Publicans need taste for five a day as they battle Netflix and gym

Business consultant Alan O’Neill writes a weekly column about making the most of your business for The Sunday Independent. In this week’s column he focuses on the challenges faced by rural pubs and highlights Irish Pun Awards winner, The Porter House, Castlebridge, Wexford as an example of a pub doing things right.

The feature is a good insight into how a business expert like Alan views the trade and is well worth reading. Here is the article in full:

The pub trade has gone through massive change in the last 10 years. Social attitudes have changed drinking habits. Competition for footfall comes from the couch and Netflix, the gym and other healthy activities. Other major challenges include the cost of insurance, the availability of qualified staff and new taxes.

The old role of the local publican, pulling a few pints and chatting to customers all-day long, has changed beyond recognition. Pubs now need to be focused and organised businesses with a strong emphasis on the customer, on events, marketing, on margin and return on investment.

“As a result, publicans have upped their game with a renewed focus on quality, the customer and on food,” says Padraig Cribben, chief executive of Vintners Federation of Ireland. A Bord Bia report shows that 17pc of all food consumed outside the home is in pubs.

One great example of the modern rural pub is The Porter House in Castlebridge. Five minutes from Wexford town, this 100-year-old hostelry has been transformed into a modern and well-run diversified business. Taken over in 2012 by local man Myles Doyle and his wife Sharon, they have turned the Porter House into a popular food, drink and entertainment venue.

Myles and Sharon got serious about food in 2015. Not only is this an extra and significant source of income, it’s also a great footfall driver particularly during the middle of the day.

The owners of owners of The Porter House, Myles and Sharon Doyle

Serving food, however, is not easy. Kitchen equipment is costly and getting consistency in quality is essential. Balancing the menu mix, portion control and waste management in order to maximize margin is an ongoing requirement. But most publicans will acknowledge that the win far outweighs the pain.

Myles was determined to make this a success and attended food health and safety training. He is also mindful of the pub being the heartbeat of the local community and appreciates that he should be supportive of local clubs and committees. It takes a lot of time but he happily does it anyway.

All of that has paid off for Myles and Sharon. The Porter House has been named the Irish Pub of the Year and Best Local Pub 2017 at the inaugural Irish Pub Awards, jointly run by VFI and Licensed Vintners Association.

Recent challenges

While I do empathise with the stress and frustration of balancing effort and return, it’s surprising the number of rural pubs in Ireland that remain closed till late afternoon.

Many have tried different things and succeeded. The big concern for me is that there is a valuable asset that is not being utilised effectively across all relevant time slots.

The Porter House has made that decision already and is open from 10.30am every day. They now have an interesting and wider choice of food options. The challenge now is to try to get more customers in at all times of the day.

Change tips

In a recent engagement with the VFI to support change in the industry, one of the things that struck me was that there was an over-dependence on alcohol sales generally – and mainly from Thursday to Saturday in particular.

When you think about it, there are five different trade windows in a day. Starting with the slot before lunch; lunchtime; the afternoon; early evening; and of course the night shift. Each window presents opportunities for different customer types and segments.

For example, two opportunities come to mind for early morning. One is the healthy or hearty Irish breakfast option and the other is great coffee. Taking tips from leading retailers, I’ve seen the value of having real authority in product categories. Arnotts for example ‘own’ so many categories on the north side of Dublin, such as furniture, menswear, beauty, the list goes on. This gives them differentiation and a great story to tell in social media, etc.

That concept is appropriate for the pub industry too. The Porter House already makes beautiful barista coffee and certainly has the potential to ‘own’ coffee in their area. Why not re-look at this and ensure every member of staff is trained to barista standard? It doesn’t stop there. Customers need to be told through good signage, social media, etc, that the Porter House has the best coffee around. Good coffee and tasty croissants on their own are not enough of course to dramatically increase sales. But they might just be the start of a pattern shift, to be followed by other options for the other time windows. What can Porter House ‘own’ at lunchtime, at early evening time?

This example illustrates a few key learnings.

  1. Change impacts every industry and every business. Are you facing up to the change in a positive way and re-thinking your opportunities in a different business model? For pubs in particular, think about the 5×7. The five phases in a day will require different offerings for different customers – across seven days. So get creative!
  2. What can you ‘own’? What differentiates you from your competition? Is there a dish, a cocktail, a chowder, coffee that you are already famous for – but don’t shout about? Having something that is unique to you that is worthy of a story, gives you an edge that will drive footfall to you.

Finally, I believe that marks of quality are good for any business. Businesses in other industries, for example with the Q-mark accreditation, acknowledge that it gives them a point of difference, a great story to tell in marketing campaigns and reassurance to customers. Perhaps pubs in Ireland should engage with the Q-Mark?

Alan O’Neill is a change consultant and non-executive director. For 25-plus years he has been supporting global and iconic brands through change. Alan-oneill.com. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to [email protected]