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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Licence to spill

We spoke today to the licencing team at our local council who confirmed that no objections had been made during the consultation period and that our premises licence has been granted. That leaves building regulations approval and planning permission to sort which could take 8 weeks but should still give us time (we think) to open for the August bank holiday.

In the meantime, here is the operating schedule from our licence application (including links to resources which we found helpful). We ran this past a licencing solicitor who said it was more thorough than what he prepares for his own clients, but that we might open ourselves to having to accept certain conditions. Reading through it again now we probably did go into unnecessary detail, but as new licencees we thought it was important to demonstrate that we have ideas on how to promote sensible drinking. The licence was granted in the end without any conditions.

Describe the steps you intend to take to promote the four licensing objectives:

I am proposing to open a micro-pub which will sell mainly real ale and farmhouse cider straight from the cask made by independent producers. A micro-pub, although falling within the A4 use class, is not a standard pub but rather is more like a traditional alehouse providing a relaxed and sociable atmosphere for a comparatively small number of customers. Without amplified music, fruit machines or television it will feel like a small country pub despite its town centre location, meaning it will be attractive to discerning drinkers out for a quiet pint or two.

I am aware of my responsibilities as the Designated Premises Supervisor, having earned the Award for Personal Licence Holders in 2013, and in compliance with my duties:-

  • I will undertake ongoing risk assessments and adhere to the BBPA guidance on fire precautions and safety in pubs to address public safety concerns;
  • I will put into operation measures recommended by the Portman Group as well as complying with the council’s limitations as to when children are allowed on the premises to protect children from harm.

The prevention of crime and disorder

I will display ‘Challenge 21’ notices to remind customers they may be asked to show proof of age (passport, driving licence or PASS-accredited card only). A notice also will be displayed stating that drug use and violent/anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated on the premises.

Information will be displayed on the premises explaining what a unit of alcohol is and how it translates in practical terms to the drinks sold, together with information about the risks of drink driving and chronic drinking. All beer or cider will be available in half pints; stronger beers and ciders will be sold only in smaller measures. Wherever possible toughened glassware will be used. Customers who appear to be intoxicated will not be served and told to leave.

An incident book also will be kept to log any refusals on the basis of no proof of age, intoxication or anti-social behaviour. All of the above will be communicated to staff members during training, the notes for which will be left behind the bar for reference.

The premises will be monitored by CCTV. I have checked, but there is not yet a local Pubwatch scheme.

I will employ specific measures to discourage binge drinking, for instance by not playing amplified music, by providing chairs for most of my customers and by selling primarily real ale for approximately £3.50/pint. There will not be a ‘happy hour’ or similar drinks promotions.

Through this I expect my micro-pub to appeal to discerning, mature customers who are sensible about drinking. I would be happy to take further guidance from the local police in this matter and to take part in any campaigns promoting safe, sensible and social drinking.

Public safety

I am aware of the need to conduct ongoing Health & Safety risk assessments to identify and deal with hazards that might involve tripping, manual handling, electric shock, hazardous substances, etc. I also will conduct ongoing fire risk assessments. The ground floor will be left fairly open in terms of layout (no fixed seating) and there will be limited public access to the first floor. The building currently only has one door, which I am aware restricts the occupancy to 60 persons, but there is a door to the rear of the building which was bricked up some time ago and will be opened to be used again as a fire exit before we open to the public.

The bar will be placed in such a way that the entire premises can be monitored centrally. The premises will be monitored by CCTV; smoke alarms are already in place. A log book will be maintained to show that regular checks have been carried out to ensure smoke alarms, gas and electrical appliances, plus gas supply and electrical wiring are all working properly. Staff will be advised of the findings from the risk assessments during training, the notes for which will be left behind the bar for reference. Staff will also be asked to undertake First Aid and fire safety training so they are aware of potential hazards and what to do in emergencies.

The prevention of public nuisance

I am requesting hours to sell alcohol which do not exceed normal trading hours of other local pubs. The sale of alcohol will cease at 23.00 and I request opening hours until 23.30. This will give customers time to catch the last bus or train (timetables will be available on the bar, together with a phone number for a local taxi firm). Many other micro-pubs close during weekday afternoons, at 21.00 on some weeknights or close entirely one weekday. After judging trade patterns I will probably choose to reduce my opening hours accordingly.

Noise will be kept to a minimum: recorded music will be kept at a background level, any live music performance will be acoustic only, there will be no kitchen extraction fans and all deliveries or rubbish disposal will take place during daytime hours. Staff will be made aware of the above policies during training, the notes for which will be left behind the bar for reference.

Notices will be posted at the door asking patrons to leave quickly and quietly. There is not a designated car park for the premises so customers will not be congregating around their cars in the evening. To my knowledge No 33 Flixton Road is not within 50m of any hospitals, hospices, schools, places of worship or houses. I would be happy to take further guidance from the Environmental Health Department in this matter.

