A local pub for local people - how to start a micropub

Ever wanted to own and run a pub? Probably not a good idea at the moment with pubs closing hand over fist. On top of that buying an existing pub is expensive and so are the running costs

But there’s one part of the sector that’s bucking the trend - the micropub. And it’s something you and a couple of mates can set up relatively easily

The background

The banning of smoking in pubs, introduced in 2007, may have contributed to the demise of the pub, but it was another piece of legislation that has proved vital in helping the rise of the micropub. In 2003, the Licensing Act (which took effect in 2005) was passed. It made it far easier to open a pub

There are now only four reasons why someone can object to you getting a license to run a pub: health and safety, law and order, protection of children and you’ve got to have been a good boy in the past. Prior to 2005 big brewers or pub operating multinationals would object as a matter of routine

One of the first to take advantage to open a micropub in Britain was Martyn Hillier, who ran an off-licence in the village of Herne in Kent. Originally when he discovered that he could change his off-licence into a small independent pub without massive licensing bills, he still wasn’t too keen. After a little thought and with his existing connections to the alcohol trade, he thought it over and changed his mind. “Had I tried to get a licence before, the big brewery pub opposite me and the other big multinational-owned pub across the road would have come along with their barristers and solicitors and stopped it – but now they can’t” he says with relish

“We had a bloke in the pub who had tried to convert an antique shop – it took him 18 months and £12,000 because people kept objecting; all the pubs in the area were objecting. Now they can’t. It’s simple now,” he continues

A little while later he opened the Butchers Arms in an old butchers shop, which is a very small shop and thus small pub, but is proving quite popular and has won the Campaign for Real Ale’s East Kent pub of the year twice so far. Hillier’s pub is far from the average. There’s no music, no lager, no jukeboxes, fruit machines or gastropub food

It was at Camra’s AGM in Eastbourne in April 2009, when Hillier gave a presentation on how easy it was to set up your own pub, that the idea really began to take hold. In the audience was Pete Morgan, a Hartlepool man who had just found out he was about to lose his job. Hillier’s idea immediately appealed to him. “At the end of his 15-minute presentation, I turned to my girlfriend and I said: ‘I’m doing it,’” he says. “She said: ‘Don’t be stupid.’ But that’s how good an idea I thought it was. Within two hours of him finishing talking I knew where I was going to have the pub and what I would call it. There was no stopping me. There was no reason to stop me; it just seemed like such a brilliant idea.”

Just over six months after hearing Hillier’s speech, Morgan was the landlord of the Rat Race, a micropub based in a room at Hartlepool Railway Station that has been, at various points in its existence, a waiting room, a taxi company office and a newsagent. It’s a perfect illustration of what a micropub is. Like the Butcher’s Arms, the focus is on good quality cask ales and conversation

“It’s pretty small and pretty basic,” he says. “But that’s not a bad thing – that’s the point. We haven’t got any of the unnecessary stuff that most pubs are full of. The big difference between my pub and virtually every other pub in Hartlepool is that people talk to strangers. Because its small and everyone is facing each other, you get conversations starting between people who don’t know each other. It’s the way pubs used to be, but sadly it’s not the way they are nowadays.”

The cost

Another micro- pub that was inspired by Hillier’s speech is Just Beer in Newark. Set up by four friends, it demonstrates just how simple a concept this is. “You could conceivably have one in your front room if all the other considerations are dealt with,” says Duncan Neil, one of the four. “And once you’re up and running, you’re not dealing with much outside of looking after your beer. As long as you’ve got enough people to make it a viable business, that’s it, really”

The 2005 licensing act not only simplified the process of applying for a license, but also dropped the costs of obtaining the licence alone from £12,000 – £25,000 to around £1000. Just Beer cost £30,000 to get off the ground, while the Rat Race absorbed £10,000 of Morgan’s money. The Butcher’s Arms was the cheapest of the lot (£2,000), but Hillier already had a lot of the equipment as it had been an off-licence

The micropub’s emergence comes at a very interesting time for the British brewing industry. Another of the last government’s actions was the introduction of small brewers’ relief, whereby those brewers who produced less than a certain amount paid less tax. The impact has been dramatic: there are now almost 800 breweries operating in the UK. Hillier believes the microbreweries’ products are a natural fit for a micropub. “The biggest problem new breweries have got is: where do they sell their beer?” he says. “If they sell it to the big boys, they want to pay nothing for it and pay you three months later, or you sell it to free houses – well, these days all they seem to be interested in is food. For every microbrewery, there should be 10 micropubs”

One day there may be. For the moment there are only a handful. Kent appears to be the epicentre, with another in the county (the Conquerer in Ramsgate) already open and more on the way. For NMTBP, it’s a heartening trend.We reckon anyone dissatisfied with their local should take action – and open a micropub

“It’s for the person who can’t find a decent pint of beer,” he says. “They see that the shop in the village is shut and they think: ‘Let’s convert that.’ For the sake of a cooler, some stillage, some glasses and some tables and chairs, you’re there. It can bring villages; towns back to life again where the pub has been shut.”

How to open a micropub

1) Find your location which could be a shop or other small premises. Old shops are perfect. Ideally this should be away from schools, nurseries and similar so town centres and village centres are perfect. You don’t need a great deal of space: 6mx4m for the entire site (including cellaring) is plenty. Low rent is also key. “It’s all about low overheads,” says Duncan Neil of the Just Beer micropub. “You have everything on a small scale so that you don’t need the same amount of business as a normal pub to allow you to operate”

2) Obtain the personal and premises licence from the local council. This is much simpler than it used to be as the courts are no longer involved, so as long as no one can raise an objection you shouldn’t have any serious problems. Be aware that, since licensing is now a matter for local councils rather than the courts, your chance of success will depend on where you are in the country

3) Get the equipment which can either be bought new or for a lot of micropubs, comes off Ebay and similar sites. Even furniture can often be obtained from auctions and auction sites. As far as the beer is concerned,  remember that Britain is now full of microbrewers itching to get their beer in pubs

4) Work out your opening hours. You don’t need to open from 11am to 11pm or anything like that and for most it won’t work anyway, but mid afternoon to around 8pm would be a good option as long as you can make it work financially

5) Open the micro pub and they will come!

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March 12, 2012

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