Will The Druid Inn make it?

I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. I’m writing this in my study on 5th March and will be posting it on the web site soon. We are now only a few days away from the opening of The Druid, which starts with the principal test day which we call the builders’ party, currently planned for Friday the 15th March.

The builders’ party is not only fun for the team who have put The Druid Inn together but also tests the systems and allows staff to run their first live session. We run the pub just as if all the invited guests were regular customers; they find a table or settle in at the bar and we provide them with whatever they want from a fully stocked pub with everything running as it’s supposed to. All “sales” are rung into the till as normal but no one actually pays for anything.

We will follow this with a second test day, with people from the local community, as we feel a lot of the staff need the confidence that will come from these exercises. We should then go “live” on Monday 18th March.

I don’t know what we’d do if this testing revealed a major failure, perhaps the IT misfires or we’ve buggered up the cellar lines or we’ve got the energy calculations wrong and everything keeps tripping out. Naturally all these things are tested as we go along but they don’t get properly stretched until the place is full. I don’t want to tempt fate by saying it’s unlikely but, unless fate gets the hump, it’s unlikely.

So, why have I got butterflies? I’ve done this many times before so why feel nervous about this one? It’s not so much the pub I’m worried about but what’s happening out there in the big world. There are three things in particular – staying at home versus going out, the bad economic environment and competition.

Let’s start with whether people want to go out as much as they did. In this changing world people carry their entertainment around with them as well as having their homes made streaming savvy but I surmise that the basic human desire to spend time with one another is unlikely be extinguished. It is after all human nature, so I suspect pubs will always have some sort of role to play as they have done so for thousands of years. Even if everyone takes to wearing headsets and disappearing into their own little worlds they will have to emerge at some time and must then surely want to interact with their fellow human beings. If they don’t then I hope the first bomb drops on my head.

A more pertinent question for me is how often will people want to go out? I grew up in a world with no personal computers or mobile phones, television was in black and white and there was only one channel. By the time I was a teenager, admittedly with better television by then, and wanting to go to the pub (obviously I waited until I was 18), pubs were an essential part of life and I needed them to meet my friends and especially to meet girls. Pubs were my social life. There were different pubs for different occasions, the drinking pubs, in a variety of locations for different times of day and us youngsters would go to pubs in Chester for early doors, perhaps moving to the suburbs or out into the country later on. Our parents and their friends would go to chicken-in-a-basket pubs in the country and we might go too, perhaps with a girlfriend when we wanted to be on our own.

Nowadays most people use social media and don’t need to be out and about to catch up on the gossip. They don’t need pubs to meet potential love interests either, indeed they seem to be hesitant of using them to do so. And staying in is not as dull as it once was. In my day no one would deliver food to your house and although you could go out and bring it back yourself the choice was limited, generally poor Chinese and Indian or excellent fish and chips. You can now get a wide choice of takeaway food, albeit still mostly fast food, delivered to your home at the drop of an app. Booze for home is cheaper than it has ever been and readily available, indeed you can have that delivered.

So what does the pub do that will tempt people to spend more going out than they would staying at home? Firstly, we do everything for you; there’s no cooking or washing up, all you have to do is turn up and sit down. Secondly, we have better food than you would mostly be able to get delivered, especially as there are no nasty additives, as almost everything is made freshly by us. Thirdly we have a huge choice of both food and drink which is very welcome when there’s a group of people together with varying tastes, or even if you’re on your own and want to try something different. Fourthly we give you a very pleasing place to be – warm and cosy, clean and comfortable. Finally, you are surrounded by other people enjoying themselves, some of whom you might well know. It’s a sociable place. So the struggle commences – we are trying to tempt you out while supermarkets and Deliveroo are trying to get you to stay at home. My fear is that they have more clout than I do but my hope is that people prefer the greater pleasure of going out.

And that battle is before we start on the economics of running a pub. In nearly forty-five years of being a publican I have never known a harder economic climate. The business pays more tax now than we ever have and we get less for it than we ever have. It now seems that councils spend their time trying to work out how to charge for things. The classic is rubbish collection which was included with the rates when I started but is no longer. Or perhaps I’d like to talk to someone – oh no, you can’t do that. Mostly you can’t talk at all, some, such as planners, will do so only if you pay. I can’t talk to HMRC so I have to pay my accountant to answer queries instead. I’m harassed by tedious, ill thought-out administrative tasks from all sorts of regulatory bodies which eats up our office time and seems to be mostly concerned with covering the instigators behinds. Energy, a very big cost for us, is the highest I have known and everything else seems to be going up in sympathy. Wages too are at their highest with HMG pushing up NI and pension costs as well as massive jumps in the minimum wage. I was looking at one of my first Profit and Loss accounts from the early 80’s – wages were at 20%, now I run at over 40% which is shortly to go up yet again. The breakeven of the average pub is now so high that only busy pubs can survive.

On the other side of the economic equation, we have our customers squeezed for money like a toothpaste tube. I only have 130 staff but I can tell you horror stories of people’s mortgage payments going up by £800 per month and energy bills doubling. It’s not a time when people feel flush and even amongst our older customers who can more comfortably afford life, rising costs make them cautious.

And that brings me to competition. In any local economy there is only a limited amount of income available for hospitality. I wish I knew how much this was and how often people go out and spend it, but I don’t. What I do know is the basic demographics. I know that Wales has about 70 pubs per 100,000 people which is above the average of 58 pubs per 100,000 people in the UK. I know that Flintshire and Denbighshire together have around 200,000 adults. I know that the five villages have around 1,800 adults and that Gorsedd has around 330 of them. These are only 2011 data sets because, of course, the Office for National Statistics are over stretched and haven’t yet been able to process the 2021 census data because they are working from home and have no idea what their colleagues are thinking or doing. I suspect there are now more people in Gorsedd as it looks to me as if some of the houses have been built since 2011.

I surmise that I need around 3,000 regular customers, ranging from very regular to people who only visit 4 or 5 times a year. Heaven knows whether this is right, I have spreadsheet models in which if you alter one simple parameter you get a completely different answer. Spreadsheets can be really dangerous. Of course, I can’t have all these customers to myself; they have to be shared with all the other pubs and with other hospitality venues, which is why I devote time to trying to find somewhere where there is less competition. It’s much harder work than it was when I started with my first pub in 1981 and particularly in this part of the world, where I find myself competing with my old self in the form of Brunning and Price pubs. I have thought of moving to a different part of the country but I don’t really want to leave the area I know and love and which knows and loves me.

So there we are. I have butterflies in my stomach. You might well ask why I’m still doing it and the answer is that it gives me pleasure to give you pleasure. I love pubs and I love to make pubs you love. Let’s hope I don’t have to pay to provide them for you.