Can pubs still be the “social glue” for a community?


Can pubs still be the “social glue” for a community?

Can pubs still be the “social glue” for a community?

There are few people with a greater knowledge of the pub industry than Toby Brett. Founder of Banwell House, which owns seven pubs - three of which are in Bath - Toby cut his teeth as a Tenanted Trade Manager for Wadworth, before building on that experience as Regional Manager of the South West for Greene King.

His decision to become a pub owner - Banwell House was founded in 2010 - came at the height of pub closures. But he was convinced he could turn struggling freehold pubs into money-making businesses.

Toby has been working with HGEM since a chance meeting in Cannes, France a few years ago. Despite operating out of the same city - Bath - our paths had surprisingly never crossed. Recently we spoke to him to catch his opinion on the key to pub survival, at a time when Brits are drinking less alcohol than they were three decades ago.

Communities still care about their local

As well as his own pubs, Toby has also involved himself in other projects. Community-owned pubs in the UK have saved many from destruction or change of use. But community committees, by their own admission, have limited experience within the operational side of the trade. This is where Toby stepped in, lending his expertise to the renovation, recruitment and day-to-day running of the business. Banwell House also brings its buying power, stock and financials into play.

One of the community-owned pubs that has benefited from Toby’s helping hand is The Packhorse Inn, South Stoke, near Bath.

The pub closed in 2012 due to a lack of viability and was sold with plans being submitted to turn it into a private house. But South Stoke villagers fought back against planners and found 200 people to pitch in the initial £600k to secure the building, before rebuilding and running it themselves.

“We’re now up to 400 shareholders and over £1m in raised funds,” Toby said. “We’ve been open about 18 months now and it’s been a very busy and very successful year and a half. The fact the community is financially invested in its success has undoubtedly helped to get people through the doors, but I like to think there’s a bit more to it than that.”

The pub has been “sympathetically refurbished”, with the Grade-II listed, 15th-century building retaining many of its original features such as the inglenook fireplace. In a glowing recent review, The Guardian’s Grace Dent called it “potentially one of Britain’s loveliest olde-English watering holes”.

Catering to the modern customer

The story of The Packhorse underlines the importance of pubs to local communities, often dubbed as the “social glue” for a community. But, in order to survive, pubs today need to ensure their offering has been updated for the “new types of customer,'' Toby says.

“A lot of the pubs we’ve purchased had lost their way by doing what they’ve been doing for decades and had failed to move with the times. The reasons someone visited a pub 20 or 30 years ago are very different to why they visit today.”

He gives a couple of examples of the modern customer who wouldn’t have existed prior to the turn of the Millenium such as the “buggy brigade” looking to catch up, coffee in one hand, baby in the other, or the laptop worker who just wants to find a quiet part of the pub - with a plug socket - for some remote working.

The purpose of the pub has moved on from somewhere to drink alcohol or watch football, Toby explains.

“Traditionally, pubs have been very male-centric, but they can’t afford to be now. In our pubs, we try to be as inclusive as possible. We have coffee mornings for societies to meet. We have a great selection of trendy non-alcoholic drinks for those who don’t drink. We’re pushchair, laptop and disability friendly.”

But that’s not to say the locals are ignored in these efforts to appeal to the modern customer. In one of his pubs - in a village where there isn’t a newsagent - Toby has organised for the day’s newspapers to be dropped off, with a collection point created in the pub car park. At another pub, they even sell pints of milk, because the closest convenience store is three miles away.

Be more farm shop

For those pub owners that are looking to revamp their offering, Toby says they could do worse than to seek inspiration from the nation’s farm shops.

“You’ll never see a quiet farm shop – I wish we could say the same of pubs!” he said. “While pubs are decreasing, farm shops are increasing. Yet what a farm shop offers isn’t exclusive to a farm, so there’s no reason why pubs couldn’t serve the same role, to an extent.

“Based on how busy farm shops are during the day, there’s clearly an appetite among people to go out for something to eat and drink - they just don’t want to visit the ‘old traditional boozer’. People are more health conscious than ever. Making it even more difficult for pubs are campaigns like Stoptober and Dry January. Soon they’ll be another campaign that goes against us! But, instead of fighting them, you’ve got to go with and work around them.”

Toby concluded: “It comes back to offering the customer what they want and adjusting to the new norm. If we want the pub industry to flourish again - and break free of the doom and gloom - we’ve got to do away with what we’ve long thought of as a ‘pub’. And change public perception of the pub too.”

Farm shops beware: the pubs are coming for your customers.

Banwell House is a client of HGEM. The Packhorse Inn recently had its first Mystery Dining visit, providing 400 shareholders - plus Toby - with an independent opinion on the food, service and overall experience felt by customers.

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