It’s been barely three weeks since Britain’s pubs called last orders, and the die-hards chanced their lives for one more round in an almighty pre-lockdown finale. They staggered into isolation as many of us stagger through it – a bit pissed, pining for the crush at the bar and the promise of a wayward night on the tiles.
Four days earlier, Pete Tiley had put his head in his hands and cried. He’d spent seven years pulling 90-hour weeks to helm the Salutation Inn in Gloucestershire to multi-award winning status. Now he struggled to see beyond inevitable ruin – and Cabinet minister Michael Gove's grim prediction that pubs might remain closed till Christmas will only make things worse.
“I’m not ashamed to say I was in tears and fairly inconsolable,” he says. “For an hour I was like, ‘[Boris Johnson] fucked us and everything that we’ve worked for for the past seven years’. I gave up a job in London to do this. It’s been blood sweat and tears, and everything we’d built up had been washed away.”
The Salutation – known affectionately as ‘The Sally’ – is one of those can’t-put-your-finger-on-it special boozers. Despite the location in a remote and nondescript bit of Severn estuary flatlands, it pulls crowds from far and wide. It’s frayed and smoky, but serves bleeding-edge beer and cider. There’s a microbrewery out back, a battered skittles alley and a legendary ham, egg and chips on the menu.
Pete and his partner Lizzie Hammond felt they had a moral duty to shut up shop when Boris Johnson first advised people to avoid pubs, clubs and bars on 16th March. With no support package tabled, things looked hopeless then. Coronavirus has excelled at exposing the tremulous fragility of debt-serviced big business, but for every bloated billionaire going cap in hand for a bailout, there are a hundred Pete and Lizzies, adapting to survive. Within a couple of days they’d launched a website for local beer and cider deliveries.
“I could have sat and cried but I realised I had a responsibility to my staff, to the customers and the community to make this work,” says Pete. “People have been really supportive. Instead of ordering from a supermarket, they’re thinking about where they spend their money. Hopefully there’ll be a pub to come back to.”
It’s too soon to be sure, he says. Pete also runs the Butcher’s Hook in nearby Thornbury. Both venues are owned by aristocratic estates and Pete says his landlords have been “really supportive” over the question of rent.
“That gives us some breathing space,” Pete says. “I’m determined, but who knows. The pub industry was under persistent threat before the virus. After it, the economy is going to be floored. Our pub landscape is going to be devastated.”
Down the road in Herefordshire, Jonny Bright and Amelie Varin at the Hereford Beer House feel a little more secure. They own their premises and their flat above. After initially scrambling together a delivery service, they’ve shuttered completely and are using the downtime to tend their allotment.
“It was nerve-wracking coming into this, but we knew we were in a strong position with just one staff member and not owing anyone a penny,” he says. “Too many businesses run on debt, and big businesses struggle to adapt.
“I think an operation our size stands a good chance of pulling through. We just have to be patient. We’ve got a bottle shop element and could have continued trading that side of the business, but we felt we had a moral obligation to shutter and be done with it. Do we want to get rid of this virus or not?”
All the same, he fears the lingering effects of our socially distant new normality.
“Boy, there’s going to be a piss up when the pubs open,” he says. “But after the honeymoon period? People feel nervous being around other people, and I wonder if pubs and other high street businesses are going to feel the impact of that.”
The UK has some 39,000 pubs and almost a third are run as “tied tenancies” under Britain’s six biggest pub companies: Star Pubs & Bars (part of Heineken), Punch Pubs, Admiral, Ei Group, Greene King and Marstons.
Tenant licensees run their pubs as they please, but kick up to their pubco owners by paying over-inflated prices for beer, wine and spirits – a deal they’re locked into which is known in the trade as “wet rent”.
Traditionally, pubcos were family-owned brewer businesses who charged bargain rent in return for guaranteed beer sales. These days, two of the big six – Ei and Punch – don’t brew at all. Ei is backed by a private investment firm based in the Cayman Islands. Greene King was bought last year by global real estate group CKA, owned by Hong Kong’s wealthiest family.
Critics of the tied tenancy system complain that rents have rocketed in recent years. In coronavirus-stricken Britain, all but one of the big six (Admiral) want their tenants to keep paying for their empty pubs or accrue rent owed while shuttered. Pubcos have been accused of pestering landlords to hand over their government support grants, while the British Beer and Pub Association provoked anger by suggesting the aid should be paid to pubcos direct. The outrage has sparked a social media campaign – #NoPubNoRent – on Twitter.
“Greene King have asked me for £8,000 a month and basically I’ve told them to get stuffed,” says Gary Murphy at the Mitre Inn in Barnet, north London. “But I’ve got a profitable business. Lots of pubs are run on debt – if they’re taking little money and face coming back from this owing thousands, it’s finito. They’re just going to cut their losses and give up. Some have gone already.”
“This industry is built like a house of cards,” he explains. “Everyone thinks publicans have a pile of cash stashed under the mattress but the reality is most live hand to mouth.
“I run a successful pub that was turning over £14,000 a week – but we have 16 staff. There’s no fat, nothing at the end of it. We’re certainly not rich. If you keep people in a permanent state of jeopardy they will fall over very easily.”
Between bouts of suffocating anxiety, we dream and joke about the day pubs reopen, and the nationwide hangover that will follow.
Coronavirus has changed everything in the short term: how we work, how we play, how we teach our kids, how we stand in a queue. From the chaos, might there be an opportunity to change our pub landscape for the better?
“We want to see more pubs owned by the people who run them and understand them best,” says Greg Mulholland of the British Pub Confederation. “It’s the only way we’ll see the dynamism the sector needs – it’s not going to come from these giant companies who have been playing monopoly with our pubs for the past 15 to 20 years. It will come from grassroots.”
With breweries facing their own existential crisis and some 50 million pints languishing in cellars set to spoil, you have to wonder if there even will be enough beer to slake the national thirst. We can wait for the pubs – but can they afford to wait for us?