The protection of children from harm

Few activities will take place on the premises which might give concern to children’s safety (eg no adult entertainment or gambling) and a Challenge 21 policy will be in place. As the council has the final authority on whether children are allowed at any time, I will comply with any conditions made, but think it would be reasonable to allow children accompanied by an adult on the premises until 6pm each evening. I will not sell ready-to-drink bottles of alco-pops. I believe the ‘sensible drinking’ approach will help ensure that children are not exposed to incidences of violence or disorder.

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We have the keys

 …and the wheels are in motion!

Since leaving work a year ago I have been working on plans to open a pub that sells only beer from micro-breweries (a micro-pub). No global brands, no hot food, no loud music, no sports TV, gaming machines or karaoke: just local ales poured straight from the cask.

We had several false starts trying to find premises, but in the meantime I went on a cellarkeeping course, obtained my alcohol licence and volunteered at several beer festivals as well as spending practically every spare weekend visiting other micro-pubs, empty properties and prospective neighbourhoods…plus sampling lots and lots of beer (purely for research purposes).

From the start we had our eyes on Urmston which is easy to reach on the train from Manchester city centre plus has a busy high street full of independent shops and a prosperous catchment area. We seriously considered several properties there, but it’s only in the past few weeks that the right one became available. We’ve paid a deposit, we have the keys and we’ve sent off the licence application and planning permission paperwork.

The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly and it will be July at the earliest before we actually start the refurbishment, but with a bit of luck we’ll be opening in August. We’re calling it the Prairie Schooner Taphouse after the wagons covered in sailcloth which crossed America in pioneer days.

We’ll have a website soon, but you can also track our progress by liking our new Facebook page, while I will also try to continue updating this page with some of technical aspects involved in setting up our operation which we hope is of interest to other potential micropub owners.

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Big news on the way!

After a year of planning and property searches, we may finally have found our premises.

You may have noticed that we’ve gone quiet on the blogging front of late. This is because we have been spending all of our spare time visiting locales all across the North West, viewing properties, crunching numbers and talking to landlords about our business plans.

Without wanting to jinx it, we feel confident we have found our premises. As of this moment nothing has been signed and no deposit has been paid, but suddenly our ‘to do’ list includes things like ‘contact suppliers for latest price lists’ and ‘check advertising deadline for local CAMRA rag’.

Things are likely to move very fast but we’ll do our best to keep our followers updated with our progress. Click back again soon, because we could be opening our doors in just a few weeks.

In the meantime, be sure to say hello to David and Gina who have opened Great Ale Year Round in the refurbished food hall at Bolton market. Like us, they received free business advice through Blue Orchid. We wish them the best of luck and look forward to raising a pint with them soon.

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Beer’s the thing

One of the first questions a business adviser wants answering is why? Hundreds of pubs are closing every year, so why do we want to open a micropub?

Our response is that the micropub business model seems to be the best way to succeed during these challenging economic times. That’s because a micropub is all about the beer. 

Practically all pubs are shoe-horned into one business model or another (for example gastropub, family pub or sports pub) and are marketed accordingly. Each pub is designed to appeal to a specific demographic of people who can go in expecting all the trappings associated with that particular business model, whether it’s fine food, a play area or Sky sports on the big screen. That means neighbouring pubs which happen to share a business model end up fighting for custom.

By comparison, a micropub’s primary focus is on beer and beer alone. Students are as welcome as pensioners and they might all end up rubbing elbows with young couples and sports fans, as long as they all enjoy real ale because that’s the only thing on offer. And since it’s beer that can’t be bought in the likes of Tesco, there’s little competition from the supermarkets either.

A recent attention-grabbing headline in The Publican’s Morning Advertiser announced that the UK needs to lose further 1,000 pubs. In the article, a property agent gives his view that Britain cannot sustain the current number of pubs, even after a quarter of all Britain’s pubs closed for business between 1980 to 2010.

What’s interesting in the Morning Advertiser article is that over the past 7 years the number of leased/tenanted pubs has declined from about 28,000 to 21,000. Over the same period freehold pubs have increased substantially from 17,000 to 26,000.

To us that seems an indication that pub owners have a better chance of succeeding without being tied to a pub company, or at the very least shows how a growing number of pub owners are taking the opportunity for whatever reason to strike out as independents.

And if they can survive now, their businesses will be thriving once the economy recovers, which is why we’re actively viewing properties and scoping out neighbourhoods for our micropub.

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The smoking ban

The number of pubs in Britain has been declining consistently since 1980, when there were 69,000 pubs in the country; thirty years later and the number of pubs stood at 52,000.

Of all the threats to pubs, one of the top culprits blamed for the decline in pub-going over the past few years has been the smoking ban. Scotland banned smoking in public places in the spring of 2006, with the rest of the UK following in the summer of 2007.

The timing could not have been worse. The credit crunch began to bite later that same year, there was a run on Northern Rock and by 2008 the UK economy was in recession for the first time in over 15 years. The beer duty escalator also took effect in 2008, with tax on beer rising 42% to date.

