Trade news – November 2020

FULLER’S NEWS

Interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live when London was moved into Tier 2, Simon Emeny, Fuller’s chief executive, expressed particular concern over what would happen to their pubs in the City of London. He forecast that there would inevitably be redundancies, possibly around 500 and mostly from the staff of City pubs. This was however before the extension of the furlough scheme to 31 March. One pub that closed prior to the second lockdown was the Chamberlain in EC3N which had a notice in the window saying ‘With the City of London being quite quiet, we’re sorry to inform our customers that we are temporarily closed due to the lack of trade caused by the coronavirus pandemic’.

Fuller’s did try to take the initiative with various marketing ideas such as ‘Fuller’s Friday’ (with customers being offered a free pint via their mobile ‘phones), a rewards scheme linked to their website and promotion of their hotels for ‘staycations’. This was sadly all cut short by the second lockdown.

An unusual beer appeared in some Fuller’s pubs during October. This was Nanobot, brewed in partnership with Beavertown. The 2.8% ABV beer was described as a super session IPA. It was brewed with Sabro and Simcoe hops, oats and wheat which, according to the press release, ‘packed it with punchy citrus and juicy tropical top notes’.

Despite all the distractions, Fuller’s were able to open a newly built pub which is part of a new development in Wembley Park. Called the White Horse, it takes its name from events at the first FA Cup Final ever to be played at Wembley (1923 – Bolton Wanderers vs West Ham United) when the crowd overspilled and were rounded up by PC George Scorey riding Billie, the now iconic white horse. The opening was however rather spoiled for some by there not being any cask beer available because of a technical problem.

The White Horse (c) Fuller’s Pub Company

YOUNG’S NEWS

Announcing their half yearly figures, Young’s chief executive, Patrick Dardis, described the last six months as being the toughest in the company’s 189 year history. Their turnover in the half year to the end of September was just 30% of that in the equivalent period last year and a loss of nearly £22 million is expected. He did however praise what customers there were for their resilience and Young’s staff for going ‘above and beyond’ in protecting customers. He added, more promisingly, that their rural pubs and hotels, particularly those in the south west and on the coast, had continued to perform well. As regards the current situation, as reported in the Propel News Briefing, he commented, “Whilst we were hoping that a further lockdown could have been avoided, the second lockdown, with the financial support available from the government, will be considerably less damaging to our business than the potential move to Tier 3. We are hopeful that when we reopen on 3 December, we will see the back of the 10pm curfew and London moves to Tier 1. We remain positive at the prospect of trading in December.” Costs of around £4 to £5 million were expected during the four weeks of the second lockdown.

Oisin Rogers, who has revitalised the famous Guinea Grill in Bruton Place, Mayfair, has also taken over another nearby Young’s pub, the Windmill in Mill Street. Both the food in the bar and the upstairs restaurant were praised by restaurant critic Jay Rayner in a review in the Observer on 11 October.

WETHERSPOON’S NEWS

JDW saw a 28% fall in sales in the 15 weeks ended 8 November. It was during this period that they were selling beer at 99p a pint in advance of the second lockdown. That said, in early October, the price of guest beers had already been reduced to £1.69 per pint (£2.69 in central London). The company had previously reported a loss of £105 million for the year ended 26 July. Despite this, analysts say that, financially, the company remains sound. They have however warned that around 450 staff employed at their airport pubs could be made redundant because of the significant drop in numbers travelling, which may be long term. This follows the redundancy of 108 head office staff. In presenting the results, chairman Tim Martin criticised the Government’s ‘ever-changing raft of ill-thought-out regulations’. According to a report in the Mail on Sunday, having taken a 50% cut in pay in March, Mr Martin returned to full pay in August, as did board members and other senior executives.

GREENE KING

It was reported in the Morning Advertiser on 7 October that GK had lost around £270 million in the year ended 26 April. Revenue had fallen by 13% compared with the previous year. Consequently, GK were closing 79 of their 3,100 pubs and for 26 or so of them, this would be permanent. This included all eleven Loch Fyne seafood restaurants. There would also be 800 jobs lost (out of 38,000), although the company are hoping to redeploy people rather than make them redundant. Some head office jobs were also being lost. At the same time, GK promised to allow its tenants a rent discount of 90% if their pub was closed by Government order. The pubs so far suspected of being permanently closed are:

  1. Albert Tavern, South Norwood, SE25: built in the 1960s to replace one destroyed by a flying bomb and listed as an Asset of Community Value in 2019 following an earlier threat of closure;
  2. Old Dairy, Stroud Green, N4: historic pub, formerly the premises of the Friern Manor Dairy Farm Limited, reported to be boarded up;
  3. Queen Adelaide, Shepherds Bush, W12: Grade II listed.
Queen Adelaide (c) West London CAMRA

Some analysts had been predicting that following GK’s purchase by Hong Kong-based CK Asset Holdings in August, some pub disposals were to be expected, irrespective of effects of COVID.

MARSTONS AND CARLSBERG

The Competition and Markets Authority cleared the creation of the Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) in early October. The CMA took the view that while much of the new company’s beer would be going to the new Marston’s pubco, other brewers would continue to have sufficient alternative wholesalers to deal with. The new arrangement is predicted to save some £24 million in the first three years. CAMRA’s National Chairman, Nik Antona, commented, “We are increasingly concerned with the dominance of global brewing brands in the UK beer market and the impact this has on consumer choice. This Joint Venture is the latest in a series of merger and acquisition activity which has seen many styles and brands disappear since the early 2000s. While we have seen an increase in the number of small brewers producing some great and varied beers, these brewers account for less than 6% of the total market and are therefore unable to provide effective competition. Many of these smaller brands cannot access the pub market due to the dominance of supply and distribution agreements operated by pub companies and global suppliers. In addition, two small brewers are now closing every week due to ongoing restrictions on the sector and a lack of proper support package. On top of this, the Government is planning changes to Small Brewers Relief that will increase the amount of tax some small brewers pay. ‘We are grateful to the CMA for engaging with us and listening to our concerns about the Joint Venture and will continue to raise our concerns about competition issues in the sector with them. We believe that the UK beer market needs constant monitoring by the competition authorities.”

