He’d rather drink Foster’s in a pub that has heart and soul than sup the latest supposed craft brews in a specialist beer bar with 20 taps but where the bar staff talk down to him and make him feel small.
It’s this lack of basic hospitality that Martin Hayes, founder of The Craft Beer Co. (CBC), believes is the failing of so many operators of craft bars. In contrast his focus on looking after people is the key element behind the success of his business that now straddles nine bars and in June he celebrates 10 glorious years since the opening of Cask Pub & Kitchen in London’s Pimlico.
“The money people are looking for the magic potion of craft beer pubs and at the moment it is beer in keg that drinkers have never heard of. These people are looking at a bad pub and putting a craft name on it. Gastropubs were the same – nice plates and cutlery but it was microwave food. When you eat it you know it’s not quality but people think you can fool customers with presentation,” explains Hayes.
He reckons the majority of business people dabbling in the pub market do not understand the craft beer pub model and that many of them are accountants: “From small independent operators right up to those who run massive pub companies there is a lack of understanding.”
His own model for the craft beer bar – although he would prefer to simply call them pubs – has pretty much remained constant since June 2009 when Hayes took on the very unattractive Pimlico Tram. “It was a closed Greene King pub that had lots of serious anti-social behaviour,”he says.
He took on a free-of-tie lease, called it the Cask Pub & Kitchen, and brought in some of the early great craft beers from the likes of BrewDog, Otley, Thornbridge and Dark Star. For a number of months he operated it single-handedly with no bar staff. Word spread and he says people would travel from far afield: “Ten years ago we had great beer while the other pubs had rubbish beer. The difference is not as extreme now.”
It was two years until he moved onto opening his second pub – the first to be branded as Craft Beer Co. – in Clerkenwell. This very much fitted the mould he’d created: “We’ve grown the business in the shadows and on the side streets.” This has partly been dictated by his decision to run a financially lean business with zero borrowing.
“We’ve never raised any funds, we’ve no bank support, no credit cards and no overdraft in place,” says Hayes, who adds that this has enabled the business to stay independent and operate prudently while avoiding the temptation to take on large sites in prime locations that require A-grade fit-outs.
This did not necessarily deter Hayes from looking centrally because in 2014 he opened a unit in Covent Garden. Although it rigidly stuck to his model of only taking on questionable sites: “It was completely unwanted and a real lost cause. All my pubs have been like that. They’ve all been closed or dead.”
As with all CBC pubs its core formula was the “curation of the beers and real hospitality”. Because of this he says people will search out his pubs in their secondary locations – it just so happened that the Covent Garden site required very little searching and is easy to reach. More so than the others that are located in Brighton, Brixton, Islington, St. Mary Axe in the City of London, Old Street, Limehouse and shortly Hammersmith.
Hayes says the 10 years have flown by – “it seems like only yesterday” – since he took on the Cask Pub & Kitchen site. There will be anniversary celebrations across the weekend of June 8/9 when special cask beers are being produced by 10 brewers including Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Northern Monk, Siren, Burning Sky and Wild Beer Company.
But the big personal celebration has already taken place and was rather more low-key. It was in early 2018 when he purchased the freehold of the Cask pub. “It was the best moment of the whole thing. It was almost 10 years and we’d done some cool things. It was a real celebration for me,” he says. And it was an act that fully validated his model for the craft beer bar – whatever one of those is.
Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider