Pubs succeeding… and failing

Two articles piqued my interest today. Firstly, the Raglan Arms has been reported winning the CAMRA award for best pub in Warwickshire. I do like the place, it’s among my favourite pubs in Rugby, a town seemingly endowed with several decent places to drink. As well as the Raglan, I can recommend the Merchants Arms, the Squirrel, the Black Swan/Dirty Duck and the Victoria. In my few months living here, I’ve not been able to try all of the others, even in the town centre, but I will be giving it a go.

In the Guardian, there was an opinion piece that discussed the recent trend of pub closures – apparently 52 a week on average. The argument is that it’s the bad pubs that are closing. I’m not 100% convinced, because sometimes good pubs are driven to the wall by rapacious chains, but it does make sense.

Of course, it’s largely subjective – I prefer a fairly quiet place with chatty regulars and good quality real ale. Some people like a busy bar with load music and plenty of lager or bottles. Others like a place that’s more like a restaurant. So CAMRA is not the only arbiter of what makes a pub ‘good’ (The CAMRA good beer guide clearly sets out to rate pubs by beer quality, not overall ambience, and some rough old dives will be recommended), and neither am I. But it does stand to reason that if a pub caters to a enough people and satisfies their needs, it will do well. What’s often forgotten is that it’s not that long ago that pubs and bars were opening up all over the place, and just as there’s been a period of growth followed by a slump in the wider economy, there will be similar patterns in the pub trade.

The smoking ban has had an effect, although for me it makes going into a pub a far more pleasurable experience, and I don’t think I’m alone on that. However, the way that supermarkets can provide much cheaper deals is probably a greater factor. A pub has to have a fairly high unit margin – about 50% per drink – to pay their overheads, whereas supermarkets can be profitable on less 10% because they have economies of scale more than anything else, so there is always going to be pressure. Pubs that don’t offer anything more than just a place to drink are going to be hit harder than those that provide more. In a recession, as people cut back, ‘luxuries’ will be among the first things to go. A night out at the pub is seen as a luxury by many.

Luckily, Rugby town centre seems to be doing quite well at keeping its pubs. The Sports Bar closed down a few months ago, but has been replaced by a Lloyd No1. The Peacock has closed, but as it was the place where GEC Alsthom workers went to, being just up the road, and the plant there is much smaller than it used to be, it was likely to be under threat however good a place it was (I wouldn’t know, it might have been a brilliant boozer). In that respect I feel lucky to be here.