Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2000
Is it time to bring back the grumpy landlord?
I was in a market town pub on a boiling hot day when a couple of bare-chested lads came in. The landlord took one look at them and said, politely, “I'm sorry, you'll have to put a shirt on.” They made their exit, calling after them, “You've just lost about twelve pints' trade, mate!” Maybe he had, but given that the pub seemed to cater mainly for middle-aged regulars, in the long term he would probably lose a lot more trade if he did serve shirtless yobboes.
While this response from the licensee is entirely reasonable, and would probably happen in most pubs, it made me think how you no longer see the grumpy, tyrannical landlords of old, who treated their pub as their own private fiefdom, and wouldn't tolerate any quirks of appearance or behaviour they didn't approve of. I remember one licensee, long since retired, who ran a spotless, spick-and-span little pub in a Cheshire village. One day, a couple of mildly scruffy-looking hikers came in, he spotted them and, without hesitation, barked “Public Bar!” No doubt, if he was still in the trade, and someone allowed a mobile phone to ring in his pub, he would immediately bellow “Outside!”
Of course, times change, and if you barred everyone who didn't conform to the manners of the 1950s you wouldn't have many customers left. But, on the other hand, the relaxation of standards can go too far. A pub that is full of bare-chested, shaven-headed yobboes shouting obscenities, children running round in circles screaming at the tops of their voices, mobile phones warbling the William Tell Overture and morons bawling “I'm in the pub!” into them, is likely to lose more customers than it attracts. So perhaps it is high time we brought back at least a few of the prejudices of the old-fashioned grumpy landlord to restore a little civilisation to our pubs.
Independent pubs must respond to changing patterns of trade
All-day opening is now taken for granted as part of the British pub scene, and has brought about a marked change in people's pubgoing habits, especially in terms of when they want to eat. For some years, my local pub has served Sunday lunches, and the peak time now seems to be around 3 pm. Look at the car park of any chain dining pub at 5 pm on a sunny Sunday and it will be full. But, on the other hand, there are still an awful lot of pubs that stick religiously to the traditional food serving hours of 12 - 2.
More often than not, if I am in a pub that stops serving meals at 2, in the following hour at least one group will come in looking for food, and be surprised and disappointed when told that it's finished. I know it costs money to keep staff on, and many smaller pubs are struggling to keep their heads above water, but such is the mark-up on food that, even if you only sold three or four main meals and a few soft drinks, it would easily cover an hour's wages.
By doing this, independent pubs must be losing out to the Brewer's Fayres and Wetherspoons of this world, which may serve predictable, standardised food, but at least give the confidence that they serve it all day, every day. Pubs have to be flexible and respond to the changing demands of the trade, rather than sticking to an outdated pattern and then moaning about declining business. It's like all the small shopkeepers who complain how the supermarkets are killing them, but still take an hour's lunch break and close promptly at 5.30 pm just as potential customers are on their way home from work.