How to be a Good Publican
The Good Ole British Pub
Having spent many years serving behind the bars of the 'good ole British pub', as well as experiencing the general running of public houses on a temporary basis, I have definitely learned quite a bit about the management of such establishments. Not only that, but my own grandparents ran a pub for more than two decades. I have witnessed publicans who were excellent and really made a go of their businesses. I have also worked for those whose failings dragged their business down with them. Taking on a pub in the current economic climate is difficult and a bit of a risk. Some businesses remain ever-popular successes, whilst others close down or change management before the year is even out. But what really does make a good publican?
"It's Like Being in Someone's Lounge"
It's a phrase a customer once stated aloud as they entered the pub I was working in. To me, it sums up what many people are looking for in the traditional British pub. After all, what does the image of a 'lounge' conjure up? To me, it is an inviting space; cosy, warm and relaxing. It is a place one wants to spend time, because it is as easy and appealing as staying at home.
Our pub, 'someone's lounge', had a lot of comfortable places to sit. It wasn't immaculate, in terms of décor, but the colours were warm and inviting and various ornaments and pictures donned the room. There was a restaurant as well, with low wall lighting and candles on the tables. People felt comfortable being inside. It wasn't pretentious. Customers could sit back and relax without standing out. We didn't have one, but pubs with real fires so often create the same effect. There is nothing quite so comforting in the colder months. It is not just the warmth but the atmosphere created.
Whilst an inviting atmosphere is essential, there is little point having a wonderful premises if nobody wants to buy what you are selling. A good publican knows the area and clientele very well. It is important to understand the types of people that might frequent your businesss, and to sell the products they will want to buy.
All of the pubs that I have worked in have sold food, both at lunch times and in the evenings. A potential publican should understand that, while many customers might be after good beer, these days food is often where the money is. Beer has become much more expensive, particularly for pubs that are tied to breweries (a keg of beer from Punch, for instance, will cost a lot more than the same thing purchased elsewhere). Free houses have free reign, but they have become few and far between. Punch even run cellar checks, to ensure that you are not cheating them - although this only makes it harder for those entering this industry.
The profit margin for food can therefore be higher than for beverages, meaning offering meals is essential for the majority of publicans. Besides, lots of people become hungry when out for a drink. Many are simply looking for somewhere to eat with friends or family, or even alone whilst on business. If you don't sell food, then you haven't got the full package and you have pushed out part of your market.
All pubs stock typical lagers and spirits, but choosing a good range of real ales is important if you want to please the connoisseur. Many customers seek out certain beers - and will come back again and again if you have what they want. It is a good idea to have a few permanent ales, as well as one or two guest ales that are changed every couple of weeks.
Doing it Wrong
One landlady I worked for for a short time had an excellent grasp of business, plus she wasn't short of money. However, she still managed to lose customers by turning a potentially successful premises into a place most people didn't want to be. In fact, I only ended up working for her in the first place because she took over the business where I was already employed - a business which for a long time was a huge success, but eventually faltered due to the marriage breakdown of the licensees.
'If it isn't broken, don't try to fix it.'
It's a saying that we all know, but one that many publicans fail to heed when they take over a business. Of course, everyone wants to add their own stamp to a place, improving any shortcomings to create the best environment they can. But when things are changed in a successful business, despite customers liking it the way it is, it doesn't always work out.
The landlady who took over the establishment where I had worked for years closed for a month for refurbishment. All well and good, because it probably needed sprucing up (although new publicans should remember that when you close the doors of a pub, your customers will always go elsewhere and might not come back). Anyhow, when the renovated pub reopened, it was barely recognisable. Nothing was the same. The radically changed colour scheme and new furniture meant that the entire atmosphere felt different as soon as one stepped through the door. The colours were colder. The furniture was more modern but sparser, thanks to the removal of the comfy sofa-type seats. All the little trinkets that people liked to look at were gone. Actually, it was like a different building altogether. But perhaps the biggest problem of all was the new lighting.
