Landlords across the nation are crying into their pints as 57 pubs in Britain close every month. BARRY ELLAMS and PAUL MANNION report on how Cheshire licensees are faring
These are sobering times for the humble village pub. Rising rents and poor beer sale returns are forcing many British pubs to fold.
Across the country pubs are closing at the rate of 27 a week – nearly four every day. According to the British Beer and Pub Association. 1,409 pubs closed during 2007.
Rob Hayward, chief executive of the BBPA, said: “Britain’s pubs are grappling with spiralling costs, sinking sales, fragile consumer confidence and the impact of the smoking ban.”
Publicans are so frustrated with a recent 4p hike on beer that a campaign to ban Chancellor Alistair Darling from every pub in Britain has been launched.
Pubs in Cheshire’s market towns and Chester are feeling the pinch, with the Northgate Arms being a recent casualty. Rural pubs like the Fox & Hounds in Tilston, Market House in Malpas and the Nags Head in Farndon have closed.
Nationally, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) estimates that 57 pubs are closing every month. Cheshire rural pubs are facing testing times but are fighting back by offering food to their customers. Cheshire is an affluent commuter county and licensees are luring motorists from across the region with good pub grub.
However, Chester and South Clywd branch of CAMRA laments the bygone age of the Cheshire watering hole - charismatic, rustic and unpretentious gathering points for lovers of fine ale.
Chairman Craig Papworth explained: “In many cases the pub’s unique selling point is that it hasn’t changed. If they were to, they would upset a lot of regulars.
“It is difficult in today’s climate for a pub to survive without selling food and the divisions between restaurants and pubs are becoming more blurred.”
Listed on the CAMRA directory is the Farmers Arms, Huxley, a traditional pub which offers cooked local food.
Landlord Stuart Turner is a firm believer that if pub owners look to their grass roots they can see out a stormy financial climate with a message of “good healthy food, good beers, keep it friendly”.
He explained: “It will be a hard year and people will vote with their feet. Costs are rising and pubs are having to try harder.”
Dave McMahon, proprietor of The Robin Hood, Helsby, said: “Everything has gone up but we are not taking the same money in. We have tightened the belt and reduced the staff. We are not going down the food route, there are too restaurants in the area and it is difficult to get a piece of the pie. We are a drinkers pub. We are looking at diversifying, purchasing sweets and chocolates.”
In order to survive, many rural outlets have transformed from ‘Olde Worlde’ pubs to food destinations. Traditional establishments are laying on a range of cuisine from the old-fashioned ploughman’s lunch to gastro food to Thai, Chinese and Indian cooking in order to draw in a sustainable customer base.
The Nag’s Head, Bridge Trafford started selling Thai and Chinese food about 18 months ago.
Jan Splaine, assistant manager of Chang Noi, explained: “Before moving in the pub wasn’t really doing any business. It was really empty. But it is picking up again, touch wood. We have tried to keep it as a pub but we also do the Oriental food.”
Businessmen Abdul Jilani and Kismet Miah converted the old Red Fox near Tarporley into an Indian restaurant.
Mr Miah explained: “We have 120 covers and we are full at the weekends.
A number of pub owners have made substantial investments refurbishing their pubs into contemporary dining – The Cock O’ Barton near Malpas and The Bull in Shocklach being recent conversions.
Jon Cox and Lindsey Melling, who reopened The Bull in December, are licensees who subscribe to the pub acting as a village hub. The Bull had been targeted by arsonists last May and was derelict for six months before the couple signed up to Admiral Brewery and invested £150,000 into refurbishments.
With local ales like The Cheshire Cat and Station Bitter the pub at the centre of Shocklach provides free Wi-Fi internet access and promotes business networking.
Lyndsey Melling explained: “Pubs have to do food to be able to succeed and we are getting a lot of local support and families coming in.”
Paul Sweeney, landlord of The Morris Dancer in Kelsall, has spent time and money re-branding the pub with a refurbishment and new menu.
He said: “We have had a great reaction already. We have just taken over and will have a new menu focusing on British seasonal fare using local produce and local suppliers.”
Filip Prevc, Cheshire County Council’s rural development manager, sees food tourism as the saviour of pub and restaurant outlets.
He said: “There is a big push in the county for food and drink. We are getting tourists coming for local produce. People visiting Cheshire are prepared to pay a premium.”
He added: “Food and Drink is becoming as pivotal to the Cheshire heritage as landscape and economy. That’s one of the building blocks we are looking to develop and restaurants and pubs play a big part in that.”