My accountant once gave me two pieces of business advice: don’t run anything with your family and don’t run a pub. So I decided to run a pub with my family. I had always loved pubs, even before I was old enough to drink. I earned my first money in them, as a very bad pianist, and found them friendly, sociable and very relaxed about my blindness. They are also, incidentally, great places to navigate if you can’t see, as you can steer yourself by sound: fruit and games machines whirring; a busy till; the frothing of pints being pulled; old Roger pontificating from his usual seat. For decades, I’d found them great places to make and meet friends, develop ideas and unwind and I began to harbour the ambition to run a pub myself one day.
So when the owners of a pub I often frequented invited me to go in with them on the lease of another, I didn’t hesitate. My children had all gravitated towards the hospitality trade and it seemed like the perfect family venture.
But the incompatibilities were clear from the start. Sure, it was a live music pub, but my new business partners preferred jazz over our rock’n’roll vision. They wanted to take the clientele upmarket; we were happy with a, shall we say, “edgier” crowd.
The upshot was that, within three months, they decided to pull out. With hindsight, that’s the moment we should have pulled out, too, and resold the lease. But my dream of being a pub landlord, plus a large portion of family stubbornness, meant we persisted.
But even when we were left to our own devices, it didn’t work. The pub wasn’t a good place for footfall, as it was located off the main drag and didn’t have parking. The restaurant didn’t attract enough customers in a city already well oversubscribed with such places, and then the government introduced the pub smoking ban (good news for some pubs, as it turned out, but not ours). Of course, as my wise accountant knew, even the closest of families can’t avoid having some differences, especially when the going gets tough.
Gradually the realisation dawned that the publican is not the customer. It’s now you who has to eject the unruly patrons and tell the well-behaved punters that it’s time to go home when they are still having a good time. When money is tight, it’s you who has to tell your staff: no drinks on the house, and no drinks for staff either, even when it has been a hard night. You realise that you – the person who used to be the life and soul of the lounge bar – would give anything for a night in.
Plenty of people gave good advice: put in TV screens for football; weed out some of your dodgier customers; put on more special events. But if they didn’t conform to the image of the pub we had in our heads, such initiatives didn’t last long, if they were tried at all.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some great moments – and times when I even thought the dream might be coming true. But, after almost three years (the average length of pub tenancies), we pulled out; sadder, wiser, and in my case, significantly poorer.
I’ve never dared work out exactly how much money we lost; a lack of business acumen on my part was certainly a big contributor to our failure. But in spite of it all, I still subscribe to the theory that it’s better to know that your dream was just that, than never to have tried to live it.
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