Economic misery has always been bad for the pub trade and the rate of pub closures corresponds with economic downturns. After interest rates started to spike in the late 80s, pubs were closing at the rate of 21 a week in 1989, then 25 a week in 1991 as the property bubble well and truly burst. Similarly, on average 38 pubs a week closed during the first year of the most recent recession in 2008.

All these numbers come from a report by the British Beer and Pub Association whose figures were published in The Guardian and also indicate that pub numbers increased during the boom years of the mid to late 90s.

The smoking ban alone did not cause these closures. It was a smoking ban after all, not a drinking ban, and you do have to wonder about the beer-drinking habits of smokers who insisted that it’s only natural to have a pint in one hand and a ciggie in the other because ‘it makes the beer taste better’ (an actual quote from someone commenting on a news item about the smoking ban).

Despite being a smoking ban and not a ban on smokers, it clearly has been the deciding factor in keeping many drinkers at home with their tins from the supermarket. On the other hand, since the smoking ban there are people who go to the pub more often and people who are non-smokers have always outnumbered smokers.

All this is a moot point for micropubs, because practically all of them started to open after the smoking ban took effect and they have been thriving regardless.

The only problem I envision is if the government relaxed the smoking ban: suppose separate smoking rooms were allowed in pubs, or it was decided that pubs which did not serve food could allow smoking on their premises? Hardly any micropubs would have the space for a separate smoking room and it’s doubtful any of them would agree to become an all-smoking venue. Although a micropub would therefore not benefit from an increased numbers of smokers going out, it wouldn’t lose its core regulars either.

Personally, I don’t see any relaxation in the rules happening because a primary reason for the smoking ban was to prevent pub employees from being harmed by secondhand smoke. The ‘nanny state’ may want smokers to kick the habit, but the primary intent of the legislation was for non-smokers to be protected from unwanted fumes.

On that point, it’s clear that the future for smoking in pubs is to embrace the e-cig: no smell, no ash, no secondhand smoke, no problem. Although Fullers and JD Weatherspoon have banned them, I think micropubs should welcome them, maybe even sell them as a sideline. After all, one of the best things about the micropub business model is being able to spot a niche in the market and to do things differently than the big pub chains.

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A race to the bottom: thoughts on pricing

There are dozens of websites, Facebook pages and publications which we follow in order to stay on top of trends in the pub trade. Recently we joined an online licensees support group, the members of which have been invited by the UK Government to contribute to its consultation on pub company reform.

It makes for grim reading at times. Many pubs across the country are in crisis, but it’s good to see people quick to share ideas and support so that others can maintain their fighting spirit in the face of difficulty.

With us being full of optimism for our future in the pub trade, it has been an eye-opener to hear what can go wrong. After sitting down to re-examine parts of our business plan, we still believe that the micropub business model is the best way to compete, even in this age of austerity.

Here’s an example. A licensee started a discussion in the group by explaining how she was finding it hard to compete with the local working men’s club in her town. Their beer is cheaper (in fact, the club lowers their prices even further on a Saturday afternoon when the football is on). Should she lower her prices and hope to profit from higher sales volumes?

As myself and others pointed out, there are no winners in a race to the bottom. Cutting prices would mean making cuts elsewhere in her budget to maintain profitability (cuts which might put customers off from coming back). Not to mention she might end up attracting the wrong kind of crowd, driving off dedicated customers in favour of fairweather punters only looking for the cheapest pint.

One of the books on our shelf I can recommend is called Running Your Own Pub. Even in 1985, the author points out that supermarkets are selling beer cheaper than pubs. Yet here we are, nearly 30 years later and despite the ever-growing dominance of Tesco, Asda etc there are plenty of pubs doing well. That’s because the best pubs provide an experience that supermarkets cannot match. It’s the same reason people pay to go to the cinema when it would be cheaper to rent the same film when it comes out on DVD. In other words, price is not the only factor when people choose what to do with their free time.

Instead of competing on price, we believe that a pub should compete on quality, choice and the customer experience. It’s not just what you sell, but how you sell it.

It’s also about finding your niche and filling the gap in the market. With Saturday afternoons being quiet when the football is on, someone commented that the niche there is to cater for the football widows, perhaps by doing high tea. You can read more about the importance of the ‘female factor’ here.

Another interesting comment which came up during the discussion is that the licensee has her own branded beers on tap, which she sells as her cheapest offering. As someone pointed out, if these are exclusive to the pub, shouldn’t they be sold at a premium? People are willing to pay more for a product when they know about its provenance, particularly once they realise that is has been especially hand-crafted for the premises.

One final revelation from the licensee is that she sold no real ale or world beers. Here is where a pub can truly make its mark, by selling good-quality beer unlike anyone else’s offering. A night out remains one of life’s little luxuries: something which people are willing to spend that bit extra on if they feel like it’s a treat.

As for us, it’s back to the business plan! Future posts will talk more about other problems facing pubs and how a micropub can compete. In the meantime, you may want to find out more about pubco reform by joining the Fair Deal For Your Local campaign.

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