Meet the Barnsbury pub landlord who’s paying for your beer
14:00 29 February 2016
Imagine you are a pub landlord. It’s a doomed trade. Across the country, an average 26 pubs a week are shutting down. How do you combat this? You give away 100 pints a day, silly.
Tom Buxton, landlord of the Hop & Berry in Liverpool Road, Barnsbury, has come up with the madcap idea of offering up to £16,000-worth of beer free of charge for the duration of Lent.
He took over the struggling pub in December, and immediately had to contend with the ‘dry January’ fad.
And with Lent starting on February 10, he was worried another wave of drinkers would be willing to give up alcohol for its 40-day duration.
So he decided to do something that everyone else said “was f***ing crazy”.
He partnered with mobile phone app Crowdit, from which a customer can claim one free pint every day until March 24 by showing it at the bar.
Not many people would associate Islington with struggling pubs. And why would they? Walk through Upper Street on any night of the week and you will see a plethora of packed bars and restaurants.
But look further out to the likes of Barnsbury, Holloway, Highbury and Finsbury Park. Success is not necessarily a given.
That was the problem facing Tom, 31, who took over the Hop & Berry after spells running pubs in Marlow, Earls Court and the Philippines.
As the Gazette sits down with a pint of Islington Lager - brewed by Holloway brewery Hammerton - and enjoys the pub’s classic rock soundtrack, Tom explains its homely atmosphere.
“Look at this place, it doesn’t deserve to be quiet. It should be buzzing with lots of people and a great vibe. I just thought, how do you get people to come in and appreciate the atmosphere?
“With Lent coming up, it was more encouragement for people to give up something, starting a few days after dry January. I wanted to beat this obstacle.”
And what better way to attract drinkers to a pub than offer free beer?
So far, Tom and his staff have been giving away up to 40 claimed pints a day. But, as he reasons, there’s a method behind the madness.
“I’m paying out of my pocket but already seeing the benefit. Some people have been coming in every day so it’s building our reputation.
“Everyone said - pardon my language - I was f***ing crazy. People are laughing, saying I’m insane, but two-and-a-half hours later they are still here!
“It’s only one free pint per person, so most people have been claiming that and staying for a couple more because they are enjoying it here.”
It’s this willingness to think outside the box that can help pubs thrive again, says Tom.
“The Hop & Berry has been through a turbulent time, a lack of consistency.
“But I think a lot of people blame external factors, like the difficult pub climate, when actually it’s a lack of willingness to understand the market.
“You can’t expect people to come if your pub is no good.”
Though he adds: “With our free beer scheme, we are at an advantage being a free house [not controlled by an owner or brewery], which means I could make that decision to give away potentially 4,000 pints.
“It’s a statement against working to maximum efficiency - which is not what pubs are about anyway.”
CAMRA: ‘Creativity is welcome’
The Hop & Berry’s free beer scheme has been welcomed by Islington’s leading action group for pubs.
John Cryne, chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) north London branch, praised Tom Buxton’s innovative idea.
He said: “As long as it’s a pint per punter, it’s not really any different to pubs who give discounts all the time. Landlords being creative is always welcome.”
Mr Cryne said it was necessary for pubs in residential areas: “If you get out of the Upper Street bubble, it’s a bit of a struggle for pubs at the moment.
“For those off the beaten track, it can be very hard work. There’s always competition from cheap drinks in supermarkets and property developers are forever looking to snap these places up.”
He also rounded on “dry January”.
“It’s not something we support. We obviously support fund-raising for charity, but why does it have to be at the expense of pubs, which are struggling as it is and offer a lot of benefits to people?”
It’s official: Upper Street has competition
Walk around the leafy residential streets of Barnsbury and you will see a number of pubs - like the Hop & Berry - that are defying the grim national picture for poor trade.
And there’s no reason why this plush area can’t compete with the heart of Islington, says landlord Tom Buxton.
“The way I see it, there’s eight million people in London. We don’t need everyone to come, just a few more. It’s not that much further from Angel station, or Upper Street.
“I don’t think it’s right to have a pub that’s struggling in Islington - it’s too vibrant.
“And with pubs, people are willing to go further for somewhere good. There’s a lot in this area - such as The Albion and Pig & Butcher - that and understand this and are doing brilliantly.”