Food Awards, I always had a ‘restaurant’ pile. Any business which, based entirely on my own personal assessment of its entry form, had crossed the line from pub to restaurant, was consigned to this reject category. It was arbitrary and probably unfair, but when you’ve got to reduce several hundred entries to a shortlist of four you need a system.
I’ve been pondering the problem again recently while visiting the businesses shortlisted for Pub of the Year by the Croydon and Sutton branch of CAMRA. The guidelines, understandably, reflect the real ale lobbying group’s policies, so while there’s a focus on atmosphere and encouraging a wider use of pubs, there’s no mention anywhere of food – which is one of the best ways of drumming up a more varied customer base.

Fair enough, I’m just a foot solider in the CAMRA ranks and I’m more than happy to reach a view based on the criteria I’m given. However, as I sat in one of the shortlisted pubs carefully assessing my half of bitter, Mrs P looked up from her bowl of chips, glanced around at the well-used fixtures and fittings, and offered the view that the pub in question could do with a bit of a facelift. She went on to add that she wouldn’t be in any hurry to come back, because it didn’t feel ‘clean’.
The pub in question is highly acclaimed by beer aficionados and has, I have no doubt, impeccable hygiene standards. However, given that one of CAMRA’s criteria is that a pub should be ‘female friendly’, should I mark it down on the basis of Ms P’s observations?

Another good question, but one which professional discretion means that I can’t answer here, any more that I could possibly comment on the merits  of the two Fuller’s pubs on the Croydon and Sutton shortlist. Other than to say I’ve enjoyed a couple of excellent pints of Pride. Cheers.
This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the March 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra.