A year on and still evolving

A few weeks ago we celebrated our first anniversary at the premises, an occasion which saw us unveil several changes to our way of doing business. Instead of pouring beer direct from the taps, we now have beer engines. Instead of using chiller probes to keep our casks cool, we now have a chiller cabinet behind the bar. Instead of resting five casks in cradles atop the bar, we now have eight auto-tilts inside a chiller cabinet. We also have two additional keg lines, which means we can serve seven beers in total (four cask, three keg). It’s been a sea change, and an expensive one at that, but it should eventually pay for itself (although I am dreading the next electrics bill).

Ever since we started trading, it seemed we were not selling as much beer as initially predicted. I put this down in part to our popularity with women and their preference for wine, cider and gin (some nights half our customers or more are women). I also know our prices are higher than elsewhere in the neighbourhood, but who can compete with Carling for £2/pint? Plus, I noticed times when our beer was not in top form because of the challenges involved in keeping it cool, giving it sufficient time to settle and allowing proper secondary fermentation.

I knew however the biggest factor holding back our beer sales was the lack of head on our gravity-served pints. For every enthusiast who’d rave about us being ‘just like a beer festival’ and complimenting us on pouring pints fresh from the cask, someone else would grumble that our beer was ‘flat’.

It did no good pointing out that a fresh beer with good condition but no head will feel just as lively on the tongue, if not more so, than one agitated by sparklers (which can be used to make less-than-fresh beer continue to look appetising). No, the first sip of a beer is taken by the eyes and Northerners especially want to see head atop their pint, like they see on the telly (ads which are designed to condition customers to accept, nay, welcome a short serving: browse all the promotional imagery for Guinness and you’ll see what I mean).

So for quite some time we mulled over how exactly we would remedy the situation, while staying conscious of the fact that it would take a good deal of effort and expense. We don’t have a cellar on the premises and we didn’t want to take up any floor space with a purpose-built chill room. The only space we could utilise on the premises was the wall behind the bar where a low shelf supported two casks and a few crates were attached to the wall for our spirits.

In my mind’s eye I could see how the same space could be filled with a 3×3 rack, but I wasn’t sure how it would be enclosed and chilled, nor how we would go about lifting the casks. Every system I had seen involved a cask-lifting truck which looked to be half the size of the rack itself!

Have you got something…smaller?

On a visit to a marvellous new micropub in our vicinity, The Chiverton Tap, we made a note to get in touch with the metal fabricator who had assembled their cask stillage in their cellar.

Then over the weeks that followed we brought in several tradesmen to have a look at the space: a refrigeration engineer to run through cooling options, our joiner to discuss building a cabinet and the aforementioned metal fabricator (Colin from Arcol Cask Master). Each of them assured us they could deliver, but it would be up to ourselves to co-ordinate their efforts and pull together a workable design.

We put Colin to work first in August and tasked him with assembling a 3×3 cask frame. He came up with several novel solutions to our circumstances. Instead of having us wheel a truck around to lift the casks (then not having any room to put the truck away), he was able to attach a pulley system to the frame itself. In order for us to lay the casks down, he tracked down heavy-duty sliding drawer runners. For each of these he was able to incorporate auto-tilts, meaning we’d be able to pull a unit out, use the pulley to lift a cask onto it, then push it back into place where the cask could rest and start to tilt up automatically as it emptied.

I went to Colin’s workshop in Colne to see the frame as it neared completion. Colin had casks filled with water to test the set up and showed me how the pulley and drawer runners would work. I left him to crack on with the finishing touches, including a lick of paint. A couple of weeks later he brought the pieces to our premises and had it up in less than an hour. The only wrinkle was that the lowest rack proved to be too narrow for 3 casks to sit together in a row because of the way our bar counter jutted out.

We took a bit of a risk because the refrigeration engineer had not seen any of this, nor had we agreed what type of cooling unit would be used, so we could only hope that there was sufficient space at the top (up to this point we’d only had vague assurances that something would work). In the end what caused us the most consternation at this next stage though was the difficulty in pinning down the refrigeration engineer to come have a look and fit a unit. Colin was having the same problems talking with his local refrigeration engineer. It seemed everyone was too busy to help us out with our odd little job. In the meantime, it was getting closer to our anniversary weekend.

What was aggravating is that customers were coming in and seeing our new above-ground cellar with casks resting on it, but we couldn’t yet fully utilise it. We still could only use the same two chiller probes that had cooled the casks on the original shelving unit. Then, our beer engines and triple keg font arrived and with these on the bar there was no room for the casks we had sitting there. For several days we could serve only two cask ales.

After the second or third time when our original refrigeration engineer missed an appointment and/or didn’t return a call, we did a Google search and contacted the first local company that popped up, Ultra Cooling of Stockport. They were on site the next day to measure up and were ready to install a cooler within the week.

Before they arrived our joiner enclosed either side of the steel racking with a wooden frame. We discussed panels or doors for the front, but needed something that could slide out of the way so casks could be lifted up from the floor and slotted inside. Then, our joiner had a thought: UPVC conservatory panels! No cabinetry, just plastic panels which we could lift off and on. For the first couple of weeks these were screwed into place until he came up with the idea of using adhesive magnetic strips.

With the refrigeration unit in place (a fan that previously had been used for a vending machine and blows cool air straight down into the ‘cellar’ space) our joiner was able to complete the enclosure of the racking and the good folks at Outstanding Beers came to sort our beer lines and keg arrangements. They did stellar work for us getting us up and running in time for opening night and here they were again a year later seeing us through the next stage of our evolution.

The small line cooler under our bar was replaced with a larger unit that now sits upstairs in our office, freeing up space under the bar for two kegs (the keg lines are inside a python that goes up the wall to the new, larger cooler which now sits upstairs in the stock room and then down again to the font). Our joiner cut out a piece of our bar front and put it on a hinge, creating a hatch for moving the kegs in and out from under the bar. He also hacked away a bit of shelving underneath the other side of the bar, creating a cubbyhole for a third keg. Seeing that we’d have more stock and empties, we had him build a low ledge in the customer seating area at the front under which we can tuck four kegs. His other big job was to build a plinth on the bar, using the same beech wood countertop, to give our beer engines enough space to operate. Some months before he had built a bottle rack above the bar so the bottles displaced from their crates could go on display and be in easy reach.

We can now serve four cask ales while four more casks are settling and/or finishing secondary fermentation. Up to six more casks can be stored under our stairs. When one cask finishes, we can move straight on to another (whereas previously it would take at least 24 hours before a replacement cask would be ready).


Keg-wise, one font is dedicated to Outstanding’s superb Continental-style Pilsner, while we use another font to serve Outstanding’s equally delicious Stout (we aren’t tied to Outstanding, but our options are limited when it comes to locally-produced keg stout and porter). The third font is for what I call ‘pale and interesting’ beers, mainly IPAs by the likes of Ticketybrew, Runaway, Shindigger and Brightside although we’ve also had Cloudwater’s Grisette saison (our first try with keykegs…more on that little adventure soon!).

We may look more like a proper pub now with our gleaming brass hand pulls, but we remain true to the micropub spirit: everything remains independent and mainly local, right down to the crisps and old-fashioned soft drinks. Our task now is to get the word out that it’s ‘all change’ at our premises (and to get ourselves into CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide). More details on our publicity campaign and charm offensive soon, but in the meantime we raise a pint and say ‘cheers’ to everyone who has been so obliging in getting us to this stage.

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Getting down to the nitty-gritty: banking & other money matters

There will come a point while setting up your micropub when all it feels like you’re doing is writing cheques while watching your bank balance plummet. Speaking of bank balances, I suggest early on that you set up a business bank account to help keep an eye on your finances. Even if you’re a sole trader, which means you are the business and the business is you, a business bank account will help keep your money matters tidy. This is especially important during that anxious period when money is going out and you’re sure yet when money is going to start coming in.

One of the disheartening things about business banking is the realisation that banks detest physical money and will do everything they can to discourage you from making them handle it. That means they will charge you for making change, depositing cheques and even depositing your hard-earned cash. They might not even be that keen on you using their counter in the bank: with my Santander business bank account I actually do most all my banking at the local post office (my one tip about queuing up in the post office is to never get in line behind the devil: Satan can take many forms).

Pretty much every new business bank account will offer a fee-free period for at least 12 months. If I recall correctly, I was entitled to 18 months of free business banking with Santander because I already had a personal account with them. Although I’ve not been paying a monthly fee during this initial period, I have been charged for their change giving service (more on that particular bugbear later).

The Santander business banking website has a price comparison feature, if you’re interested in seeing how the costs add up and whether Santander is more competitive than the other big players in the sector. Even better, they also have an extremely useful business start-up advice section with information specific to the pub sector which is available for anyone to peruse online. If you’re still in the initial stages and you’ve not got a business adviser or accountant, it will help a great deal with your business plan.

I found setting up the business account was quick and easy, although they will ask you to prove that you are going into business which can be tricky if you’re still at the planning stage. By the time I applied for the account I did have my personal alcohol licence off the council and a pre-lease agreement with the landlord to show them.

One thing which Santander did not provide to me automatically and which I had to apply for separately was a change-giving card. Although I had a debit card for the account clearly marked ‘business banking’, the post office was not interested in making change for me without the separate change-giving card. This is how the bank keeps track of how much change is being handed over, so that they can charge you accordingly for what they see as an inconvenience. It looks like a tiny surcharge percentage-wise, but it does mount up. And the reason why? No matter what you’ve heard, change does NOT come from within.

Just like your casks, you need to keep a constant eye on your change and make sure you have a steady supply. The first weekend we opened, I did have some bags of change lined up, but I assumed that since we were (hopefully) going to have customers giving us cash from the moment we opened our doors, that we wouldn’t need much change. What I didn’t realise is that people would be handing over £20 notes to pay for their pints. Even when their pockets were bulging with change, their first instinct when buying the next round was to pull another note out of their pocket. Cue several trips to local shops breaking notes and begging for change!

I don’t know what people do with all the pound coins we hand over. Maybe they eat them. And fivers?! We feel like fivers are our friends: our hearts lift when we are handed one and we feel said to see them go. We keep a stash of £5 notes handy (we never deposit them) and every time we get one as change at the shops we add it to the precious bundle. One way of modestly adding to your change supply is to run a raffle or a quiz and/or to keep a tip jar by the till (if you have a till!).

Cash is definitely king in this business, but you might consider getting a card machine. Many people walk around without cash in their pockets these days. If you don’t have a card machine, you might end up turning away customers, especially if there are no holes in the wall nearby. There’s a psychological benefit when customers use cards (it can feel like you’re not actually spending money, especially with contactless cards) and as the security consultant from the local police said to me, it’s earnings that a thief can’t walk in and try to steal.

If you do decide to get a machine to take card payments, I recommend that instead of contacting the payment service providers that you get in touch with Independent Merchant Services. They provide a free brokerage service and will review the market to find the best deal for your circumstances. You will need to pay a rental fee for having the card reader (around £15pm, more for a cordless model) and then the payment service provider takes a few pence and/or a tiny percentage from each transaction (although this can change at the whims of VISA, Mastercard, etc). In our case, we got a better deal from the same provider by going through the broker. You need a phone line on the premises for the card machine and will also need to commit to a minimum 12-month contract for the service (the shorter the contract, the better).

Although you may not feel the need for a card machine or a till, at the very least you need a recordkeeping system to keep track of your sales and inventory, plus a safe (this will probably be a requirement of your insurance). Simply keeping a tick list of how many pints you serve from each cask will be sufficient, as long as you can back up your deposits into the bank account with a record of your sales. As well as a sales record, you should keep a log of casks. My own cask log keeps track of the following:-

  • The name of the beer and the style so I can keep a good variety in stock;
  • The date the cask was tapped so I know when it’s reaching the end of its shelf life;
  • Any comments about the beer quality, settling time and wastage (some casks are whisper-quiet when they are vented, others will erupt and fill a bucket or two with foam. Some brewers can’t filter their beers so not only will their casks need to settle for 48 hours, but their casks will have more slops at the end. Some beer styles are more popular than others with my customers. I summarise these comments on a spreadsheet where I keep track of my inventory and margins, which allows me to factor in any wastage into my profit and see which brewers are giving me the best beer for the best price).

Which leaves us with that most important money matter of all: the question of price. We’ll talk more about that in a future post, in the meantime I hope I’ve given you some food for thought to chew on!


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Getting down to the nitty-gritty: insurance

There’s a pub near to us which suffered a theft last summer. Someone entered through the kitchen (the doors were wide open to let in fresh air on a hot day). They then walked upstairs unnoticed into the office (someone had forgotten to lock the door) and swiped a large sum of money (the safe was unlocked because the manager found using it too cumbersome).

Needless to say that’s one insurance claim which is not going to get very far, but it highlights three things: 1) you need to have security measures in place, 2) you need to follow these security measures and 3) you need proper insurance so that when things go wrong despite all your best efforts, the setback to your business is ameliorated as much as possible.

There are two insurance policies you will need for your micropub: one policy will be for your business operations and the other will be for the building itself.

In our case, the building insurance is organised by the landlord and it’s our responsibility to pay it (currently it’s just around £775/pa). We have a copy of the policy, the premium for which is renewable on an annual basis. It makes sense for the landlord to organise this insurance, especially since he has multiple properties and thereby benefits from a bulk discount.

At the start of our lease we paid two or three months’ worth of building insurance on a pro-rata basis until the previous (and higher) premium expired. The premium was high because the building had previously been home to a fireworks shop; needless to say a micropub meant considerable less risk to the premises!

We waited until we were ready to commence trading before settling on a business insurance policy. This made sense for us because the builders had liability insurance in case anything went wrong with their building work. Also during this time we had very little of value on the premises.

What surprised me was the reluctance for the insurance companies we contacted to work with our business. I initially got in touch with Swinton because they are an insurance broker and our membership in the local business leaders organisation entitled us to a 10% discount. It was impossible to get through to them on the phone (I swear after pressing what I thought were the correct options on the telephone menu that my call was being diverted to a broom cupboard). I left a message on their website asking why their phones were going unanswered and eventually got a call back from a representative who took my details and said she’d get back to me after a week or so of looking into our options. She rang back once in that time saying she was having difficulty finding any quotes for us, then we heard no more.

In the meantime I had opened the business bank account with Santander, where I already do my personal banking. They were quick to put me on to their recommended partners, AXA. Again, following a long telephone conversation and promises that I’d soon be given options to discuss with them, I heard nothing more.

Around the same time I received my copy of Opening Times with an advertisement saying that Towergate provided a discount to CAMRA members, but yet again nobody seemed to be interested given that my emails were ignored (I’d gone off the idea of ringing 0800 or 0845 numbers when I saw my mobile bill). Three times denied!

It must have been around this time that I was browsing the Micropub Association forum and found the name of Neil Kerkhove of Warwick Davis (insurance brokers in Worthing, nowt to do with that chap from Willow). I left my details on their website and received an email from Neil within two days asking for a few more specifics. He came back the next day with a ballpark premium figure of £1100pa. In his words, this was because we were a new start-up and our postcode came up as a high-risk area (a drawback of opening in the suburbs of a big city). He gave us the option to pay in monthly instalments although this would attract an 8% surcharge.

Now that I finally had figures to work with, I decided to see if I could find another quote for the sake of comparison. An internet search brought up the details for Terry Osborne Insurance, specialists in pub & restaurant insurance. They quoted a premium of £786/pa which I agreed to immediately, in part because we were days away from selling bottled beers at the local market. We had the policy documents on an email within hours.

I did consider seeing if Warwick Davis could try to match the quote, but what sealed the deal for me was that the folks at Terry Osborne offered interest-free instalments. I paid £100 to secure the policy and provided them with post-dated cheques allowing me to pay the balance over the following three months. I did later inform Warwick Davis of my decision and when the policy comes up for renewal I will give them another chance, but I was very happy with the service from Terry Osborne and what seems to be a reasonable quote. They also were able to point out which safes would meet the insurer’s requirements.

It’s important when obtaining your insurance quote that you provide as much accurate information as possible. Don’t understate the value of your stock or neglect to mention that you might be doing the occasional market stall.

It also is worth checking with your landlord that the policy meets their requirements or covers you for things left out of the building insurance policy. For instance, your lease might state that it’s your responsibility to replace any broken windows.

The council too might take a view on what levels of insurance is acceptable. Before opening we looked into the mechanics of organising a pavement licence, in the fine print of which I noticed that the council expects us to have £5m worth of public liability coverage. The standard with Terry Osborne was for £2m or so, but it only cost us 1p to increase this.

But like I say, the best insurance will not cover you if it was your negligence that leaves you open to theft, business interruption or the loss of your licence.

Coming soon, more about banking plus equipment for your premises. On that note, anyone in the market for a secondhand Spulboy??

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New Year’s resolutions

It’s 2015 already and the weeks are flying by. Although we have not yet been open 3 months, it feels much longer (in a good, settling-into-the-swing-of-things way) but it’s clear we still have plenty to learn and lots more to do.

The holiday season was busy and we’re all set to coast through the doldrums of January and February. Judging by how long it’s been since my last post here, it’s obviously time to fire up the blog again and what better way than by sharing some of the things we’ve learnt so far and our resolutions for making things better in the year ahead.

1. Good customer service is free and makes your prices worth paying. As you may be aware, we are two doors down from a Wetherspoons. Elsewhere in the town centre is a sports bar/nightclub for the 20-somethings, a sports bar/karaoke spot for the 50-somethings, a decent food- and family-orientated real ale pub, plus a new ‘craft beer’ bar run by the same chap who owns the real ale pub. The karaoke spot advertises Carling for £2 a pint and Wetherspoons sells its real ale for the same price on a Monday. We’re not charging Manchester city centre prices, where pubs are now charging a minimum of £4/pint for real ale, but we do sell the most expensive pint on the local high street out here in the Mancunian ‘burbs. Many locals tell us they don’t like to go to the cheaper places. Clearly they are willing to pay more for something different served in more convivial surroundings by people who strive to provide stellar customer service. We are people who know what we’re selling because we’re in direct contact with the brewers, we offer tastings to help customers chose, we provide recommendations, we top up pints without being asked, we keep glasses sparkling, we have a natter with our customers, we welcome dogs…and we even know the names of the dogs. It’s the little things that matter and providing a friendly environment only takes a bit of effort.

2. Sell what your customers want, not what you want. Here we are in the depths of winter yet IPA, cider and Belgian fruit beers still remain our top sellers despite being what I would class as strictly summertime refreshments. I make sure to have a variety of strengths and styles on tap, but after dumping one too many pints I have decided to buy all dark beers like stout, porter or mild by the pin (36 pints, as opposed to the 72 pints in a firkin). I notice we sell more dark beers on Saturday and Sunday afternoons when people are more likely to linger over their pint, but it’s still not enough to justify tapping 72 pints of it at a go. One problem is that brewers rarely charge half as much for a pin, even though the container holds half as much. Also, some brewers need advance notice when a pin is required, but since they take up less space it’s easy for us to have 3-4 pins resting. As for that cranberry & beetroot farmhouse saison which you love but which is gathering dust… Facebook is a great way to get people interested in the different beers you’re getting in, but of course nothing beats talking to your customers 1-2-1 and asking them if they are willing to sample something new. Besides, remind them it’s ‘Tryanuary‘!

3. Respond to your customers. A few weeks ago a ‘craft beer’ place opened around the corner from us which we heard described several times as a ‘Belgian bar.’ When we visited we noticed that yes, they were selling a few of the same American & Continental bottles that we stocked, but that we had three times as many Belgian beers on our shelves (and I’m not even that much of an aficionado of the stuff). We also noticed that their full-colour menus came pre-printed from their distributor, meaning they will have little flexibility or depth to their offering. Yes, they sell Anchor Steam Beer like we do, but we also have Anchor’s IPA, Liberty Ale, Porter and California Lager. Depending what our customers like, we’ll be able to keep changing. The other day two chaps on either side of our bar got chatting about Augustiner from Munich and asked me if I could get some Edelstoff in. We had a case delivered later that week and the first batch was gone in about two days.

4. Make plans for the business to grow. Although it’s your micropub and you can keep it as small and quirky as you like, you might start reconsidering your business approach during these cold nights after the Christmas binge. To coax people into your premises this time of year you might want to start a quiz night, host a meet-the-brewer evening or offer a loyalty card to your customers. Maybe it’s time to expand your offering by selling bottled beer, fine wines, single malt whiskies or e-cigs. Putting on live music or cheese platters are also good ideas, although you need to be aware of any licencing requirements. Or you could use your growing knowledge of beer and connections with local brewers to organise a beer festival, perhaps to aid a local charity.

5. It’s your place, you can do what you like. Well-kept real ale is the sturdy, reliable foundation upon which every micropub must stand, but we have been amazed by how many women visit our premises asking for wine, prosecco and gin (plus the occasional mug of hot water). In keeping with the micropub ethos, we make sure our non-cask products are also made by local independents wherever possible, which means that when customers ask for Coca-Cola they get a ‘local-cola’ instead. We also sell a keg pilsner, but again one that is made locally yet tastes like a Continental beer. We have however refused all requests for mojitos, vodka or ‘proper lager’ like Fosters.

In future posts we’ll review some of the specifics which we’ve alluded to in previous posts, like sorting insurance and bank accounts, but hopefully these ramblings have given you some points to ponder.

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Our first month

I’ve quit my day job to become a glasswasher. Our micropub has been open a month, during which time we’ve had hundreds of customers through the door…each of them needing a clean glass of course. Cue hours stood at the sink manning the Spulboy and drying glasses by the dozen with yards and yards of blue roll. When we make our first million, I’ll invest in a proper glasswasher.

After we’ve made our next million, we just might dig a hole for a cellar. At the moment we have room for four firkins and one pin on cask cradles which keep them at a tilt atop our bar and a sturdy set of shelves. It means everything is on view including the cooling coils, which attracts quite a few comments (‘a little Heath Robinson’ is one remark which caught my eye in a recent TripAdvisor review).

We initially thought we’d use a set of chilling units left behind in the premises by the previous tenant who had plans for a wine bar. The units looked a bit knackered and we had no idea if they worked, but with electricians, plumbers, joiners and plasterers on the premises we had no time to test them out.

Not long after setting up our Twitter account we heard from a local brewery called Outstanding who offered to set up a cooling system for us…if we’d use it for one of their keg products. We asked if they could incorporate our real ale into the system and they agreed, but we still hesitated. Did we want to sell a chilled keg product? Would it attract the wrong crowd and ruin the atmosphere for other customers? In the end we opted for their Continental-style pilsner: a proper, crisp lager that actually tastes of something.

It was all very last minute and the team at Outstanding had other (far larger) projects demanding their attention, but a couple of days before our planned opening date we took delivery of a compressor and supervised the assembly of cooling coils linked to probes for us to drop down through the shive of each cask.

We had a slight panic when our order for cooling probes went astray for a couple of days, but these too arrived in the nick of time. We didn’t have our shive extractor yet, but Outstanding’s Alex had a huge screwdriver which did the trick (although the wooden shive in one cask eventually required a power drill). For the first few days I judged the temperature simply by feeling the underside of the casks and tasting the beer. Too warm? Twist open the lever atop the coil to allow chilled water into the probe. Too cold? Stop the flow. In either event, the line to the pilsner font is unaffected. I’ve since bought aquarium thermometers which I fix to the casks using sticky tape so I can try to keep the casks between 12-14C.

The four dusty chilling units were long gone, sold to a home brewer on ebay, but we did have some teething problems with the chilling unit. It failed to keep adequately chilled on our second weekend when the ambient temperature was high and the pilsner flowing. At 5C the pilsner was fobbing and impossible to serve. After a quick overnight trip to the manufacturers courtesy of Outstanding it started to chill again, but by the next morning the pilsner had frozen from being too cold! One more adjustment and the chiller is now keeping to the correct temperature range, plus we were given a free keg of pilsner for our troubles. The keg lasted about two days (we’re going through 3 or 4 a week).

Here’s a typical week. We’re closed Monday, so that’s my day to run errands, do some shopping and place our orders for the week ahead. We don’t open until 5 on a Tuesday but I’m usually at the premises well before lunchtime to prepare for the day. As well as ales on tap we have bottles in the fridge and off-licence shelves as well which need stocked up. We have a menu listing our ales, cider, wine, whisky, soft drinks and nibbles which change daily so fresh copies need to be run off. Ales that have been resting need vented and chiller probes inserted after being sanitised.

We open at 2 Wednesday-Sunday. We might try opening at noon to see if there’s any lunchtime trade, but most days after getting here at 10am I’m still rushing around at 1 to get things ready for 2pm. Around 4 the after-work regulars start dropping in, plus people on their way for a meal. Midweeks have been variable. Sometimes it goes dead quiet after 7, other midweek nights we’re nearly full until last orders. Midweek we’ll have 2 or 3 ales on tap, always of contrasting styles, although the dark ones sell more slowly than the pale ales.

Most deliveries come through on Wednesday and Thursday. We have space under the stairs for about 8 or 9 firkins. Some empties sit in the street window for decoration while others are lined up against the wall to hide holes in the floorboards; the rest go upstairs. We have 4 ales on for Friday and Saturday because the most popular ones (usually the IPAs) go in about six hours. You can’t see the floor on those nights for all the customers and even after a month there are still lots of new faces coming through the door, many of whom we’re pleased to see coming back later with their friends and family.

Sunday is my favourite day of the week. We have steady custom, starting with families and dog walkers. We’re often full most of the day but everyone has a seat. Friends gather to sit for awhile with a drink or three, so it’s far more relaxing than Friday and Saturday nights. A good time for me to start on my orders, or do a blog update perhaps!

Not long after opening each day I send out on an update listing what’s on tap to our Facebook followers (nearly 750 of them, the last time I checked). This is set up to be ‘echoed’ automatically by our Twitter account (another 250+ followers). We get customers commenting that they follow us this way and that it brings them out for the night.

Thanks to our customers we empty 6-7 firkins a week, plus go through ample amounts of wine, whisky and prosecco. Here we were thinking that we’d mainly be serving men wanting a pint, but we see lots of ladies come through the doors, either with their husbands or on a night out with their girlfriends. Most of them want wine, fizz, cider…or a half of pilsner.

We do get the occasional blank looks from people who don’t understand why we don’t do Guinness or ‘proper lager like Fosters’. Many of them latch onto the pilsner font because it’s the one thing that looks vaguely familiar. We’re only a couple doors down from a Wetherspoons and we’ve seen several people turn on their heels to head that direction, but most people are willing to give us a try. Even if we don’t do mojitos (we have however started to do mulled cider which is going down a treat).

Now that we’ve been open a month we have time to think about special events. Our most recent theme night was a brewster evening (Mallinsons, Prospect and Wilson Potter all being local female brewers). This next weekend we’ll have a Thanksgiving theme (Mayflower Stout, Milestone New World and Blackedge American will be on tap). There’s the town’s Christmas market coming up, where we’ll be selling boxed ales and gift vouchers. We’ve got two potential meet-the-brewer nights in the pipeline, plus we’ve had a request to book the venue for a 30th birthday party in January.

We’ve been far, far busier than we ever imagined. We very nearly ran dry our first weekend and even after doubling up our orders struggled to keep up with demand on our second weekend. We’ve also nearly run out of change on a couple of occasions too (more information on financials will come in a future post).

So yes, I may have quit the 9 to 5 in favour of the 8 til midnight, but it’s true what they say: as long as you’re doing something you enjoy it doesn’t feel like work.

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Getting closer…

After six weeks, the builders have finally packed up and cleared off. The bar has been built, the toilets are ready, the alarms are all set and the light fixtures are up. Now we can finally put our touch on the premises…and buy some beer, if we have any funds left over.

As alluded to in my previous post, the work took twice as long as expected but at least the bill didn’t double. The single biggest unexpected expense was installing pink plasterboard to the ceiling (for fire safety) and having it plastered. A few other surprises popped up along the way, like how there needed to be a vision panel (that’s a glass pane to you and me) in the door going upstairs – and since this is a fire door, it had to be safety glass for an extra £100.

Also, we needed a large extractor fan (£500 to buy, £400 to install and £80 for a sensor so it can go off and on automatically)…and the spindles were too far apart on the stair banister, so to prevent anyone slipping through to their doom we had to buy new spindles..,oh, and that new fire door is going to be the Achilles’ heel in our security unless there’s a shutter to pull down over it….

Each day as the builders, plumbers, plasterers and electricians were hard at work I’ve been doing the admin: contacting suppliers, organising the paperwork, buying sundries, sorting out insurance, designing fliers, updating the Facebook page, etc. Then each night with my partner and occasionally some of our friends we’ve been putting in five hours of decorating.

Our premises licence finally came through, but only after more chasing, trying my best to remain jovial and polite throughout. My partner said I should have enquired about the council’s complaints procedure, but I’m of the view the softly-softly approach is better (especially with people who hold the future of our business in their hands) and sure enough within an hour of leaving a jolly voicemail with the licensing officer she issued me with the licence on an email and promised to provide me with a certificate within the fortnight. Now where have I heard that before?

Something which caught me on the hop with the council was the registration process at Environmental Health. Apparently we should give 28 days advance notice before trading. This I learnt in mid September when preparing to take an online hygiene course and prepare our food safety policy. The 28 days in our case would mean not be able to open until the 14th of October, when in fact we’re aiming for the 10th.

What’s aggravating is that it seems nothing happens during these 28 days. I thought someone would be in touch to check in on us personally (as Building Control have been doing) to advise us during the building stage. Having had the police, fire brigade, licencing authority, building regulations and planning permission team all weighing in with their views before opening it seems odd that Environmental Health would take no interest in making sure our premises meet their standards while we still have the builders in.

Having spoken to someone at Environmental Health, it sounds like they are so overstretched they can hardly keep up with the business owners like me who try to do things by the book, let alone all the outlets opening, changing hands or changing the way they do business. I gently pointed out that they were copied in to my licence application back in May, so that would have been an ideal time for me to receive their form letter pointing me towards the online resources available and to advise me of the 28-day registration period. As it was, I only received this information after registering. The officer at the council took this on board and said that the way they operate means they would have ‘eventually’ got around to me. The mere fact I registered my business is more than what many others would bother doing, so a gold star for me.

All this came to light at that particular time because we were invited by the local business owners organisation to take part in a food market in the town precinct. Before taking part we needed public liability insurance plus our Food Hygiene training and rating certificates. I sorted the insurance (something I’ll touch on in a future post) and the organisers confirmed with Environmental Health that as we were selling bottled beer for consumption off the premises that food safety rules did not apply. A temporary event notice (TEN) had already been sorted by the organisers.

And so we found ourselves under a marquee outside the front door of the local Sainsbury with 250 bottles of beer, a dimpled mug full of fliers and some heavy duty carrier bags which a friend had dug out of his shop’s storeroom. Over the course of 5 hours we sold 150 bottles and talked to dozens of people, all of whom seemed excited by our venture.

