New VFI President Pat Crotty can bake. He spent 20 years baking bread before following it with another 20 selling beer.
Beer and bread.
Not unrelated historically.
As for Pat’s history?
“Food was the link,” he tells me as we sit in the capacious President’s office at VFI HQ in Rathfarnham, South Dublin.
That said, he also admits, “Once I got into the licensed trade I’d to do an awful lot of learning very fast.”
This former Mayor of Kilkenny doesn’t regard himself as the type of person to get involved in something just for the sake of it; he likes to get ‘stuck-in’.
“I’ve two years to try make a few things happen to make us a better organisation — that’s no reflection on anyone who went before or who’ll come after,” adds the new VFI President diffidently.
VFI & LVA
Following the VFI’s near nuptials with the LVA last year, today’s relationship could be filed under ‘let’s just stay good friends’.
“The only time I think of the LVA is with the great number of issues we share,” he explains, “Members regard having information and the answers to difficult questions at the end of a phone as being part of what we do, but the real job here – and it’s what they pay their subs for – is to try and make the business environment better for our members and we share this ideal with the LVA or any other organisation where business has to be done.”
Whether it’s the Alcohol Bill, MUP, VAT or Health & Safety, the Federation uses its influence for the betterment of its members – the Big Picture stuff.
“The Little Picture stuff is very important to publicans as individuals but the Big Picture is important to every publican,” he explains, “The merger was an investment in a brainstorming process. We came up with a lot of good stuff so we need to use this to be more fit-for-purpose in future.”
“You never know what’s going to hit you – whether it’s a smoking ban or a tax increase – something happens in every presidency. One can’t say nothing will go wrong.
“For example the Government is taking the credit for an improvement in our economy that they’re not entitled to, really. We’ve low interest rates, favourable exchange rates and low oil prices – major factors in people’s disposable income. If anything goes wrong, where are we then with our high VAT, high excise etc. We’d simply go back to 2008 all over again. Disposable income dries up because Government has not addressed these taxation rates which were brought in as an emergency measure and still there.”
Already getting a generous amount of excise, it took another 28 cent in Budgets 2012/2013. This could be reversed, he feels.
“If the Government did anything to help the pub against the supermarket such as reducing excise, it would increase drink sales through the pub thus returning more VAT to Government (unlike supermarkets). This would result in more employment (unlike supermarkets), plus having the health benefit of people drinking in a regulated environment as opposed to bringing it all back home to an unregulated one.”
No accidental tourist
No-one argues today about the importance of tourism to the economy in general and hospitality in particular, but storm clouds gather at VFI HQ.
“If you were to suggest that there’d be no hoteliers on the board of Fáilte Ireland in the morning, everyone would laugh,” he says, “I think it’s laughable that there are no publicans there given the known importance of the pub to tourism through its food, interaction with people and entertainment. It’s extraordinary that the pub doesn’t merit any input here.”
He’ll be “rattling a few cages – both agency and political” on this one.
The VFI has requested a meeting with the relevant ministers: Shane Ross is technically the Minister for Tourism but it could be Limerickman Patrick O’Donovan, Junior Minister in that department.
“Lots of others with influence here might listen to us, so it’s important to talk to them too,” he adds.
Changing member mindset
A change in outlook might help some in the Federation too, he believes.
In a lot of trades there’s a comfort zone of ‘this is what we do’ but customers can always go elsewhere. The problem in 2008 was that they stopped going anywhere at all (except supermarkets). We’ve learned a lot since then, he says.
“Some people in our own organisation think our job is to preserve the pub. To preserve something acknowledges that it’s already dead, that it can’t change or grow.
“If people think that the Irish pub is something that should be preserved in a glass case, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll get their wish.
“Everything has to find a new purpose because it’s old purpose will die. The history of the last 10 years proves the dynamism and resilience of the trade because publicans who’d never have dreamed of doing what they do today are out there doing it in 100 different ways with pub food, 100 different ways with pub entertainment. They’re listening to what their customers want a lot more now than they ever did.”
At long last, a measure of prosperity has begun to make itself known outside the major cities. Certainly the tourism effect is spreading, he agrees.
With a strong tourism offer, business will have picked up in the Galways, Killarneys and Kilkennys of this country, but how far has it spread beyond there and have some parts yet to see anything?
“We’ve lost 1,400 pubs in the last eight years” he recounts, “but that rate of loss has slowed down considerably. Even if we’ve good times for the next 10 years there’s still going to be a loss of ‘lifestyle pubs’. These won’t be taken on by the next generation. They won’t support a new generation that needs to build houses and support families. They’ll disappear because no-one’s going to take them on.”
With the more viable outlets, he sees today’s tourism marketing schemes making tourism more relevant to publicans.
“The Wild Atlantic Way has come a lot nearer the doors of pubs and communities in general who weren’t seeing that custom before and the new Ancient East proposition is rolling out as we speak.”
It’s all about how to get tourists to stop there and spend some money, he says, because building local trade is quite difficult if you don’t have masses of people living in the hinterland.
“Travel is not going to go away as an issue.”
Pat regards the MUP and Structural Segregation parts of the proposed Alcohol Bill as vital to the trade and has little sympathy for the family retail grocers presently bemoaning their fate should Structural Separation be made law.
“All VFI members are family pubs and all had to fund smoking areas for their smoking customers after the ban” he recalls, “so why can’t these retailers create the appropriate structure for selling drink?”
No longer the issue that it used to be, Registered Clubs abusing their Club Registrations to sell drink beyond their membership still comes up as a concern.
“But right now restaurants with a wine licence or Special Restaurant Certificate trying to morph into bars does concern us.”
And he sees no irony here in pubs trying to be restaurants.
“We bought and paid for every required compliance and licence to sell food as well as having our Seven-Day Publicans Licence,” he retorts, “There’s no issue here if everyone’s on the same level playing pitch.”
For the new VFI President, food seems to be the link once again.