There are plenty of people in the on-trade who will state quite equivocally that a pub without a food offer is a pub that will struggle to survive. In a world of increasing abstinence among millennials, drink driving laws and cheap supermarket beer, how can a pub survive on wet sales alone? Well, in Hop Back Brewery’s estate of 10 pubs stretched across the southern half of the country, beer sales have been the staple and focus for over 30 years. And its new managing director Paul Sullivan wants people to think back to what made pubs great places to be and concentrate on providing that in the best possible way.
Best pub for a pint
When he joined the company eight months ago, it was a tough concept for him to understand – there weren’t really any other models against which he could compare performances. He came from Wadworth, which has focused heavily on creating fantastic food offers within its estate, to a group that had actively decommissioned its kitchens. The pubs, by necessity, are located in areas with a substantial local community and Sullivan sees Hop Back’s approach as less of an abandonment of food, but instead a focus on being the best place to go for a beer in the whole area.
“It’s been fascinating to say, ‘how do you just do one thing really, really well?’” he says. “It’s not about finding every string of revenue; it’s about maximising the right streams of revenue. It’s very one dimensional, but it’s got real nuances within that dimension to make sure that we do everything well.”
Sullivan has watched the surge in micropubs and bottle shops with interest, smaller venues with a diverse range of beers that slake the thirst for exploration among ale fans. The ale drinker is a ‘promiscuous drinker’ in Sullivan’s eyes, so his pubs, with their larger footprints and bigger risks, also need to keep their offer varied. A strong wine list and a growing craft cider offer sit alongside a selection of draught beers that includes some of Hop Back’s own, but also plenty of others to keep things fresh. The estate has three tenanted pubs and seven managed houses. The tenanted pubs are tied on all draught products, but Sullivan trades with the tied pubs as though they were free trade.
“The biggest challenge with wet-led pubs is the route to market,” he opines. “You’ve got to have that degree of freedom to be able to offer what it is that you need to offer. If you want to operate a wet-led pub under a tie I think life becomes quite difficult. If you want to make a 60% margin then you’re in the £4 a pint plus arena and if you’re out of the city that makes life very difficult. We’re never going to be as cheap as Wetherspoon, but equally we’re not trying to over-premiumise everything. There’s an in-between which is a reasonable piece of business.”
However, in a country with 2,000 breweries and a populace increasingly interested in the product, Sullivan sees good cellar management and serve as just the beginning. With so much opportunity for diversity and rotation on the bar and in the fridges, he wants managers and staff to know their beers inside out, where it comes from, why they’re selling it and why it complements the range. He wants every staff member to have tried every beer, and for each pub to hold at least two beer festivals a year to introduce more people to the venue, but also to beer itself.
“I’ve always felt that the handpulls are intimidating and to a large extent a permission drinking zone,” he explains. “So if you don’t understand them, you don’t buy them. There’s not much information on a handpull, so it’s about the barstaff going ‘try that, try this. What do you like, do you like dark beers? Try this. Hoppy beers? I can find the beer for you’. We want to democratise the handpulls.
“The drink in a food place pub has become a periphery. ‘What will you have with your meal?’ We have no other option than ‘what will you have?’, but we’re not just standing behind the bar pouring drinks, we’re actually helping you find the drinks that you want, which is a real change.”
While the product is important to the success of Hop Back’s pubs, Sullivan knows that it takes more than an immaculate cellar and an interesting range. It’s about creating a space that is welcoming to all, not just a dedicated cabal of locals, one that encourages people to come, stay and return. Managers and tenants need to be expert cellar managers, but they also need to be able to manage customers and conversations, and make everyone feel welcome so that everyone has a nice time. With each pub having a limited geographical impact, Sullivan needs people to be coming back regularly, so it is important that everyone in the local community is included.
“We know from all the analysis that’s been done across the trade for the last 10 years that it’s about warm welcomes and atmosphere, but also managing that gentle churn,” says Sullivan. “Locals can be very local, but our owner John has always said, ‘there’s a difference between a pub and a club. We don’t own clubs’. It’s a case of understanding that the lifetime customer value from a new customer can be £20,000. So not only do we love our regulars and we like them to have a bit of banter, we’re also making sure that new people can join in.”