Marston’s, now in effect a pub company, still have their financial problems and even before the second lockdown, on 18 October, they had announced that 2,150 jobs were to be cut. As a consequence of the second lockdown, the company has also asked for a delay in repaying certain loans secured by bonds. They also did this for the original lockdown. Marston’s did however report encouraging results in the thirteen weeks to 3 October.

SHEPHERD NEAME

Sheps have a bigger pub presence in London than most people realise, with 59 of their 319 being in our area. They announced a loss of £2.9 million for the year ended 27 June, compared with a profit of £11.4 million last year. This was mostly down to reduced turnover. As a consequence, they are looking to concentrate on their suburban and community pubs, which could see the closure of some of their city centre outlets. Some have already closed (see WhatPub Update 41). Chief executive Jonathan Neame told the Evening Standard that he could not see footfall levels returning to pre-COVID levels until 2022 or even beyond. Redundancies were also under consideration. This is worrying because a lot of their London pubs are both historic and normally popular. Sheps have put three pubs in Kent and one in Essex on the market. They are described as ‘free of tie’ freehold investment opportunities from which Sheps hope to realise £1.76 million. They are currently leased to ‘good individual operators’.

STONEGATE

Following concerns raised by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) arising from Stonegate’s purchase of Ei Group, 42 pubs have been put up for sale. These are 30 freehold and 12 leasehold sites, comprising 32 from Ei’s portfolio and ten from Stonegate. The CMA has required that the pubs are sold in at least three separate tranches. Early speculation in the Morning Advertiser was that Admiral Taverns and Aprirose (Blackrose) were showing interest.

Stonegate have assured Amy Lamé, the Mayor of London’s Night Czar, that they remain committed to running three of London’s best loved LGBTQ+ venues, the Admiral Duncan, the Retro Bar and the Kings Arms. These three sites did not reopen between the lockdowns and there were fears that they would be permanently closed.

BLOOMSBURY LEISURE GROUP

BLG already operate eight pubs in London, including the Euston, Farringdon and Waterloo Taps, along with several food outlets and some bowling alleys. Despite the current climate they have plans to expand with four more pubs, two of which will be in London. Before the second lockdown, the Hackney Tap in Mare Street was due to open in November and a further ‘Tap’, in Eastcheap, will follow next summer. The food offering in the two new outlets, as in the Farringdon Tap, will be Japanese Gyoza dumplings.

REVOLUTION BARS GROUP

Following a drop in takings of almost 50%, RBG are proposing a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) in respect of its subsidiary company Revolution Bars Limited. This will see the closure of RBL’s sites in America Square (City of London) and Clapham High Street. Some 130 jobs may be lost. They are also hoping to renegotiate the rents on sites in Clapham Junction, Putney and Richmond. The group has a total of 73 outlets spread around the UK.

WELLS & CO PRESS ON

Despite these difficult times, Wells & Co, as Charles Wells are now called, started brewing at their new site, Brewpoint, on 29 September. The first beers are On Point, a pale ale at 4.0% ABV which comes in keg and cans and Origin Pale Ale, (3.7% ABV) a cask beer described as ‘balancing malt sweetness with crisp bitterness, tropical fruit and citrus late hop notes’. Brewpoint is located at Fairhill, which is on the A6 north of Bedford. The garden area was due to open on 8 October and will be open until Christmas, served by a pop-up bar. In due course there will be food, retail outlets and entertainment available.

GROLSCH TO RETURN

I must be honest; I didn’t realise that Grolsch had gone. Apparently it stopped being sold in the UK a year ago. The brand was acquired by Asahi from AB InBev back in 2016, along with Peroni and Meantime, as a trade off when AB InBev took over SABMiller. It was being brewed under licence in the UK by Molson Coors but when Asda and Tesco stopped stocking it, Asahi cancelled the contract. The beer will now be repackaged as Grolsch Premium Pilsner, with the distinctive swing top cap being reinstated. Although the strength is being reduced to 4% ABV, the beer will now be imported from Enschede in the Netherlands. It will also be available on draught.

GUINNESS GOES LOW

I have to admit that I had to check the calendar when I first saw this story in case April 1st had come early. Described by the company as ‘the biggest innovation in decades’ and after four years in development, Guinness have launched Guinness 0.0, an alcohol free version of the world famous stout. The company says that the new version retains the ‘distinct character and taste’ of the original. It is brewed in the same way but the alcohol is removed at the end of the process by cold filtration, a process which they say does not damage the beer. It was launched on 26 October and will initially be available in four packs of 440 ml cans. Or that was the plan anyway… Some of the original batch had to be recalled because of possible microbiological contamination. A draft version will follow in the spring; no doubt it will be served almost ice cold.

THAT’S THE SPIRIT!

Adnams will be producing their Spirit of Broadside ‘eau-de-vie-de-biere’ for the winter season. It starts life as regular Broadside bitter (4.3% ABV) which is distilled and then matured in oak barrels which adds ‘a woody sweetness and spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon, evoking memories of Christmas cake’. It is 43% proof and costs £34.99 a bottle (70 cl).

I have seen several reports that some small breweries are attempting something similar with the stocks of beer left unsold because of the COVID restrictions. There has been a growth in the number of small distillers in the last few years, alongside small brewers. There could be some very interesting results.
Compiled by Tony Hedger