Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Raising a coffee mug to the demise of the local pub

It is trite to blame the recession for the number of pub closures. Many of the licensed trade's wounds are self-inflicted, argues Michael Wolsey

Last orders: A cultural change in favour of coffee shops has seen the pub trade die
Last orders: A cultural change in favour of coffee shops has seen the pub trade die
Costa grew sales by 4.5% despite tougher comparisons against a year earlier
Tilt bar in Belfast is the latest casualty

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mark the passing of an old friend, who stood by us through thick and thin, in the good times and the bad.

He was there for all our celebrations, confirmations and graduations; when the boat came in, the lottery ticket came up, or the dark horse proved a winner.

He was an ever-present help in time of trouble; when we lost the job, or lost the dog, when we needed advice, or a shoulder to cry on.

He was there for us through some of life's most traumatic moments and helped ease the pain of many a funeral. Little did we think we would so soon be attending his. A sad day indeed. Traditional pub RIP. We will not see your like again.

Am I exaggerating? A little, perhaps. But if the traditional pub isn't dead yet, it is certainly in very poor health and a good many have, indeed, called their last orders.

Almost one-fifth of Northern Ireland's bars have closed in the last three years and, according to Claire McNeilly's startling report in the Belfast Telegraph, they are continuing to shut up shop at the rate of three a week. For many, this Christmas will need to be a busy one. Or it will be their last.

Publicans tend to attribute their woes to years of austerity: "A challenging time for the industry,'' as Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, put it.

But they are kidding themselves if they believe their problems will roll away with the economic clouds that are now starting to clear.

While there can be no doubt that the recession has contributed to their headache, it is just one factor in what has been a most remarkable change in our social habits.

The smoking ban has taken its toll, as have stricter drink-driving laws, particularly in rural areas, where taxis are harder to find.

Cheap alcohol in supermarkets provides a further incentive for many to do their drinking at home.

But, beside all this, there is another factor that is harder to define, but no less important. Social drinking has, quite simply, ceased to be fashionable.

People go to bars to do things – see a band, listen to a comedian, take part in a quiz – but the visit is no longer an end in itself. The pub has lost its appeal as a place to meet and chat and some of the damage has been self-inflicted.

I am not speaking here of bars which specialise in music and are essentially places of entertainment, or those that might more accurately be described as restaurants. I am talking about traditional pubs, the most endangered of the species.

These pubs have been badly shaken by the winds of change and, in response, have heaped further hurt on themselves by trying to compete with food outlets to the detriment of what used to be their core business.

That business has been taken over by coffee shops, which are growing as fast as pubs are declining.

A recent business survey found that twice as many people visit a coffee shop every day now as did in 2009.

Coffee shops are the new pubs – not just because they are everywhere, as pubs used to be, but because of the way people use them as the centre for all sorts of activity: discussing business, meeting friends, the first port of call on an evening out, or the last on the way home.

Traditional pubs are no longer friendly places for such activity. You can't stand at some bars, because most of the space is designated as a serving area, or filled with knives, forks, napkins and other dining implements.

They are on the bar because there is no room left on the tables which, as well as these utensils, also have menus, salt, pepper, red sauce, brown sauce, sugar, artificial sweeteners and powdered milk.

You spend 10 minutes removing these things to make room for your pint, then a waitress arrives to take the food order you don't want to make and puts them all back on again.

All pubs serve coffee, but very few serve good coffee and I can't think of any that can match the variety available at any decent coffee shop. The same goes for their efforts at food.

Some pubs have, in effect, become restaurants and are excellent at it. Most are not. Instead of contenting themselves with a decent sandwich and a bowl of soup, they plan elaborate menus that fall as flat as their souffles.

In trying to be something they are not, they have sacrificed the style and ambience that have made Irish pubs a major export.

When I raise this gripe with publicans, they tell me it would be impossible to run a bar nowadays without a serious food menu.

Really? Have they tried?

It's not food that has people flocking to Irish pubs all over the world. So why do our bars choose to compete in this over-crowded market?

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