Positivity the key for Ireland’s struggling pub industry
President-elect of the Vintners Federation of Ireland, Gerry Rafter. Photo: Pat Moore.
By Sam Matthews
The Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) provides a voice for hundreds of the nation’s pubs, and in less than four months’ time a Kilkenny man will be at its helm.
Gerry Rafter, who runs the Rafter Dempsey’s pub in the city, was previously the chairman of the Kilkenny City branch of the VFI. He is currently the president-elect, and will take over from Carlow-based publican Gerry Mellet in May, to serve a two-year term as VFI president.
It is an honour for Kilkenny, and for Mr Rafter, who has been a publican since 1986. However he will take the reins at a very uncertain time for Ireland’s pub trade.
The industry is changing rapidly. When the smoking ban came into effect in 2004, pubs were praised for how quickly they adapted to it by building smoking areas and heated beer gardens.
Since then, publicans have been coping with a fresh set of challenges, including harsher drink-driving laws, cheaper off-trade alcohol, not to mention the overall economic climate.
“There is a pub a day closing down in Ireland,” says Mr Rafter.
“It’s of huge concern to us. These are not just pubs – they are families. The problem is most of these are self-employed, and they know if they go out of business, they don’t get any leg up from the State in terms of dole, redundancy, and so on.”
The Kilkenny-based publican says that trading was largely positive at Christmas, compared to the previous year when the snow and ice resulted in fewer people going out, as well as the cancellation of parties. Nonetheless, the situation has not been easy in the new year.
“Trading is very challenging at the moment,” says Mr Rafter
“With everybody fearing the way the economy is going, it feels like it has taken a huge nose-dive since Christmas.
“Having said that, specifically in Kilkenny city, trading is holding firm at the weekends, particularly Saturday. Kilkenny seems to be a Saturday night destination for people to come to, and they still are.”
‘For a lot of people, the pub is the only social outlet they have’
In October of last year, the new drink-driving limits came into effect. The lower limits have brought Ireland into line with European norms, and have considerably reduced the legal level of alcohol permissible – from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml of blood.
People may complain, but the authorities say it is working. Garda figures show that the total number of road fatalities in January was down by eight from the previous January, and lower than every other January for the last nine years.
However others have argued that there is a bigger picture here. One Irish coroner, Terry Casey, received a lot of media attention earlier this year when he warned of an increase in suicides among older men, as the new laws foment further social isolation for this demographic. Mr Rafter also has some concerns.
“Let me make it clear – the last thing we want is to have anybody drunk-driving,” he says.
“However it is extremely difficult on the rural person, perhaps a farmer in his seventies or eighties, who is three or four miles away from a pub, he might be a bachelor living on his own, and his only social outlet might be to get down to the pub. That’s a major issue.
“For a lot of these people, it is the only social outlet they have. My own father is living seven miles from Kilkenny city, in the middle of the country.”
The Kilkenny publican is worried that an increase in the regulations affecting the sector is seriously threatening the fabric of rural Ireland. It is particularly rural pubs that are being hit hard at present.
‘Rural pubs have been, and still are to a degree, the social centre of a rural community,” says Mr Rafter.
“Particularly when you see the post office in the area closing down, the local shop closing down, the GAA club struggling and the Garda station closing down or going part time.
“We need to keep rural Ireland alive, and [the VFI’s] part to play in that would be to make sure that the pub is there.”
The lack of transport in these areas is seen as a huge contributing factor to the problem. Earlier this week Minister Alan Kelly published his Taxi Regulation Review report, which outlined proposals for local area hackney licences to tackle the issue. The VFI welcomed the report, and Mr Rafter says the implementation of such a scheme is something that he would like to see happen during his term of office.
“It’s something we have been looking for,” he says.
“We are dealing with a new Government now, and we would be quite optimistic that the government will work with us on that. A lot of our publicans now would be actually driving people home from the pub, and making sure in rural areas that people get home safely.”
‘This isn’t us against the supermarkets, I don’t want to go down that route’
An increase on alcohol duty was widely expected in last December’s Budget, and the Government’s decision not to do so was widely criticised by health groups, including Alcohol Action Ireland. Mr Rafter, however, says that the excise being charged by the Irish Government is already far in excess of European norms.
