On-trade needs to move with the times

For reasons I won't bore you with here, I spent the month leading up to Christmas visiting some of England’s finest pubs and bars

Not in the conventional ‘let’s have a pint, it’s Christmas’ sort of way, but to talk to licensees, managers and staff about what’s really going on in the world of drinks. I’m a bit of a cynic, you see, and I don’t think that the public relations companies in London and Edinburgh are telling us writers the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So from time to time I ski off piste (that’s piste…this sort of work requites a clear head, honest), so I’ve been to Nottingham, Leicester, Portsmouth and Southsea, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham.

I chose my venues carefully – I wanted to visit places where whisky featured prominently, and I was only really concerned with independent outlets – so perhaps my trips were biased to the better end of the hospitality business.

As a result I am somewhat inevitably able to report that overall the standards in each bar, the attention to detail, the cleanliness and knowledge and approachability of most of the places I went to was excellent.

Most. But amazingly, I visited a handful which were not fit for purpose. In fact, it’s hard to know why they were still in business at all.

Here in the UK we’re seeing a transformation in our pub and bar scene. Many traditional pubs are closing, and those that aren’t are having to adapt to a rapidly changing world. But there is a healthy scene of independent youth-focused outlets, a revolution in craft beer and exciting regional gins and a thriving quality food scene, some of it cutting edge as bars embrace concepts such as pop-up restaurants and street food. In mid-December new figures suggested that the number of pub closures was falling.

But from where I’m standing at the bar, there’s a gap growing between the front runners and bars where tables are left covered in empty glasses and plates, where there is as much atmosphere as the local bus shelter on a wet Monday night, and where the staff treat you as an unwelcome inconvenience, or have as much personality and charisma as a sack of potatoes.

I am an expert at recognising the signs. I live in a village with the worst village pub in the world (OK, that might be excessive – but not much, I can assure you). The licensees have barred most of the locals, including the whole of the parish council and me, the area’s most dedicated drinker. Their decisions have included shutting at all lunchtimes, including weekends, and abandoning food altogether. They recently referred to us as the village of the damned.

In these days of tight margins and fierce competition, and the desire of the customer to expect to maximise his or her on-trade experience, sloppiness, rudeness and customer inattention will not be tolerated. Our guests

have too much choice these days, in and out of the home. We have a duty to give them the sort of outstanding experience they can’t find elsewhere, and which compels them to return.

As we go into a new year, the hospitality industry’s resolution should be to put the customer before all else. And not just for the new year. Always.