Publicans learn to think outside the box
IT SAYS a lot about standards in the licensed trade that the first national quality assurance scheme for pubs has only recently been introduced.
For years, tourists using hotels, bed and breakfasts and self-catering accommodation have been able to choose Fáilte Ireland-approved establishments offering defined minimum standards of accommodation. Up to now, however, entering a pub could be something of a lucky dip experience for visitors; at times enjoyable and even magical, but also sometimes disappointing or off-putting.
“In every other area, visitors had an element of choice but not when it came to pubs – here, a pub was a pub was a pub,” says Tony Lenehan, head of industry services at Fáilte Ireland. “You never knew what you were getting until you were inside the door.”
While one man’s dark, dingy pub could be another’s ideal tourist experience, there was a growing recognition of the need for more emphasis on standards and quality. Recognition that work needed to be done is implicit in the title of the accreditation scheme, Raising the Bar.
So far, 200 pubs have been accredited under the scheme, and are entitled to use the identifying shamrock logo, with another 100 in the pipeline. “It means anyone who enters a pub can expect certain standards in all aspects of their journey within the establishment,” says Lenehan.
The scheme is just one facet of a growing recognition of the importance of the pub for Irish tourism. The recently-published Lonely Planetguide to Ireland was merely stating the obvious when it pointed out that the pub was the country’s principal tourist attraction.
“The pub is probably the number one image associated with Ireland. It paints an attractive picture of sympathetic camaraderie, good fellowship, music and storytelling, even if this is actually a somewhat outdated view of Irish life,” says Prof Mary Lambkin of UCD Smurfit school of business. “It’s part of our vernacular heritage just as much as museums and churches. It should be possible to keep what’s best about this heritage.”
But just because tourists like the idea of the pub before they come doesn’t mean they will be satisfied with the reality during their holiday. And the fact that most tourists frequent pubs during their stay in Ireland won’t solve the problems facing many pubs in non-tourist areas.
Fáilte Ireland’s extensive research tells us that although visitors do enjoy the pub their priorities are often different from those of local people. “They want more from pubs than just the drink. In fact, that’s well down the list. They say they are interested in meeting local people, in music and in food,” says Lenehan.
In many ways, the tourist’s idea of a good Irish pub equates to the future the sector plans to deliver to all its customers. It’s part back to basics – a renewed emphasis on people, for instance – and part specialisation, with different pubs focusing on music, food or sport.
Lenehan says he’s concerned about the decline of an institution which is virtually synonymous with Ireland but is optimistic about the future for pubs that modernise. The vintners’ groups are fully behind the quality initiative, he points out, because they too recognise the need for change. “The sector realises it had to change its positioning,” he says. “Up to a few years ago, business was booming and they didn’t have the time – or the need – for something like this.”
Ger Counihan, proprietor of Bunkers Bar in Killorglin, Co Kerry, for the past 26 years, believes tourists love the Irish pub as much as they ever did. “This image of the friendly Irish is still true. We definitely still have it,” he says. “The reason tourists walk in my doors is to meet people.”
Lenehan says the drive for higher standards doesn’t mean that all pubs have to be the same. “We’re seeking minimum quality standards. After that, there are huge opportunities for publicans to personalise what they do. This doesn’t take away from the individuality of pubs.”
Food is one area of specialisation which Fáilte Ireland is keen to encourage. It talks about pubs “capturing a place on a plate” by sourcing ingredients from local suppliers and thereby delivering to visitors a flavour of the areas they are visiting.
There has been much talk of “gastro-pubs” but even Lenehan admits “food may not be for everyone”. The investment or space required may not suit some pubs, and the local trade may not be large enough to justify serving meals all year round.
Geraldine Lynch, who runs the Cuckoo’s Nest in Tallaght, says food has a contribution to make: “People think food is the saviour or panacea for all the problems of the pub trade. It works well for some but I’d say there are very few making money out of it.”
“If you’re hands-on and you know what you’re doing, you have a chance of making a go of it,” says Counihan, who serves meals in his pub seven days a week. “I live for my locals and the tourists are a bonus.”
It is a long-standing irony that while the outward appearance of pubs across the country varies hugely, the products they have traditionally stocked are uniform. Diageo controls about half the beer trade, and Heineken one-quarter, and for years it was hard for other suppliers to get a look in.
Donall O’Keefe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners’ Association, admits that a lack of diversity in the products sold by pubs has been a weakness, but he says it is one that is being addressed now. “Most pubs would now stock a range of world beers and you’re seeing the emergence of craft beers in many areas. The future lies in further diversification and specialisation in the market.”
Craft brewing flourished for a time in the 1980s and 1990s but many of the pioneers didn’t survive. It’s now enjoying a revival and this time craft beers are enjoying more success in getting into pubs. Indeed, pubs like L Mulligan and Against the Grain in Dublin sell only speciality beers.
Yet the beer market has traditionally been a conservative one; everyone of a certain age remembers what happened to Guinness Light. “We’ve been down this road before, with the introduction of new beers. However, customers decided they didn’t want them, and they died,” cautions Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland.
Price remains a major issue for the public and complaints about “greedy publicans” are frequently heard. It’s a label Counihan refuses to accept: “We’re definitely not greedy and we can’t afford to be because our customers will walk if we are.”
The vintners’ groups argue that costs are driven up by over-regulation of the sector. There is no point in comparing prices in off-licences and pubs because the overall products, and the costs involved in providing them, are so different. Lynch’s rates bill is €65,000 a year.
The VFI admits that tourists sometimes comment that drink is expensive in Ireland but says publicans should point out that excise is higher here than in other countries.
Further contraction in the pub sector is inevitable, but a combination of specialisation, an increase in tourist numbers and restrictions on the off-licence trade offers grounds for hope for an eventual improvement in the fortunes of the Irish pub.