For an industry so previously set in its ways, it is impossible to overstate the extent to which the pandemic has revolutionised pub management. Firstly, there was the immediate aftermath of lockdown and the closure of our 40 plus pubs UK-wide. Secondly, as lockdown eased, we had to get to grips with social distancing regulations and create safe and healthy environments to welcome the gradual return of our customers. Thirdly, where we find ourselves today, navigating the new “normal”, as we evolve our pubs to meet a new breed of customer with completely different demands and expectations of the visit to their local.
Before the pandemic Blackrose was embarking on an ambitious expansion strategy, targeting 200 new site acquisitions. Two years later, we remain fundamentally in the same position today, although operating in a completely different market and, as strange as you may think, in a stronger position and better placed to deliver our growth strategy.
You may ask how? If there was one silver lining which lockdown gifted our industry, it was time – a precious commodity in the seemingly relentless 24-7 routine of running a pub business. So when time was called we took stock, reflected, re-evaluated, and re-set the business to make sure we were stronger and better equipped when the clouds parted. From our investment and operational platforms, infrastructure, systems and staffing, we not only embraced the advent of new technology, but were ready to respond to how our customers had changed their behaviours and habits.
Our pubs are located in the centre of local communities, predominantly in suburban, secondary town centre locations popular with young professionals and families. This represented a geographical sweet spot in terms of aligning with social trends and behaviours emerging from the pandemic.
With the need to reconnect with friends and families, our customers desired, more than ever, for their pub to be the beating heart of their local community. A meeting place for all ages across the week; the Sunday roast, morning coffee, hearty lunch, after work drinks and Friday night out. And we were ready and prepared to welcome with open arms a new “breed”, ahem, of customer. The arrival of the lockdown saw us introduce dog bowls, dedicated seating areas and even dog menus.
As for their owners, they had become more exacting, refined and more premium in their tastes. Initially introduced as a between lockdown necessity, table service has become the norm, as has a desire for continued al fresco drinking. Therefore, expansive landscaped outdoor areas, complete with stretch tents and canopies, heated umbrellas and fire pits have become part of the pub experience.
We’ve invested into several new venues and refurbished a number of our key sites to a high standard in the true Blackrose signature way, creating great environments for everyone. Typically, the offer centres around great food, live entertainment, a passion for sport and pop up street food vendors, driving new and local customers back to the sites which includes The Lochside and The Black Bull in Newcastle, The Porter Cottage in Sheffield, The White Bear in Barnsley and the Dirty Habit in Whitley Bay.
With many of our customers in suburban locations working all or some of their time at home avoiding the five-day week commute, they now have the flexibility to pop to their local pub for a lunchtime sandwich or Friday early evening pint.
Customers have become far more knowledgeable and refined with their favourite tipples. From cask ales, IPAs and session, low and alcohol-free beers, through to wines, gins, whisky, vodka and run, they have all undergone a revival with punters expecting diversity and choice. The prospect of ordering an expresso martini in your local pub three years ago would have been unthinkable, but not anymore.
The market has changed for good, in both the sense of changing permanently and the changes themselves proving positive - providing refreshed, more inclusive, higher quality, community-focus pub experiences for customers. While there are undoubtedly challenges ahead, it is an exciting time to be in the pub business, and I believe the future is bright.
Darren Knipe, Managing Director, Blackrose Pubs