Customers do not like eating and drinking in bright light. Before the new lighting was introduced, the pub lights were reasonably low and the restaurant benefitted from a dimmer switch. After the refurbishment, all of the lights were bright. I think the landlady probably had in mind a clean-cut, uncluttered, modern space. Customers vocalised their opposition to eating and drinking in a pub that felt more like an 'office' or an 'airport'. I don't recall a single person who approved of it. The landlady, however, always thought she knew best and was too stubborn or unwilling to change it. She was good at business matters, but not so good at listening to people. Hence, custom began to drop off and the business itself was sold again less than two years later.
The Customer is Always Right
Actually, that is not true at all, but it is helpful if they think they are. Regular customers in a public house have a lot of opinions and like to think they have an element of say in their 'society'. Sometimes, customers are right, particularly if they have been frequenting a successful pub for years and new management has just stepped in. Customers often know the area and vibe of a place better than the new publicans. It's worth listening to what they have to say, even if you don't end up following their lead.
One publican I worked for saw his business go extinct after only a year. He was sitting on a potential goldmine, because he had taken over a premises that had a large customer base and had seen some very successful times. Probably it had already reached its peak some years before. But it was still an excellent opportunity.
The new licensee wrecked his chances of success because he did not gel with his customers. In fact, he went that bit further - he blatantly upset them, reminding them on more than one opportunity that he was in charge, things were done his way, and that he didn't need them and they could all get lost if they didn't like it. It is one thing to think this way - quite another to actually convey this message to your customers! He really believed that new customers would step in and fill the gap. The truth is, all businesses need their customers and if you get rid of the ones you've got, it does not always mean more will be queueing up to get inside. Even if you don't agree with your customers and have no intention of taking heed of their advice, it is better to let them think that you are listening and considering their comments than to outwardly offend them. In this business, social interaction is key. If you don't like any of your customers, you are probably not a 'people' person. And if you are not a 'people' person, then you are in the wrong job.
The landlord and the landlady of a public house have to be 'everybody's friend'. At the end of the day, it is their responsibility if they care anything about their business at all. People, especially regulars, don't enter through the doors of a pub just to buy a drink or a bite to eat. It's ludicrous to even think it, because if that was the case then the supermarket would suit them just fine. The truth is that many regular pub customers are looking for companionship. They are looking to feel valued; to be listened to. Some customers are filling a gap in their lives, brightening their day with some friendly banter. Some just want to wind down after work. Yet others live alone - and home is sometimes a lonely place. Being able to go somewhere, just for a while, and communicate with a familiar face is very important. A pub is like a microcosm of broader society,
Even when a pub has good, attentive staff, the presence of the landlord or landlady is important. They represent the beating heart of the business; the face of the community. If you are the proprietor of a local pub, people will come through the door just to see you. If you want to be a good publican with a successful business, then it is your responsibility to make them feel welcome and to give them the time of day. Good publicans spend time with their customers, sitting with them (though not all the time!), talking with them, being interested in them and making them feel that their custom is valued.
I don't think, however, that the best publicans stop with individual attention to their customers. When a pub is visited by local regulars, a good landlord or landlady helps to bring customers together like a small community. You can enhance the décor of a business in any way you like - and of course scruffy, shabby interiors are not going to help your chances of success. But décor is never more important that the atmosphere of a public house. A real pub is the people inside it; the laughs, chats and stories that resonate within its walls, long after everyone has gone. A building can look inviting, but if those who run it are not then it probably won't work.
Sometimes special events can be used to draw the community together. In the pub where I worked, we often had special 'food' nights, where customers could purchase a very inexpensive set dish on the advertised night. Sometimes, this dish would be prepared using something the chef needed to get rid of - that's ok, because it's a 'win win' situation. Unwanted food (not low quality or out-of-date) is profited from, and the customers gain a cheap meal. In the typical British pub, many people will jump at the chance of a budget meal, especially in the current economic climate. Restaurants and bars have suffered a great deal because disposable income has fallen in recent years. No matter how great your product is, if the price is too high, many potential customers will be put off. And even if the profit from the food is low, every customer is going to buy at least one drink. On a quiet night, getting people through the door can be key. Themed food nights, from different areas around the world, can also be a great success.