“We feel we are a very heavily taxed industry already,” he says.
“Disposable income is at an all-time low in our customers’ pockets, and the last thing we want to see is the price of alcohol being increased in the pub trade.”
Those final four words, ‘in the pub trade’, are particularly significant.
One of the main issues upon which the VFI is currently seeking government action is the sale of cheap and special offer alcohol available in supermarkets and convenience stores.
The Report on the Misuse of Alcohol and Other Drugs, from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, was published last month. One of its recommendations was that a ban on the sale of alcohol in supermarkets and garages should be considered by Government in the future.
Mr Rafter says such a move is unlikely, but that there should be greater regulation of the sector.
“We can never see a situation where the Government would recommend or implement such a thing,” he says.
“But we would be as concerned as anybody. Once upon a time, the breakdown of the enjoyment of alcohol would have taken place 70 per cent in the pubs and 30 per cent outside of pubs. Now at this point in time, the pub trade enjoys approximately 45 per cent of that, with 55 per cent enjoyed outside the pub.
“What we’re saying is that it can’t be any coincidence the increase in misuse of alcohol and public order offences, domestic violence, etc, at the same time as the declining amount of alcohol being consumed in the public house.”
Issues such as ‘pre-loading’, in which people are now drinking more at home before going out, have become part of the discourse on alcohol abuse in recent times. The culture surrounding drinking in Ireland has changed, and this change has largely been driven by economic factors. Quite simply, it is cheaper to drink at home than in a pub or club.
Publicans say the time has come to level the playing field. A minimum price on alcohol, applying to both off-trade and on-trade, is the VFI’s proposed course of action.
“This isn’t an argument of ‘us against the supermarkets’ – I don’t want to go down that route,” says Mr Rafter.
“But we feel if there is a minimum price of alcohol, it takes the very cheap and below-cost alcohol off the shelves, and stops the misuse of alcohol, in terms of young people buying cheap spirits and slabs of beer and going off with their mates to enjoy it in some field.
“There’s no regulation there whatsoever – there’s no one there telling them when they have had enough, or when they can go home. There is no control, once it’s sold in a supermarket, that’s their responsibility gone.”
The Oireachtas Joint Committee also proposed a ban on alcohol advertising after 9pm, and while the VFI has not endorsed this, Mr Rafter says they would support a ban on price-based advertising. This refers to ads which detail special offers and discounts, such as ‘24 bottles for €20’.
Another measure the VFI is recommending is the segregation of areas where alcohol is for sale from other groceries. Mr Rafter says it should not be possible to pick up groceries in one hand, and at the same time booze in the other.
“Is it not sending out a terribly bad impression to children? You bring your children supermarket shopping, and the most important thing in your shopping basket is alcohol,” he says.
“It’s treated the very same way as a bar of chocolate or a bottle of water or box of cornflakes. What we’re saying is alcohol is different. It’s an attitude changing substance.”
‘We are going nowhere unless we have a positive attitude, we have to send out positive signals’
While the industry is facing many challenges, pubs are adapting in order to overcome. It seems that diversification has been key to the survival of many publicans. New offerings, such as food, increases the appeal of the establishment and can bring in a different sort of clientele.
The VFI is also now trying to promote the idea of events nights. The organisation is currently putting together a new booklet, which will advise on tailoring specific events to suit individual pubs, such as a bingo night, a cards night, karaoke, darts, and so on.
“One fit isn’t going to suit everyone, so the VFI are putting this together. It will give a template on how to run them within the pub,” says Mr Rafter.
“Events are the way forward. People need a reason now to go out during the week.”
Following a difficult start to the new year, Irish pub owners know that the road ahead is likely a difficult one. Mr Rafter says his priority during his term of office will be attempting to maintain and promote jobs within the pub industry. More than ever, he emphasises, an upbeat mindset will be crucial to the survival of the sector.
“We are going to go nowhere unless we have a positive attitude, we have to send out positive signals,” he says.
“So what we’re suggesting is up the standards, up the offering, up the service, and get involved in events. I would ask people to be positive in challenging times.”