Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2001

* Down in the Mouth *

The foot-and-mouth epidemic puts country pubs as well as livestock at risk

I was talking to someone recently who, while not denying the seriousness of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, did not see that it would affect his way of life in the slightest. Maybe not, but it has certainly been noticed by the many Greater Manchester residents who enjoy walking in the Lakes and the Peak District at weekends. And it should be a very serious concern to anyone with an interest in the future of pubs.

Last year it was widely reported that an average of six country pubs were closing every week, and I would not be surprised if that figure had doubled during the current epidemic. Many licensees who had been counting on a good spring to keep their heads above water will have seen their hopes dashed and their bars deserted, and will similarly be considering throwing in the towel. The devastation of livestock farming may go hand-in-hand with a cull of the rural pub stock.

We have even had the astounding sight - unthinkable just a few months earlier - of the government placing advertisements in the national press to encourage people to go out in their cars and visit country pubs. But itís hard to see such exhortations having much effect while off-road walking remains impossible over wide areas, and Iím sure it wonít be too long before the usual political correctness reasserts itself.

* You Just Can't Get the Staff *

Cutting back on bar staff may be a false economy for pubs

In the days when the Royal Oak in Didsbury was run by Arthur Gosling, the quality of the service was legendary. No sooner had you crossed the threshold then you would be spotted by one of a multitude of barmaids and asked what you wanted to drink. Few pubs could ever match that, and nowadays when there are so many pressures on costs, staffing levels inevitably come under the microscope.

However, thereís a distinct risk that cutting back too far will prove to be a false economy. If youíve ever studied statistics, youíll have come across queueing theory, and I must admit I never really understood it either. But one thing it does show is that if you reduce the number of servers, while the average waiting time may not increase that much, there will be a far greater rise in the maximum potential wait. A lone member of staff, no matter how conscientious they are, can easily be overwhelmed by a sudden rush of customers.

Over the years, Iíve walked out of a fair number of pubs after standing at the bar for several minutes, sometimes without even attracting the attention of the staff, let alone actually being served. Once a pub has gained a reputation for slow service, as one or two locally have in the past, it can be very difficult to shake off.

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