Then there are our changing drinking habits. Campaigns like Dry January and Go Sober for October embed a feeling that the pub is best avoided. “We’re not pretending there are no risks,” argues Tom Stainer, CEO for the Campaign for Real Ale, “but for moderate drinking, the risks are small, and there are social benefits to going to the pub.”
Not least as they now serve a greater variety of non-alcoholic drinks. Kerridge, who is teetotal for health reasons, agrees: “People don’t drink at lunchtime any more and often look for quality over quantity. They might have two pints of something really nice that might be expensive, rather than six or seven pints of a session beer. There are many reasons the pub is now under pressure.”
None is greater, argues Greg Mulholland, campaign director for the Campaign for Pubs, than the beer tie. It is a complex, archaic system, but essentially almost half of Britain’s pubs are owned by breweries or pub companies (pubcos). Landlords are contracted to buy certain beers (“wet rent”), often at inflated prices, as well as dry rent to the pubco. “This has been a major, if not the major, cause in the closure of traditional pubs over the past 10 to 15 years,” says Mulholland, who as a Liberal Democrat MP headed parliamentary efforts to save pubs.
In what Mulholland describes as “one of the worst examples of casino capitalism” this country has seen, thousands of pubs have been rendered unviable and sold for flats or supermarkets. Some believe this is a deliberate tactic by pubcos, often based in tax havens. Kerridge says the relationship (one of his pubs is owned by Greene King, two by Ei Group), can work. “However, if it does come out of balance, it is very heavily sided towards the pub company and makes a landlord’s life much more difficult,” he adds.
It’s a theme present in Saving Britain’s Pubs, which features four very different businesses. There’s a rural Cornwall boozer, the White Hart, which is overly reliant on locals; the Golden Anchor in Nunhead, south east London, that’s more a domino club for the local Jamaican community than a heaving pub; a Stroud music venue, the Prince Albert, where gigs are rammed but the rest of the week is slow; and a Scottish community-owned pub, the Black Bull, which Kerridge can see requires a dash of professionalism. They are all linked by two things: their importance to the local community and the fact they are barely financially viable.
Lotte and Miles Lyster Connolly, who run the Prince Albert, earn £15,000 a year between them, requiring Mark to do other jobs. “They live above it, eat, sleep and breathe that pub,” says Kerridge. “To not make a living out of it, they find that very difficult. Even though it seems quite busy, unfortunately it’s not. The profit margins are very small.”
Kerridge’s mission is to help make the pubs more financially stable, and he encourages all to diversify, to “change their dynamic but still have that heart and soul”. That might be improving the bedrooms for overnight guests; adding a pizza offering; a pub makeover; or appealing to a wider section of the community. In Saving Britain’s Pubs (like a benevolent Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares), Kerridge visits each pub several times (with video calls during lockdown), and even ropes in his interior designer sister-in-law to help one pub’s makeover.
“Pubs need to diversify to a point, but I don’t mean change completely,” says Kerridge, pointing to the Butcher’s Tap model. “Some places could look at an all-day offering. Is it open for breakfast? Is it offering coffees midmorning? Is it becoming a community library, a local shop? In a rural space you could become a farm shop. Each pub has its own set of challenges depending on where it is, but all need to look at every single way of getting people through the door.”
One challenge no one could have predicted was a global pandemic. Midway through filming, lockdown hit, putting changes on hold as the publicans (and Kerridge) grappled with the very existence of their businesses. “It gelled us very tightly, because irrespective of whether they’ve got two part-time bar staff or 75 full-time staff like the Hand & Flowers, we’re all under the same pressure,” says Kerridge, who is relieved all managed to reopen.
For Kerridge, the response from hospitality businesses to lockdown was “unbelievable”. Overnight, pubs morphed into community centres, village shops, food banks, soup kitchens. They fed the lonely, the vulnerable and front-line staff. Kerridge’s own charity, Meals for Marlow, raised £180,000 and cooked 80,000 meals for local hospitals by the end of lockdown, and is now feeding the homeless.
The Government’s handling is met with less enthusiasm. Kerridge acknowledges the task has been “very, very difficult”, and the furlough scheme, VAT reduction and Eat Out To Help Out were “great”. Recent measures, however, are less welcome. The end of the furlough scheme will hurt many, and a solution to the rent impasse is yet to be achieved (many pubcos are, or have been, asking for rent in full even when pubs were shut).