A food-led pub in Kent has been forced to drop a ban on smoking at the bar after beer sales plummeted in the winter months.
Chris Geer, who has leased the Junction Inn in the village of Groombridge from Enterprise Inns for four years, had previously boosted trade at the formerly run-down pub by six times. One major improvement had been to add a restaurant (food now accounts for 55% of total sales).
Because the restaurant was no-smoking, Geer said, many diners would pop into the bar for a cigarette. However, this prompted complaints from customers who were eating from the bar menu.
Geer banned smoking from the bar last June and initially there were no problems because smokers could go outside into the pub's large garden. But once the winter set in, customers "voted with their feet" and drove to other pubs where they did not have to brave the cold weather for a smoke.
Although food sales improved during the ban, Geer said they met only half of the loss in beer sales which, over a three-month period, was equivalent to 100 barrels. Geer reckoned he had regained up to 70% of his lost customers since he reinstated smoking at the bar a month ago.
He believed his experience was an uncomfortable lesson for the trade, which was already suffering from soaring beer prices (they go up three times a year and will increase by up to 4% this month alone on major brands).
As the Government's smoking ban, which comes into effect in 2008, will allow pubs to offer food or smoking but not both, Geer is considering using the Junction Inn's main building as a pure restaurant and converting some old outbuildings into a smoking bar with games and Sky Sports.
by Angela Frewin
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