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.

Click back again soon for more news, or follow us to receive updates to our blog delivered right away to your inbox.

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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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On-the-job training

For all the beer we’ve drank, until fairly recently we had never worked behind a bar or pulled any pints. Our lack of cellar experience is the number one gap in our business plan and something we’ve started to address through hands-on training.

During this last summer for instance we volunteered at a local beer festival on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. There were queues out the door of the venue and around the block. Like the other volunteers there we poured hundreds of pints that afternoon, probably one every minute. Despite this baptism by fire we were glad for the experience, happy to meet other CAMRA members and pleased to see such a young crowd almost equally split between men and women all keen to try even the most obscure beers. It also convinced us we’d rather be serving 30 customers of an evening, not 300!

We can also recommend the cellar management short course accredited by the British Institute of Innkeeping Awarding Body (BIIAB). Their Award in Beer & Cellar Quality is hosted by various breweries around the country, including Thwaites and Holts here in the North West. I however wanted to do it sooner rather than later, so I travelled down to Fuller’s in London.

A full-colour 80-page coursebook was provided in advance entitled Profit Through Quality which allowed me to familiarise myself with terminology like fobbing, soft spiles and stillaging.  I met a dozen or so other attendees on the day who were all experienced bar staff, but even they admitted to learning something during the course. Certainly for someone like me, who at the time had never worked behind the bar or tapped a cask, it was well worth it.

The course covered topics like cellar hygiene, temperature control, glass washing and cask handling. There was also a tour of Fuller’s historic Griffin brewery on the banks of the River Thames in Chiswick, followed by plenty of ale to sample as we were put through our paces in trying to pour the perfect pint.

Quite a lot of time was spent discussing the importance of the super-cold refrigeration for keg lager and the risks involved in handling gas cylinders to maintain its carbonation. From the micropub point of view of ‘keep it small and keep it simple’, it demonstrated to me that too much time, effort and money is spent in most pubs in getting beer from the cellar to the glass.

For pubs with a cellar either downstairs or in a separate room where casks are kept, plastic tubing called lines are required to bring the beer to the bar. These lines should be cleaned every week with chemicals to flush out any blockages or yeast that can taint the beer. Before cleaning the lines they need emptied of any beer inside, which is poured down the drain. It was recommended that when opening for the evening to pull off the beer that has been sitting in the lines overnight. That also goes straight down the drain.

With so much beer wasted and on hearing how easily it can become tainted in the process, it convinced me that micropubs are right to serve customers straight from the cask. Ideally, we want people to walk into our micropub, see casks lined up against the wall and watch as we serve pints right from the tap. We want it to be set up like a beer festival, albeit one with proper refrigeration (because the one drawback to the festival over the summer is that the beer was warm).

Options for keeping cask ale cool will be discussed in a future post. If you have ideas for other topics, be sure to leave a comment below. Cheers!

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