The people running Hop Back pubs are often drawn from the local community, so that they start with that innate understanding of how these people operate, but it is also important that they are given the autonomy to put practices into place which will work for the people. While Sullivan is on hand from head office to offer advice and connect managers and tenants together so that information and ideas can be shared, ultimately, he is happy for others to take control and responsibility for their venues.
“The other thing I’ve learned is if you have too much central control you take away responsibility from the managers,” he says. “And at the end of the day it’s their pub. They know their customers better than I know their customers. They know their range better than I do. They know what works. It’s communication, but it’s about telling them ‘this is your responsibility, this is your pub and I will help you to run it a bit better’.”
Sullivan now holds monthly meetings with each of his publicans, so they can discuss how the business is progressing and where improvements can be made. In addition, he holds managers meetings, which allow everyone in the business to actually come face to face – something that had never happened in an estate that stretches from Wimbledon to Weymouth to Wolstanton. They can exchange advice and bring their strengths and successes to the other pubs. And moving forward, he aims to continue raising standards.
“The next six months will be making sure that we are fit for purpose,” he says. “It’s getting people to the next level of understanding of beer and telling them we’re not really a pub, we’re a place that sells beers. And looking at the next two years, we want to get that evolution into almost a bottle shop mentality. It’s getting down to that next level of selling drink and beer without making it anoraky. It’s still got to be democratised. We want to broaden the conversation, open up to people and make sure that people know what we’re doing.”
The future of wet-led pubs
Much of the talk in recent years has focused on the move to food that many pubs have adopted, from casual dining operations to high end gastropubs with AA rosettes and Michelin stars. But Sullivan believes that, while the larger pub companies might be shedding their non-food pubs and others might struggle to find positives for their futures, there are actually huge opportunities in the wet-led model, as long as publicans focus on that communal, community-led approach balanced with a strong beer offering. The Sultan in Wimbledon is decorated with work from local artists and sponsors a garden across the road. Another Hop Back pub is leased from the local church and holds events to raise money for it. Most pubs host teams for darts, skittles and more, as well as holding quiz nights and other community-focused events. And behind that is the core function of his pubs – bringing people together to meet and talk with each other – a trait that he believes food-led pubs need to relearn from their wet-led cousins.
“A really good wet-led operator can do exceptionally well as long as they manage the environment of the pub,” he says. “They’re incredibly important for the community. This is one of the places in the world where you can tell someone to put their phone down. In a gastropub it tends to be a group comes in, the group stays together, the group eats, the group leaves, and the interaction is limited to the waitstaff and maybe the barstaff. I think that lots of food pubs, especially rural food pubs, lost the heart of the community. They became drive-to destinations and stopped being the place where the farmer could come in after work and stand at the bar. Whereas here if you want a conversation at the bar, you can chip in and no one will ever tell you to chip out.”
Creating an atmosphere conducive to regular small visits from locals is essential for wet-led venues. In a future full of political uncertainty, Sullivan is certain of one thing – that costs are going to rise. The challenge thus for all operators is how high they can raise their prices before people start being turned away, no matter how high the quality. In addition, the challenge for operators has always been how to create spaces that offer reasons and excuses to visit the on-trade. Sullivan believes that wet-led pubs have a stronger answer to this than food-led pubs.
“Economic uncertainty is tremendous,” he says. “And what we know is that in good times people drink and in bad times people drink. They just drink differently. So as food inflation comes around, it’s a case of thinking ‘how are we going to make this work?’ Food-led pubs have to get back to welcoming drinkers to stop the 60 villagers who’ve been led to believe the pub is a restaurant. How are you going to manage that without changing the focus?”
The growth in dining in pubs might have led some people to believe that the wet-led approach no longer has the value to sustain its operators. But at Hop Back, a three-pronged focus on beer, staff and customers has seen its venues forge strong ties to communities and strong reputations in the beer drinking world. For Sullivan, there is still more to come from the world of draught beer in pubs.