So You Think You Want To Own A Pub?

This is not The Duke of Bendale Inn

This is not The Duke of Bendale Inn

Let me tell you about my bar. It’s called The Duke of Bendale Inn.  It’s in an old Georgian home, with a large veranda on the front and a beautiful garden in the back.  If you’re interested in the latest news or meeting new people, the bar is for you.  It’s just inside the front door on your left, across the hall from the stairs to the second floor.  The oak bar stretches most of the inside wall, and features six handpumps drawing great cask beer from the cellar.  There’s some quality spirits and a small but thoughtful selection of wines.  Food is pretty simple: meat pies, a curry, a meat board and a cheese board, fish and chips.  Simple things to nibble on like sausage rolls, bread and cheese, pickled eggs and sausages, and bowls of nuts.  There’s a Sunday roast dinner.  If you’re in for a meal, you will probably take a table in the back dining room.  A dozen tables for 4-6 people are nicely set; the windows open to the garden and in the spring and summer aromas of lavender and rosemary might drift in.  If you would rather have a quiet chat with a friend or two, the library is cozy and always available.  It’s just to the right as you come through the front door.  The coal fire burns most evenings, and all day through the winter.  You’ll probably find that you favour one of the wing chairs in particular; some are firm and supportive, others are squashy and easy to melt into.  You’re welcome to grab a book off the shelves to read, you can take it home if you get hooked.  Try to remember to bring it back, though, okay?  We have a private dinning room on the second floor, where you can entertain anywhere from 4 to 14 people comfortably.  It does a roaring trade leading up to Christmas, hosting family dinners for people who would rather not have to cook and clean-up.  The back garden has a patio area where you can eat and drink during warm months, but you’re also welcome to walk through the small garden.  If you see an herb you need for a recipe, feel free to pinch a few sprigs.  A server can get you a bag to take it home in.  Every spring we have cuttings of herbs and flowers, which regulars are welcome to take home for their own gardens.  In the basement there are dart boards, and we have weekly dart nights.  A local club also uses the space for tournaments.  The only time you will hear music is if we have a local group in playing in the bar, or there’s a drunk Welsh or Estonian person.  Drunk Welsh and Estonians are welcome, and are welcome to take a room if one is available and they don’t feel like getting themselves home.  While everybody is welcome to do this as well, we give competitive rates to Welsh and Estonians based on how many songs they sang.  The rooms are on the third floor and are simple but comfortable.  Four single rooms with a shared bathroom, and two doubles with their own small en suite. They can be let for days or weeks, depending on your need.

Of course, much like Orwell’s beloved Moon Under Water, The Duke of Bendale Inn doesn’t exist.  But as you can tell, I’ve spent time dreaming about it.  I note things I like about bars I drink at, and adapt the plan accordingly.  In fact, the plan is more like a story. There are regulars who I’ve invented, recipes for specials that might never be served, mason jars full of preserves in the basement that are yet to be canned, shelves who’s contents I know intimately from phone-chargers to stomach remedies to business cards of honest local tradespeople. It’s possible I’ve put so much energy into planning a bar I will probably never open, because, well, I know I will probably never open it.

I know, we’ve all thought it while out for a drink, “If this were my bar, I would do…” What would be better than owning a bar? You have constant access to your favourite beverage, you are a pillar of your community and alcohol pretty much sells itself, right?  Okay, to be fair, I’m totally echoing some pretty common mis-conceptions, and I know numerous publicans who will tell you it’s a labour of love, and one that does not make you wealthy.  There are licensing problems, staffing problems, equipment problems, supply chain problems, leaked-oil-below-the-foundation problems, and then you actually have to open for business! There are benefits, doubtless, but the insanity that is operating a licensed business in Ontario means that something like 60% of new bars fail in their first year.  This does not bode well, when you’ve schemed and planned all night — possibly with a would-be partner or two — while drinking pints at your local favoured pub.  So what does the dreamer do?

How about becoming a partner in another bar?  Well, this too, is fraught with problems: Likely, a bar owner that desired a partner would already have one.  If they recently discovered they needed one, this probably means the business is in bad financial straits.  Also, it’s likely they’re going to want a fairly sizable chunk of money.

