If times are so hard, why do so many still want to be pub tenants?

Did the BBC series Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge change anyone’s minds about the realities of running a pub?

The news appears grim wherever you look – pubs that are open trading at levels far below profitability, pubs not serving food forced to close despite the Government’s derisory £1,000 grant offer, and warnings from just about every brewery and pubco of dire financial results. It really is enough to make you cry into your (takeaway?) beer, but some surprising news from Greene King earlier this year proves that hope does indeed spring eternal.

Despite the first and harshest lockdown, with pubs remaining closed from March 20 until at least July 4, the number of applications to be GK tenants had reached the record level of 254 between mid-June and mid-August. Even at the height of lockdown, there were 108 new, unique applications from people wanting to run their own pub between March 24 and June 22, while from June 22 to August16 this number rocketed to 254, more than double for the same period in 2019.

Chris Thorogood, Greene King Pub Partners recruitment manager, said at the time: “It’s really uplifting to see that people’s passion for running their own pub has not been daunted by recent events. We’re delighted with the number of enquiries we’re receiving, and continue to be inspired by the passion people are showing in having the opportunity to run a Greene King tenanted pub.”

Is this rosy-tinted optimism, or a feeling that a real opportunity exists among all the gloom? Only time will tell. We have all met tenants of the large breweries and pubcos that have complained bitterly about their lot, which is why CAMRA pushed for legislation to protect them with the resultant Pub Code failing to offer the protection needed. On the other hand, there are clearly many people who may well have lost their livelihoods during the pandemic who still see running their own pub as a viable, if not dream lifestyle.

Greene King deserves praise for how it continues to support pub tenants during the pandemic, as do many other breweries and pubcos – whereas at the start of lockdown, large breweries and pubcos generally were still trying to charge substantial rents which they hoped tenants could pay using the various financial support measures offered by the Government. Most have since changed their tune, thankfully.

The Old Bookbinders in Jericho, one of many GK tenancies in this area

Greene King Pub Partners has confirmed that all tied tenants under Tiers 2 and 3 restrictions are receiving a 90% rent concession from December, saying that its support for tenanted pubs during the pandemic has hit £25 million. Tenants also get a trade credit of £35 per barrel of beer, and were compensated in the first lockdown for beer that had to be wasted.

Managing Director Wayne Shurvinton said: “We supported our tied partners through the recent November lockdown with a 90% rent concession, and that will remain in place as the tier system is a lockdown in all but name for the majority of pubs.

“We are providing this rent concession to help what are profitable and viable businesses get through winter so they can begin rebuilding in 2021. Unfortunately, for some, rent concessions may not be enough and without further Government support, such as increasing grants, extending the VAT hospitality cut to include alcohol and bringing back the Job Retention Bonus, thousands of pubs remain at risk across the country.”

Whether GK and other large companies are still getting plenty of interest from prospective tenants is unknown, but you would think that the realities of pub life, as laid bare by the three-part BBC series Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge, would have put many off. While many CAMRA members are aware of all the issues it raised, general viewers may have found it shocking – and many of these issues existed long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head.

I found the series to be excellent and very entertaining, although CAMRA was not mentioned at all despite all its campaigning for pubs, and the fact that one of the four pubs it investigated was a CAMRA regional award winner (Kerridge also wrote the foreword to the 2021 Good Beer Guide). It was good to see how all these pubs were able to invest in changes to improve their fortunes, but that investment won’t be available to many. It was also good to see Punch, another pubco that has had its fair share of knockers over the years, fund the changes to one of the pubs featured.

But the stories of how little money the people running these pubs could take out of the business, putting relationships under strain, were truly heart rending – and enough to make any sensible person really question their sanity if they are considering running a pub. But, as GK found over the summer, hope does indeed spring eternal.

You can watch the Saving Britain’s Pubs series on iPlayer.