The Death of the Pub

Posted on January 13, 2023

I went to a pub for a birthday meal last night. It was expensive and bang average. I can’t bring myself to say the pub’s name, as on occasion, my blogs get picked up and put on web pages for crap pubs or something. I haven’t got the heart to put another nail in it’s coffin as the staff were nice and glad of company on another pitifully slow night.

An Unwanted Cocktail

Most country pubs appear to be finished. They are dealing with an apparent cocktail of disasters that are unsustainable. Ridiculous energy bills, staff shortages, inflation in wages and raw goods have left them reeling. This has led to mediocrity costing a fortune and the paying customer staying away.

I am not drinking at the moment so I kicked off the evening with a half of IPA 0% coming in at £3:50 (so, £7:00 a pint for a non alcoholic beer). Other drinks included a Neck Oil at £6:50 and a glass of Merlot at £9:50, along with a few others I can’t remember. We then went to sit down in a beautifully decorated but empty area of the pub. I guess it’s mid January, so maybe to be expected.

The Meal

As I scoured the menu, I noticed sea bass coming in at a cool £22:00. Coincidentally, sea bass is something I often cook at home. With some crushed mini potatoes, a scattering of prawns and asparagus mixed with butter, herbs and spices to suit your taste, its quick and simple. In most shops sea bass is around a fiver for two. Add £3:00 for the asparagus tips and baby potatoes, plus a £1:00 for your herbs and gas and you have tasty meal for 2 at around £9.00. That’s a saving of around £35;00 and that’s if you refuse to pay the obligatory 10% service charge.

Call me Mr Stingy but I can’t justify that difference in cost. The hardest bit is working out whether you are just being ripped off or whether the pub’s overheads are so high, they have no choice? In this case, it is probably a bit of both. As an estimate, the mark up on this pub’s sea bass dish is around 300%. However, out of that, you have to take out the chef and bar staff wages, rent, heating and electricity etc etc.

Raw Costs

With inflation on wages, food supplies, alcohol and staff wages going up at an alarming rate, are we really in the territory of a pub making a 300% mark up to survive? Quite possibly, as I know some pubs that are reducing the days they open in the winter because they either can’t get staff, or they can’t afford to pay people to work in an empty pub with the heating on.

There was a lady on the radio the other day saying that the energy bills in her pub were £125.00 a day…yes a day! That’s some amount to clear before moving into the profit zone. To do that, there is only one answer and that is to hike the prices up. The problem with that is most people are looking at their own budgets. They are not in a position to sit in a empty pub eating something they could have cooked at home for a fifth of the price. Or indeed, pay as much for one glass of wine as they would for a half decent bottle.

Is it the End?

You have to feel sorry for some of the publicans. If 300% is the gross margin they are looking for to make a living, they are finished. People will simply stop going to pubs and they will shut (many already have). This of course, is great news for developers pretending to be brewers. They only need the proof that business is no longer viable before smashing it down and building houses where the pub once stood.

Running a pub has never been easy. Many have bought tenancies thinking they are going to make money and failed. However, there was a time when a bit ingenuity could make a pub successful. A leftfield menu, theme nights or a bit of music could get the punters in, the bills paid and leave a bit of profit in the bank for a rainy day. My own parents did it as a hobby when they retired. Fortunately, my dad was good with numbers and they exited whilst they were marginally ahead.

From what I witnessed last night, there is no magic ingredient to make a country pub work. The numbers just don’t stack up.

Shame really.

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