Pubs are in crisis. And Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge wants to save them.
Between 2000 and 2019, more than 13,000 pubs called last orders for the last time. And that was before coronavirus hit.
Pubs – and particularly those ‘wet-led’ establishments that rely primarily on the sale of alcohol rather than food – have been among the businesses worst hit by pandemic restrictions.
They had not long reopened following the first UK lockdown when they were hit with a patchwork of new restrictions: the 10pm national curfew; mandated closures in Manchester, Liverpool, Wales and Scotland; restrictions on the size and make-up of the groups that visit them. The British Beer and Pub Association warned that we may lose as many as 40 per cent of the UK’s pubs as a result.
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“It’s terrifying. Many pubs have closed and haven’t reopened, and probably won’t reopen,” said Kerridge, the star of Great British Menu, MasterChef and Saturday Kitchen and also a landlord of three innovative food-led pubs – all now closed to customers
“The financial pressures that pubs are under – it’s a very fine line between making profit and loss, those margins are very, very small,” he said. “There will be people looking at their businesses and going, ‘we just can’t do it, we can’t afford to reopen’.”
In a rollercoaster year, Kerridge has been among those holding on with white knuckles. And then, not long after The Big Issue spoke to him, England went back into a four-week lockdown. “It is creating a lot of sleepless nights, that’s for certain,” he said. “The first responsibility, all the time, is always to the staff. We very much work as a family and it’s very, very frightening. The responsibility to them is massive. First and foremost is protecting them and their jobs and trying to ensure that we don’t make redundancies.
“But at the same point, like every hospitality business, it’s not infinite the amount of times that we can just keep going without having the support.”
While this punishing year of restrictions and recession has left Kerridge fighting for his livelihood, things looked very different back in 2019.
Late last year, Kerridge was confident enough in his skill as a landlord to roll up his sleeves and fight for the industry he loves. He found four pubs in peril and threw his energy and business nous into securing their long-term futures.
The resulting BBC programme, Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge, is by turns heart-warming and heart-breaking. Tom is right there with his fellow landlords as they fight for survival.
“The lifestyle that you lead as a pub landlord is very extreme,” he explained. “You’re up very early in the morning, you’re cleaning, you’re repairing, you’re rebuilding, you’re taking beer deliveries. It’s a very full-on, hands-on role that isn’t just like hanging around at the bar at seven o’clock and drinking with your friends. It becomes a hugely immersive way of life.
“For a lot of people that is very difficult – to be running that way of life and not making any money. In fact, losing money.”
Part way through the series there’s a moment when he’s started modernising the pubs – helping them reconnect with their communities, rejig their finances, re-negotiate contracts – and it really looks like it’s going to be ok. And then the virus hits.
“It’s heartbreaking and horrific to see,” said Kerridge.
Though he broadly supported the initial response from the government in the spring, Kerridge said that since then the muddled response has caused landlords a lot of difficulty.
“Listen, we all understand that the government are under an awful lot of pressure. And you know, there is a lot about this that no one could expect,” he said.
“However, I think the distinct lack of leadership, and decision making – and the different things happening all over the country in different regions without clear understanding or logic – makes it incredibly frustrating.”
Motivated by his experiences in 2020, Kerridge has joined The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance. His determination to save the livelihoods of some of the UK’s hardest working businesspeople – as well as the army of workers they employ – makes Kerridge a natural ally. Like The Big Issue, he is committed to protecting jobs, and bringing together people from across the political spectrum to come up with practical solutions to the recession we face as a result of Covid-19.
“I’m happy to voice an opinion. It’s not it’s not a left or right thing. This kind of pushback should be coming countrywide,” he said.
While he stresses that there is no simple solution, Kerridge points to a minimum of three steps that should be taken to stop this being last orders for the great British boozer.
First, businesses that are forced to shut should be given enough support to survive: “If you are imposing something upon someone and their business and their staff, you have to be able to give them a fair level of support.”
Second, the government should give more support to wet-led pubs when they reopen, such as loosening curfews and including alcohol in tax reductions:
“Wet-led pubs in particular have not been helped very much at all by the government grants and schemes,” he said.
The third pillar of his plan calls on pub companies – the multi-million-pound businesses which own thousands of pubs that they let out to local landlords – to pass any savings they get from government policies on to their tenants.
“The big pub companies weren’t too forthcoming regarding rent reductions. Some of those pub companies could have been much more helpful, or should be much more helpful right now,” he said.
Though things are undoubtedly dire for pubs right now, Kerridge argues that they still have an important role to play in our society.
“Pubs are a fantastic institution of this country,” he said. “The pub as a social hub and a meeting space will come back. It’s just how it happens. It won’t necessarily be the way that we recognise it prior to this. However, they will still be vibrant and fantastic places to be. It might be next year, it might be the year after, it might be five years time, but they will come back in some form. We’re all social animals”
Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge is on BBC Two, starting November 12
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