Pulling pints, but not as we know it
…and the community-owned locals keeping this much-loved national institution alive
WHEN last orders were called in Britain’s 47,000 pubs as the country went into lockdown, you could almost hear the collective sigh of despair. Despite their well-publicised decline, many millions of people still regard them as a vital community resource.
Many of us feared that our final pint on March 20 might be the last in our local pub. And with good reason: The British Beer and Pub Association forecasts that lockdown could result in the permanent closure of as many as 19,000 of them.
There was welcome news this week when Boris Johnson said pubs may be allowed to open again as early as next month.
But even before Covid-19, 18 UK pubs a week were closing their doors for good.
Two months on, life is creeping slowly back to normality as official restrictions gradually ease. As part of this, over the past few days, thousands of Britons have enjoyed takeaway pints as, here and there, locals begin serving from their pumps again.
Actor Laurence Fox and TV presenter Adrian Chiles were among those enjoying a beer in the street after a handful of pubs began serving.
Fox, 41, was pictured taking advantage of the relaxing of restrictions outside the Princess of Wales in Primrose Hill, north London.
While Chiles, having spotted his local serving drinks outside, admitted: “I had arranged to meet an old friend, from the pre-lockdown era, for a walk. Accidentally on purpose, I had us wander in the direction of the pub… we got a stout each and, abiding by the pourer’s instructions not to linger, we repaired to a nearby park.”
LANDLORD Paul Graham, who runs The Prince of Wales, Leadbelly’s Bar & Kitchen and The Mayflower, all in south London, is among those who have cautiously begun a limited takeaway service.
Staff are furloughed but he and his wife have reopened Leadbelly’s and The Prince of Wales for a few hours each week to sell wine, takeaway draft beers in two-pint milk bottles and food in sealed containers.
“In England if it’s a nice day, you go to the pub, and people have missed that along with the interaction,” says Paul. “When people have come to pay, they have said, ‘Can we just smell the inside as we’ve missed it’. People have a few beers in squares and parks nearby, or they go home and it’s working out well as they’ve been keeping the twometre distance. Pubs are such a big part of our society and what we do.” It is the same story at The Hopbine in Kent which went one step further and offered home deliveries for the first time in the freehouse’s history.
“It’s something we had considered but never pushed the button on as it seemed so daunting but lockdown came along and suddenly we had to,” says owner James Spencer. “It’s worked and we’ve managed to find customers we didn’t have previously.”
As well as these glowing examples, the growing community pub movement – those taken over and run by co-operatives of concerned locals – is showing what may be the future of many at-risk boozers.
Most community or co-operative pubs are the result of years of work on the part of committed volunteers, thousands of people who decided to take a stand in support of that most cherished British institution.
Having made the effort to raise funds, negotiate with brewers, tackle bureaucracy and, in many cases, completely refurbish dilapidated and ancient buildings, the army of pub volunteers is not about to let coronavirus ruin their hard work.
There are now 116 community and cooperative pubs in the UK and the number has doubled in the past two years as volunteer groups take heart from successful campaigns.
The key to this new form of pub ownership was a change in the law that enabled pubs to be registered as an Asset of Community Value. Once that has been done, it becomes much harder for a speculative developer to get planning permission to turn a pub into a house or other business.
It is, in part, in the spirit of looking after the most vulnerable in our society where pubs have really come into their own.
In the sleepy Devon village of Stockland, The Kings Arms reopened as a community pub in January for the first time in seven years thanks to 270 locals who bought shares. It’s an example of a fast-growing model set to eventually rival the traditional brewery or privately owned pub.
In addition to a local takeaway service – “international night” on Wednesdays, fish and chips on Fridays and roasts on Sundays – the pub delivers veg boxes and also functions as a parcels and prescription collection point.
Damian Clay, chairman of the action group that saved The Kings Arms, says: “Closing so soon after our grand opening was a blow after all that effort.”
But the business revamped itself as a one-stop local shop, proving to be a vital lifeline for the 700-strong community. “The majority of the population lives outside in hamlets or in isolated houses so for many years there was not a reason to go into the village, and now there is,” he says.
“Takeaways will continue even after the lockdown ends because the tenants believe what has happened will change people’s habits and they won’t want to go back to a pub in case they catch something.”
Accountant Tony Reps, front-of-house manager Ben Walker and chef Richard Benson, the tenants in charge, are not making any profit on the £11 or £22 boxes of vegetables grown in the garden on a previously neglected plot of overgrown brambles. Turnover is down
70 per cent but that matches the reduction in staff costs as all of them are furloughed.
Martin Booth, from the George and Dragon at Hudswell, North Yorkshire, named Britain’s pub of the year in 2016 by the Campaign for Real Ale, has also shifted the business focus from drink to food during lockdown.
“We already had a little shop adjoining the pub, so we turned our attention to that,” he explains. “Ensuring it was selling all the basics to people in the village as well as providing beer and takeaway meals from the pub.”
Meanwhile, at The Old Crown in Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria, the tenants of Britain’s very first cooperative pub have been given a rent holiday by the management committee. They are providing food, organising deliveries to villagers who are shielding and have taken the opportunity to re-decorate throughout.
Committee member Julian Ross said: “We are confident we can get through this. We have 155 shareholders, many of whom only visit once a year, but we are determined to survive.”
At The Craufurd Arms, in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where campaigners raised more than £500,000 to save their “pint-sized community local” in 2017, plans were under way to beat the blight of coronavirus within days of people being told to stay at home.
With some staff furloughed, pub manager Neil Piddington threw himself into ensuring it survived.
“We started doing off-licence sales and the word quickly spread via WhatsApp or on our Facebook page and now we are selling around £1,200-worth of beer each week.”
A month ago, during the Craufurd’s weekly virtual quiz, more than 100 participants were asked how many draft ales they thought were on sale during lockdown. The answer was five; good news for local breweries like Rebellion in Marlow and the Windsor & Eton Brewery.
BUT it’s not just small pubs fighting back; chains have also had to adapt, even though takeaway sales account for a fraction of their income.
While it has yet to reopen its doors, Greene King, the UK’s leading pub and brewery retailer, has launched delivery services at 29 of its London pubs. “It’s important for us that our team feel safe in the workplace so we have consulted with them every step of the way, giving the option to return to work for those who work in these selected pubs if their personal circumstances allow,” says CEO Nick Mackenzie.
If pubs do reopen on July 4, as part of the Government’s Phase 3 lockdown exit plan, small premises may struggle to recoup losses while adhering to stringent social distancing measures. Paul Graham, who has been selling an average of 60 gallons of beer a day during lockdown, agrees. He admits: “It will be difficult for smaller places.”
But back at The Kings Arms in Stockland, as more veg boxes and supplies are dispatched to locals living in isolation, Damian Clay thinks he knows why community pubs in particular have found the right formula for post pandemic survival.
“Pubs like ours need the community to survive. People care about this place. We fought to own it and rebuild it and now we want to keep it.”
‘People care about this place. We fought to own and rebuild our pub and now we want to keep it’