It was a great way to meet potential customers, share our plans, hear their views and to bring in some money to boot. I’ll explain more of the practicalities involved in a future post, but we’ll definitely consider similar events in future, not just because of the profit element but because of the exposure as well. The number of likes on our Facebook page has since tripled to well over 300 fans, so the £10 pitch fee was well worth it.

That’s the news for now. The clock is ticking and there’s plenty to do, so I’ll sign off for now. Until next time….

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Two weeks…?!

There’s a running gag in The Money Pit, the 80s comedy in which Tom Hanks and Shelley Long buy their dream home at a rock-bottom price. They are told the house is a bargain but needs a little work, when actually it needs to be condemned. Construction crews arrive to do their best to keep the house from disintegrating. As the scaffolding reaches ever higher and the holes in the walls multiply, they are assured throughout it will only take ‘two weeks.’

We are two weeks into our building work and have been told there’s another two weeks to go. That immediately brought The Money Pit to mind so we’re reserving judgement, but a lot has been done by our very capable team of builders, electricians, plumbers and plasterers.

Old walls have come down, new walls have gone up, wiring has been replaced, pipes have been plumbed in, the skip has been filled to the brim and as you can see the former fire exit has reappeared. Every day sees a new delivery: basins, lavs, bottle coolers, glassware have all started to arrive. Once the dust settles we figure it will take another two weeks to decorate, kit the place out and organise our first stock deliveries.

All being well we should open before the first day of autumn. That is about a month later than anticipated, but if there’s one lesson we’ve all learnt from watching property shows like Grand Designs it’s that building projects always end up taking twice as long and costing twice as much as anticipated.

Partly this is because we did not fully realise how much work would be involved in order to comply with the building regulations. My first bit of advice for any potential micro-pub owner out there would be to involve an architect from the start. We were able to put together our own preliminary floor plans when submitting the paperwork to the licencing panel and the planning permission team, but we were unaware of the amount of work and detail required by the council’s Building Control department.

Now, anybody can read up on building regulations and find out (as we did) things like a front door should open outwards, but the Building Control team will want to see where things like emergency lighting, fire alarms and extinguishers are to be placed. Oh, and fire strobe lights too, which we’re guessing are for deaf people who can’t smell smoke.

It was while wading through the building regulations that we happened upon a local architect, James Darwent, who has designed a number of pubs including one converted from a hairdressers in Matlock. He was able to come round almost immediately to measure up and we had the first draft of his detailed floor plans a week later. The next step however was to obtain approval from Building Control and although the architect had a very good idea of what to expect from them, they pointed out a few changes which involved quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, to the point that the floor plans were only finalised last Friday (by which time we’d had the builders in for nearly two weeks).

One thing which did save us some time and money by using an architect was that he had close connections at Derbyshire Dales council. We were surprised to learn that our own local council did not necessarily have to sign off the floor plans of our micro-pub. Our local council will do the inspections and provide a certificate upon completion, but through a ‘partnering’ arrangement a different council can advise on and approve the initial plans. In our case, it was a council that did not have a backlog of cases and had a slightly lower processing fee.

As well as getting an architect involved from an early stage, I also recommend that anyone wanting to open their own micro-pub get a reliable builder lined up well in advance. This is the third property we’ve seriously considered for our project and during that time we’ve asked a total of five builders to provide quotes. Of those, only one showed any interest. Either our project was too small or our time scales didn’t fit in with their work load, who can say, but none of the other four bothered to come back to say they weren’t interested.

Together, an architect and a builder will point out any potential obstacles that might cause setbacks and expense. Not to say we view our premises as a ‘money pit’ or regret taking it on, but it would have helped early on to be aware of things like how the front windows need replaced with toughened glass because they are a certain height off the ground. Or how the property having an upper floor means that the ground floor ceiling needs to be fireproofed. Or how we can place the customer toilets upstairs, but because there’s not a separate fire exit on the upper floor we can’t use the space for additional seating or a function room. Etc, etc, etc…

The final thing that has taken longer than anticipated has been obtaining the alcohol licence for the premises. Although it was the first thing we applied for (back in May) and it was awarded four weeks later with no objections, here we are a full ten weeks later and the council has yet to issue it despite me chasing for it on several occasions. Last I heard it was definitely going to be finalised last Friday but nothing has materialised, so I’ll be contacting them again tomorrow and will be bracing myself for the inevitable: ‘sorry, just two more weeks.’

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