Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Here to stay: an interview with Black Boy Inn owner John Evans – part 2

The Black Boy Inn’s owner of the past twenty years, John Evans, has been in the industry for several decades. In that time he’s seen many changes to the hospitality trade.

In part 1 of our series of interviews with John we heard about his early career, from bottle boy to owner of a portfolio of pubs across north Wales.

In today’s article John talks about how the industry has changed, from minimum price per unit alcohol pricing to the difficulties in finding staff.

To read part 1, click here.

In the first article in this series we heard from John about the impact of the government introducing what were known as the ‘beer orders’, which prevented breweries from owning and managing pubs. This led to swathes of pubs across the UK being bought up by property management companies who installed tenants or leaseholders – many of whom had no experience in the hospitality industry – to run their pubs. If these managers did well, they’d often be ‘rewarded’ with hefty rent increases, meaning they struggled to make any money for themselves.

What other changes has John witnessed in his half a century in the industry? What about the minimum unit price for alcohol in Wales – does that have much of an effect on business?

“I don’t think it’s had any effect on the pub trade whatsoever,” John says, “unless as a pub you’re buying the liquor in. Obviously it’s affecting us from that point of view because the prices have gone over the bar.”

Where does the difference in price ultimately go to? The government, in tax?

“Yes, basically, but I gather all people are doing is driving across the border and buying their stock in Chester or wherever.

“Having said that, if you’re buying spirits for your pub and you’re going out to buy £4,000 worth of spirits, you’re not going to buy them in your local Tesco are you? But from a Welsh point of view, if you’re coming here on holiday, what you’re going to do is go to Tesco in wherever you live, and stock up with your food and your spirits before you go down to your caravan – so all it’s actually doing is shooting the local economy.”

The local economy is something that John thinks about a lot. The gradual disappearance of the types of small business that would be recognised by anyone who’s grown up in a rural setting is especially concerning:

“In the village where I grew up – Dinas Mawddwy – there used to be five shops… I don’t think there’s one now.

“I noticed that in Llanilar, when we ran the Falcon Inn from 1978, how quickly you got to know who’s who in the village, because for example people used to come in from the WI and drink orange juice. It didn’t make any difference because they were still part of the village, and the village pub was extremely important because if some old dear was ill at home and didn’t come up that night, somebody would ask the question ‘where is she?’ – and we’ve lost that.

“In villages in those days there was a sort of social service if you like, built into the fabric of the village, but that’s been lost in the majority of places now. The pub used to be very central to that, because the publican would know exactly what was going on, whether people were having affairs with somebody else, or whose child was related to which person, etc. As you’re on the counter every night you hear more than what most people would hear.”

John thinks there’s another important role that pubs play in society, which people often overlook:

“Pubs always reflect what society is. If you live in a rough area the pub will be rough. If you live in a posh area the pub will be posh. And they’ve always reflected that. But now I think it’s quite sad that you can’t actually tell.”

The homogenisation of the high street over the past few years is another of John’s concerns. It’s almost as if every high street up and down the UK is becoming identical and losing its individual personality:

“You always see a KFC one side and something else on the other side and you can’t really tell where you are as you drive into town because it’s all the same products,” he muses. “I think pubs have become very much like that, where in olden times you would go into that pub because of the licensee, because he was different, because he was quirky – because maybe he would tell you a few home truths, like you can’t come in here because you swear, or you’re not dressed correctly. But that’s very difficult now because there’s so many rules in society… for people who are trying to obey the rules, even they find it complicated, and those who don’t obey rules don’t care anyway! They will just use those rules to get what they want, regardless of what you believe.

“Newtown, Llanidloes and Welshpool, that’s where I used to go out when I was courting, in those areas. You could always find a pub with entertainment, whereas now I couldn’t really name a pub that holds entertainment.”

Aside from the general changes in the pub trade already pointed out by John, another common complaint that affects the wider hospitality and retail industries – both post-Brexit and post-Covid – is the dearth of workers prepared to accept job offers that come with traditional terms and conditions.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen that, as it is now,” says John. “Even in the seventies you could always find people to work. I think society has changed. Youngsters don’t want to do unsociable hours – they come in and tell you what hours they can work, rather than [accepting] what the work pattern entails.

“I think this is a problem; this is where stories come from that pubs are closing and reducing their hours, and that is quite genuine – people saying we’re closing for a month because of utility bills, and they’ll put their existing staff on holiday which makes it easier for them to control that.

“Certainly there is a serious shortage of hospitality staff, but it’s not just hospitality. Look at the NHS; they’re short of staff, but we’re all looking in the same barrel for staff. If you ring a helpline you’re on hold for ages because there’s nobody at the other end to answer the phone, and the danger is they say ‘well, attract more staff’ – but you’re all looking in the same pool so what’s going to happen? We have people applying for jobs here with degrees etc, but maybe aspirations are higher – in our era you went into a job, you started at the bottom and worked your way up, whereas today people are expecting to start at the top.”

What people don’t always consider, John says, is the difference between British and European working conditions compared to those in the Far East.

“Look at where most of our goods come from, which is China,” he says. “If you go out to China, which I did for two or three weeks a few years ago, it’s distressing because yes, fine, you’ve got people who are supplying us with the goods; but the labour force, out there, I’m sure if you got run over at the side of the road they wouldn’t bother to pick you up unless they had to. This is what we forget. We’ve lost our manufacturing industry because the Chinese wage structure is a lot lower than ours.

“As a general rule Singaporeans have a wonderful standard of life, but what people [who have visited Singapore as tourists] forget is, they’ve all got maids from the Philippines. Their wage structure, they’re living in totally different conditions. So when you go in a posh hotel in Singapore and you think this is better than we get in the UK, well yes it is, but the staff don’t earn the wages that they do here. You certainly wouldn’t get a [Singaporean] housekeeper travelling to this country to stay in a posh hotel.”

In the final article in our series, John talks a little more about the changes he’s seen in his time as a publican, and considers what the future holds for him and the Black Boy Inn.