We’ve all heard the frightening numbers from the British Beer and Pub Association: 5 pub closures a day, 36 each week, costing 44,000 jobs in the past five years with a similar number projected for the next five. In addition, thirty-seven major breweries closed with a loss of 25% of brewery employees nationwide.
There are plenty of things to blame for this sad state of affairs. The tightening of the credit market and banks generally make the future seem even dimmer, with fewer new pubs opening every year. Then there’s rising energy and ingredient costs for brewers — everything from aluminum, barley and hops to oil and natural gas. The recent smoking ban chased away many regular pub patrons and neo-prohibitionists continue to have a chilling effect on the pub trade, too. On top of all that, supermarkets are selling beer below cost as a loss leader to get people into their stores, selling beer for less than the price of bottled water, while at the same time increased duties on beer have made a pint more pricey.
Another reason many point to is the wave of pub company mergers over the last couple of decades, creating giant conglomerates of pub companies and precious few independent ones. One such company is Enterprise Inns, who owns nearly 8,000 pubs in the UK. In 1991, they started with 368 pubs and seventeen years later have grown over 21 times larger.
One of their landlords, Colm Powell, of the Punch and Judy in Tonbridge, believes Enterprise “is trying to force him out of the pub he has run for 17 years.” He recently finished a 10-day hunger strike to protest the death of the English pub, sleeping each night in a coffin inside the pub. He’s also set up a website, Dying For the Pub Trade, that includes an open letter to Ted Tuppen, the CEO of Enterprise Inns and “A Book of Condolences” for others to tell their own stories and offer support. The Guardian has a good, in-depth story on Powell’s plight entitled Calling Time. There’s also a video of Powell stating his case at Kent Online.
Powell has run the Punch & Judy for seventeen years, but five years ago Enterprise became the owner when they bought it, and many others, from Whitbread. The large pub companies are all about the numbers and, I’m told, don’t treat their landlords as unique personalities, but see them as lines on a balance sheet. That’s one of the biggest problems with large companies in general. They may be great with economies of scale, but they can’t see things in any other way but as groups of largely the same thing. That’s one of the biggest reasons chain stores are all virtually identical. But because of their role in communities and because so much of their personality comes from within, pubs are perhaps the worst business model in the world to apply to a chain model.
According to Powell, after Enterprise took over, they began raising prices on everything from rents to kegs, and increases have taken up to 55% of his potential profits. His eviction is now set for November 11 and he’s planning another hunger strike beginning on November 1.
At 11:00 a.m. “on November 11, he will lose the business he has run for 17 years, and with it his social life and his home, because he lives above it.” Powell anticipates the end will be messy. “When they come to take me they’ll have to physically take me out in the box.”