Rising beer tax, higher business rates and changing consumer demands are putting pressure on independent publicans
07/04/2013 06:00 PM
WITH THE economy in the trough, rising taxes and plethora of issues facing the pub business, several black publicans have called for creation of an umbrella organisation to represent struggling African Caribbean pubs in Britain.
This, the owners of three independently-run pubs said, would help create coherence and assist in running their businesses smoothly.
Nana Nti, owner of Gold Coast in south London, told The Voice: “Having a body helping African Caribbean pubs specifically would be a very important step.
“There hasn’t been much support locally and it would be useful to have a trusted body to provide feedback on our pub issues.”
Carol Lindsay, manager of north London’s Heritage Inn agreed. “It (an umbrella organisation) would be a very useful option,” she said.
“From what I’ve heard, pubs owned by minority groups in Birmingham, Manchester in other areas face a lot of similar problems to ours.”
However, the leaseholder of a family-run pub in Bristol’s inner city is in favour of the idea, but doesn’t hold much hope for it coming to fruition.
Martyn Hall, who runs the King’s Head with wife Pauline, said: “In an ideal world, having such a body would be absolutely fantastic.
CONCERNED: Carol Lindsay
“It would ease up on some of the pressure,” Hall said. “Currently, we have no voice.”
There is no official group representing the needs of African Caribbean or even inner city pubs.
The British Beer & Pub Association represents more than half of Britain’s pubs, however, its main purpose is to represent the interests of pub companies, rather than individual proprietors.
Without support, independent pubs are feeling the pinch of the struggling economy.
According to advocacy group, The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), an average of two pubs is closing in London alone, each week. The group attributes this to consistent increases in beer tax, rent and business rates.
Tax on beer has gone up by 40 per cent since 2008 and now accounts for over a third of the cost of a pint.
“The Government just doesn’t see what is going on and it is like banging your head against a brick wall,” said Hall, who has been in business since 2007.
“We put a lot of time, and money and hard work into the system, but we get nothing back. If anything, we are just given more problems, such as increased VAT.”
Currently, Hall runs their pub via a leasehold with a brewery.
Restricted to paying for beer from the brewery at set prices, he is halted from shopping around for better prices, which he thinks gives the bigger chains an upper hand.
“As well as looking at the supermarkets and corner shops prices for alcohol, the Government should crackdown on the larger pub chains. A drinker can pay £1.90 for a pint in a chain, but five minutes down the road you can get the same drink for closer to £3.50.”
He added: “The playing field should be more even. The big chains have deep pockets and therefore, smaller family-run pubs have a very uphill challenge.”
A report from financial solutions firm Zolfo Cooper found that spending by pub-goers has risen by 4.2 per cent to £15.30 per visit, but Hall hasn’t had that effect in his case.
“In the early stages, customers were spending up to £30 a visit, whereas now you’re lucky to see £10.
“A lot of customers come in ‘pre-loaded’, and they only pop into the pub for one or two drinks.”
Hall, who also has a day job in finance, says running a public house for a diverse community is his passion.
He said: “Although, we don’t earn enough from the pub to give up our day jobs, we are happy with what we do.
“We’re not your everyday-type of pub, we welcome customers from age 18 to 80, whether Jamaican, Senegalese or Indian,and everyone just gets on. We once had a Liverpudlian guy who visited and was shocked at how inclusive our place is.”
UNSUPPORTED: Nana Nti
Publican Nti of Gold Coast Bar in south London said that he has seen customer spending fall significantly. “In 2011, our regular customers would spend £75 per week on average, including alcohol and food. Now, the figure is close to £30, so it’s a huge change in revenue in a relatively short space of time.”
With inflation creeping to 2.8 per cent and rents on the rise, Nti has found the tightening of the purse affecting other areas of his business.
“Even costs like maintaining services are shooting up” he said. “Therefore, we are left with no choice but to try and claw back money from somewhere. It’s an awkward balancing act though, as you have to always consider your impact on the customers. That’s why we are here, to serve our customers in the best way possible. We are constantly looking at stocking – spending more on the more popular beers and cutting back on others.
“The pressure means that we have to make tough decisions on reducing staff and adapting the hours that they can do. Often people come in here and ask for work. We’d love to help them and invest in the community but we can’t – we have a limited cashflow.”
Carol Lindsay of Heritage Inn in Cricklewood shares a similar story. After being set up almost eight years ago amongst a vibrant African Caribbean community, she hasn’t escaped the effects of a stagnant economy.
“The economic climate is a struggle. Customers have no spending power,” Lindsay said.
OLD TIMES: Drinkers at the old Roebuck Pub in Tottenham Court Road. It was dubbed the ‘Jungle Arms’ for welcoming African-Caribbean customer
She put together a diverse package to appeal to a wide audience. “We have karaoke nights and salsa nights, and we’ve come to realise that we do have a strong traveller community – making up a significant proportion of our customers. People still want to party, but since the economic crisis began in 2007-8, customers have become a lot more selective of how and where they place their money.”
In October 2012, Parliament began a debate on the ‘fairest’ formula to be used to calculate business rates, and Lindsay points out that the current rates are “very high.”
“We have a decent-sized place with room for customers to dance, but we have a very high business rate totaling around £25,000.”
Lindsay added: “Utility bills are a real killer too. Whether it be gas, electric or water, they all seem to consistently increase. And it has a huge effect on us, as it further squeezes our budget and takes chunks from whatever we can earn from alcohol and food sales.”
The 2013 fiscal budget announced in March was expected to reveal a minimum price of alcohol, of 45p per unit – effectively eradicating cheap alcohol.
However, the Government ditched the plans, butLindsay says the U-turn won’t help pubs.
“The problem is that customers can go to their local supermarket or corner shop and buy similar alcohol to what we provide at a much lower price. And at times like this, people are of course going to take up that option. However, it doesn’t help pubs out at all.”
The downswing in the business, according to photographer and archivist Charlie Phillips, could be the lack of personal service. “Nowadays, though, that warm community feel pubs used to have are gone. Prices are high and they have become very ‘theme-based’.”
The first black-owned public houses started in the 1960s, following the arrival of the SS Windrush in 1948 and the subsequent influx of African-Caribbean into the UK’s industrial heartlands.
With racism rife in the country, many white proprietors refused to serve black clientele.
Phillips said: “Back in the 1960s we had the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ period, so we used to share pubs with the Irish community and used it as a place to meet our friends and chat. Playing dominoes with the brothers, some karaoke and a sip of Babycham was a highlight. At first there weren’t many black pub owners, but then in the Seventies we started to see the likes of the McKenzie brothers opening their own establishments.”
George Berry was considered London’s first black publican opening The Coach & Horses in Brixton, later renamed the Market House, in 1964.
African-Caribbean public houses have always catered for everybody, but continue to be focal points for black and ethnic minorities to congregate and have a sip of their homeland.
“It just isn’t the same anymore,” Phillips added.