‘Reasons to be cheerful’ at Carlton Tavern after first year

The Carlton, rebuilt after a crude demolition job, will celebrate its ‘first birthday’ on Saturday

Friday, 15th April — By Harry Taylor

Tom Rees

Tom Rees behind the bar in the pub in Carlton Vale

COVID restrictions, a shortage of CO2, a drivers’ crisis, a new coronavirus variant, staff shortages and rising energy bills.

Few landlords will have faced a trickier first year at a pub and remained optimistic, but speaking to the Carlton Tavern’s Tom Rees ahead of its first birthday celebrations this weekend, you can understand why. Just a few years ago the pub was reduced to a pile of rubble after being illegally demolished.

It reopened last April when pubs were allowed customers back in after the third Covid-19 lockdown.

Mr Rees, who runs the pub with co-owner Ben Martin, says he is happy with the first year as he celebrates the birthday this weekend.
“That first six-week block was perhaps the busiest continuing block we’ve had and being outside enabled us to finish what we were doing inside, so it was a bit of a blessing in disguise.

“It was a baptism of fire, but it was great fun. We had a bit of a ‘if we build it they will come’ mentality, and we’ve been happy that it’s been the case so far.”

There has been furious preparation to get everything in ready and in place for Saturday’s festivities, trying to get the garden ready in the hope of good weather.

There will be a barbecue, live music, face-painting, beer and wine tasting, and the chance to meet brewers.

He said: “The Carlton will never be the same as it was before, but we’re creating our own chapter, and Saturday will be a nice thing to mark that with the award being presented, showcasing some of our suppliers and doing some tastings.”

Old faces have returned too. The Hampstead and Westminster Hockey Club, a mainstay at the pub before its demolition, are back in as its traditional home for teas, meetings and socials.

Locals have established themselves and real ale drinkers have given it their seal of approval. It’s won the West London pub of the year award from Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale.

“We try and provide good value. We’re not the cheapest around here, but we want to provide quality and value,” said Mr Rees.

“Times are really tough for individuals but they are really tough for businesses too. We’ve seen cost increases from almost every angle you can think of.

“We’re still optimistic. We’ve just got to plough through it, do as well as you can for your customers and be grateful to the people that come in, rather than worry about people that don’t.

“There are reasons to be cheerful. When the sun has shined, people have come out. We have a World Cup in November, the summer is still to come as well.”

Despite his optimism, it is still a unpredictable environment for landlords. The 35-year-old, who lives in nearby Queen’s Park, says that energy bills have tripled and stock costs have risen. One example he refers to is the price of smoked salmon leaping by 25 per cent.

It has been a turbulent year. Driver shortages led to some drink not being available, which was difficult for a pub that has a big emphasis on its food but still takes two-thirds of its income through drink.

“What we saw was random white vans turning up with alcohol in, some products on it, some not, no delivery note, and we’ve got to work out where it had all come from. It was very challenging to start off with,” he said. “We have made a point of working with smaller, London-based suppliers we’ve got a relationship with. That helped, because sometimes we couldn’t get a mainstream lager, so we phoned our friend who runs a small brewery who drove four kegs down. We know as a pub we get shunted to the back of the queue sometimes so that works for us.”

Mr Rees is also looking ahead to a period of business where customers will be facing the pinch at home as well as out and about. The energy price cap has risen to £1,971 and inflation is reaching levels not seen for 30 years.

“The competition for everyone’s leisure pound is on,” he said. “It does feel that while we are struggling with maintaining thin margins, it’s also going to hit our customers, and that twice-a-week visit might turn into once a fortnight. We are not seeing it yet, but that might be because we’re a young business on an upward trajectory. It is a concern for the future, because that’s the environment.

“In terms of price we will need to put up prices eventually to keep up with cost inflation, wage increase. Particularly when it’s colder, it’s not like being at home. You can’t have customers come in and tell them to put a jumper on.”

He added that the recent restoration of VAT provided more difficulties. It was cut during Covid to encourage trade, but it has since returned to 20 per cent. The Carlton has given staff a pay rise but Mr Rees says margins are increasingly tight.

“Everything would help. I think 12.5 per cent felt like a medium and was still piling lots of tax into the exchequer’s accounts. We want to be able to do more, invest more, pay better, but we need help to do that. It’s an easy thing to say ‘just pay staff more’, but that money has to come from somewhere.”

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