Quiz nights are another way in which the community might be brought together. In the summer, barbeques are enjoyable, if you have the space. Some pubs find success with live music, but actually it can be a bit hit and miss. If you hire a band but don't get the customers, you are going to be very much out of pocket. Also, for anything more than two musicians, a different music licence is required.
Sometimes clubs or organisations might choose to use your premises as a meeting place - this can be a hugely profitable arrangement. We had the local Irish Society gather in our pub once a month (mainly because the landlord was Irish) They would sit and chat, with some of them jamming around a table, playing traditional Irish music. It added a great atmosphere, without us actually having to do very much.
Sometimes it's the Little Things
During the years, I met many different kinds of customers, of all different ages. Some came in every single day, some on a certain day each week, and some only occasionally. But they were all customers, and they were all greeted as such.
It's often the little things that build up a good relationship between publicans and their customers. One mature couple I recall only came in about once or twice a month. They always sat at the bar with the paper and did the evening crossword. They liked help with the clues and would often ask me, the landlady, or another member of staff if they had any ideas. Crosswords were their thing. They were also their way of connecting and forming a personal relationship in the little community that was our pub.
Many locals came in every day, and mostly they just wanted to chat and enjoy a bit of banter. Behind the bar, the ability to listen to others is extremely important. One very elderly lady used to come in once a week for a half pint of Guinness and a dessert. She never sat at the bar - always at one of the tables - and often stopped me for a little chat as I went about clearing up. She would tell me about her family and ask about mine. Then she had to go into a residential home and invited me to visit her. Those little chats that we had obviously meant a lot to a widowed woman who lived alone at home. For some older people, visiting the pub in the afternoon might be the only real social interaction they experience in that day. Publicans are running a business, but a pub is a social place, with real people.
During one period I spent working in the pub, a new customer suddenly appeared. He would come in every day and chat to me (because at the time I mostly was working on my own except for during the lunch time rush). He was a bit over the top - he bought my son excessive amounts of tickets so that he was sure to win the charity prize we were raffling. He caught my attention whenever he could and slowed me up quite a bit, but I listened to him without allowing him to become too familiar. He even invited my partner and I for dinner, but we didn't accept. It's always important not to cross the line unless you really do become friends with somebody.
This man had suffered a bereavement. His wife had died from cancer. He came to our pub for a long period, then he disappeared and didn't turn up again for many months. One day he turned up out of the blue with a new partner and thanked me for supporting him during hard times. Coming to the bar, chatting and being listened to, helped him to move on. At the time, I didn't even realise that it was helpful.
One landlady I worked for was loved by everyone. She was always very attentive to the customers, showing a lot of interest in their lives and everything they did. At Christmas, she even used to buy all the main regulars a gift, as well as all the staff. This is beyond the call of duty, not exactly profitable and certainly not necessary, but it just accentuates the importance of valuing your customers.
A good publican might be everybody's friend and the web that binds the community, but it is also important to be in control. The very nature of a licensed premises means that problems may occur and occasionally customers can overstep the mark. It is the responsibility of the proprietor to ensure that the good atmosphere and reputation of a public house remains intact and is not allowed to be marred by behaviour that upsets other customers. Excessive rowdiness in the bar will almost certainly annoy some people, especially those eating. In the beginning, unwanted behaviour is (if possible) better deterred without hostility, instead using polite requests.
My time spent working in public houses was, for the large part, a very enjoyable experience. I met a broad range of people, some of whom have taught me a great deal about times and places I would otherwise have known little about. The most important point that new publicans should remember is that the traditional pub is a personable experience. It should be inviting and welcoming. Everyone who walks through the door should be greeted with a friendly smile. Some customers might want to talk a lot, others might just want a quiet drink in the corner with a friend. Good publicans get to know exactly who their customers are. And whether or not customers want to return again and again will depend very much on the atmosphere you create.
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