Sobering tale of running a pub

A FAMILY will face the bailiffs next week when they are evicted from the pub they have battled to save despite a lack of trade which has left them unable to meet rent demands. Gary and Sandra Higginbotham had always dreamt of running a village pub but whe

A FAMILY will face the bailiffs next week when they are evicted from the pub they have battled to save despite a lack of trade which has left them unable to meet rent demands.

Gary and Sandra Higginbotham had always dreamt of running a village pub but when they took over The Old Fox in School Lane, Bricket Wood, it soon turned into a nightmare of spiralling debt.

The Herts Advertiser highlighted their plight in June when the company which owns the pub, Punch Taverns, served them with an eviction order after they built up rent arrears of around £13,000.

This order was rubber-stamped by a court at the end of July and the family was given 28 days to either pay up or get out.

Despite Gary working full-time elsewhere while Sandra and their daughter Charlotte run the pub during the day, they've found it impossible to meet the monthly rent of nearly £3,000 with the amount of trade they turn do.

The situation has compounded by a second disappointing summer as the pub relies on good weather because of its large beer garden and children's play area.

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When the couple fell behind with rent payments their finances were further crippled when Punch Taverns withdrew their credit facility, which every pub relies on to buy beer.

Gary and Sandra were forced to buy what beer they could upfront but during one busy weekend earlier in the year they ran out and Punch Taverns only deliver Monday to Friday.

The couple had to buy beer elsewhere and claim Punch Taverns then slapped a £1,000 fine on them for doing so.

With the life-savings they spent to take over the pub and the other debts incurred, Gary and Sandra have lost more than £70,000.

They say they have neither seen nor heard from Punch Taverns since June despite their numerous attempts to make contact.

Sandra said: "They don't give any concessions on the rent. They could see that we were just a little country pub at the end of the lane that's dependent on the weather. The turnover we do doesn't warrant how much rent we pay."

She also complained about high beer prices and added: "How can they charge £30,000 a year rent when in the winter we might not even bank £800 in one month."

Just a short drive down the road there is another Punch Tavern pub feeling the pinch.

Marion Buckley runs the Fox and Hounds pub in Station Road and although she's paying a reduced rent because she took over on a temporary lease, she said it was still a struggle to make a profit.

She moved to the pub after leaving The Swan in Park Street when it closed earlier this year and said she wouldn't have been able to survive if it wasn't that her loyal customers from there had followed her to the new pub.

Marion, who has worked in the pub trade for 20 years, said: "With the experience I've got I know the pubs are finished. The breweries need to give small pubs a chance and need to work with you, not against you."

But independently-run pub The Black Boy, which is along Old Watford Road in the village, is thriving following a four-month closure after it was flooded in last summer's downpours.

Landlord Peter Dillingham insists his success is down to the fact he isn't tied to any brewery or pub company which means he doesn't pay rent and can hunt for the most competitive prices for beer.

He strongly believes that pub companies, otherwise known as pubcos, are to blame for pubs such as The Old Fox failing.

"They are killing the game single-handedly - they are strangling it. Your local pub is more likely to become a block of flats or a little housing estate while they own the rights on it," Peter said.

He said his drinks were cheaper because he paid around half of what pubcos charged their tenants for beer and the board outside his pub reads, "say no to the pubco".

He has also attracted trade with his outdoor heated area and Sky Sports licence which many other pubs such as The Fox and Hounds and The Old Fox can't afford.

A spokesperson for Punch Taverns denied the company had avoided contact with Gary and Sandra Higginbotham and said: "We have an extensive and award-winning support package in place and have a strong track record in building sustainable local pubs that are at the heart of the communities that they serve. It is not in our interests to see our pubs fail and we will continue to work with the licensees of The Old Fox to address any business issues they may have."

She added: "All rents are based on a Fair Maintainable Trade which is estimated on the turnover an 'average' licensee could generate in a particular outlet and this is agreed with the licensee before any agreement is signed.

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