But there is another option: Community owned bars.

If you’re not familiar with the pub scene in Britain, allow me a moment to bring you up to speed: In much the same way that major breweries bought smaller ones up post-prohibition in Canada, leading to us having 3 major brewers that make basically the same products, any bar for sale in the UK is at risk of being bought by a brewing conglomerate or “pubco” (businesses that own multiple pubs), and made into a “tied-house”.  This means that the bar only sells their owner’s products. Tied-houses have existed for ages in Britain, and on the face of it, aren’t necessarily bad.  Indeed, a Fuller’s or Theakston’s tied-house would be a wonderful place to spend an afternoon.  But many pubs are being bought by major organizations that are mostly interested in selling large volumes of cheaply produced macro-lager.

Many of these bars for sale have operated for decades; some for centuries. They have been supporting local brewers making classic quality beers.  They have been major cogs in their local communities.  Having them sold and made as bland a place as the beers they will then serve, means losing a piece of our heritage.  Perhaps the rule of the free market means that some of these places must change or close, but when there is the possibility to “save” them from this fate, it seems silly not to.

This problem, and the main solution — the community buyout — is so prevalent that it even figured into a plot-line on Coronation Street.  Indeed, the iconic Rover’s Return was to be sold, and would like be bought by a pubco and homogenized.  So the locals kicked in and bought it instead (forgive me if I’m getting details a little out of wack, I don’t actually watch Corrie St).

Some of you will remember me writing an impassioned piece about cask conditioned ale.  It was popular enough that the Huffington Post ran it, and it lead to an article in this month’s TAPS magazine (available now!).  In it, I talked about my first experience with cask beer, in a bar in Bath called The Bell.  Via that post and because of the nature of social media I reconnected with the bar, and was more than a little surprised when, a few weeks later, news broke that the current owner was selling it.

The Bell Community Co-opYou probably can guess what happened next.  Questions flew. Was there a viable potential new owner? Who was interested? Which pubcos (who are generally evil) wanted to buy? As the dust settled on the announcement, it was clear, there was not likely to be a single buyer — nor a consortium of pub-minded business people — who would simply continue business as usual.  There were some major players interested.  The price was quite high (£925 000), but the business was in excellent shape (the current owner simply wanted to get out of the trade).  All this pointed to a likely purchase by a company who’s main interest was in selling their products, or ones they were contractually obliged to sell. At risk was not just a place where people drank decent beer, but a business that has been a huge supporter of local music.  Never charging any covers to their many gigs, ranging from open mics, to all-vinyl DJs, to local bands and jazz sessions that have been hosted there since the 1960’s.

So, following in the footsteps of the regulars at the Rover’s Return, and numerous other (actual) bars in the UK, the regulars pulled together.  The final plan (which is now being executed) saw them form a Community Co-op, which allows people to buy in to the bar for £500/share.  As they need to raise £575 000.00 (having secured a loan for the balance), they will need to sell 1 150 shares.  Currently, they are at £187 000 raised, with 15 days to go to raise the funds. New would-be owners include the bands Portishead, Goldfrapp and The Stranglers, as well as Michael Eavis, the founder of the Glastonbury Festival.

Thankfully, the current owner is very supportive of the plan, and has turned down offers in hopes that the buy-out plan will work.  But there is still a way to go. This sounds daunting, I know.  And it is where you, dear reader and would-be pub owner, come in.  Anybody, anywhere in the world can become an owner.  You can even purchase a share as a group (note, there are legal things that your own group will need to work out).  With current exchange rates (just checked now, 3/6/2013) £500 is $774CDN, this means you and six friends could each kick in $111 and become pub owners!

Okay, you won’t be able to saunter in on a Saturday night and expect a table and for the regulars to fawn over you, but you will be part owner of a wonderful bar.  Not only that, but a legit English pub! You also will have supported a community of people who value their local, and fear for it and its future.  You will have kept a precious part of the UK’s pub culture alive and vibrant.  And the next time you are sitting at a table and somebody says they’re thinking of opening their own bar and ask if you want in, you can smile and reply “I already own one.”

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