Saturday, 6 February 2010

The avoidable downfall of a town centre pub

Running a pub must be a right laugh, eh? You're the life and soul of the party, you're at the heart of the action, you're the hub of everyone's social life.

Well, no. Having known several people who have managed (and continue to manage) pubs, it's actually a hard job. You start several hours before the pub is even open, scrubbing away at the detretrius of the previous night, and then you're onto way past midnight. Granted, it looks like fun, but being a bar manager is not for me. Especially when you consider over 50 pubs a week are closing down in the UK. Added to that, the life behind the bar contains risks like fights breaking out, mardy customers and increased supermarket competition. I'm grateful for sitting at a desk 40 hours a week, and I take my hat off to long-suffering bar staff.

Which makes it a bit tricky to tackle the story of how a Wellingborough town centre pub threw away every opportunity that appears like commercial suicide. I really do not want to appear like I'm mocking their failure, yet I feel compelled to detail the catastrosphic details of this pub's brief biography. The irony is that I never entered the place during its brief spell of activity, yet what I write here can be confirmed by friends, customers, ex-workers, Facebook screen-grabs, video and photographic evidence.

I doubt I could run a pub for anything more than a week, but when you hear how badly Woodies Retro Bar performed, I reckon I'd have converted it into a mecca of decadance. Let this posting serve as a warning to others on how NOT to run a pub.

Woodies opened on the 4th December 2009, on Wellingborough's Silver Street, part of the main pub crawl circuit. The venue's previous role was as a branch of the Litten Tree pub chain from the now bankrupt Laurel Pub Company. Imagine an overpriced Wetherspoons, and you get the picture. With the huge space in the venue (originally built as a TSB bank), the place served as a quasi-nightclub in the early Noughties, and was tremendously successful, taking many customers away from Wellingborough's only major nightclub, Bar Life.


Eventually, the rot set in. Violence can be a regular occurence of any provincial night-club, and the Litten Tree's attempts to stop the scraps were beyond farcical, with a few occasions where security staff got involved in the rucks. With the place changing door staff on an almost monthly basis due to the violent problems, and regular fights on the dancefloor, the pub went far beyond what most drinkers see as acceptable. Airport-style security was installed at the door, with each punter being searched by a metal detecting wand, having to empty out their wallets before entry. A police car and ambulance parked outside would be an ensured sight most weekends, so much so that any blue-light vehicle blaring a siren would be referred to as a 'Litten Tree taxi'. With the parent company collapsing, it saw to the end of the dismal pub, having earnt its 'Litter Tray' nickname.

Having sat dank and dark, daubed with whitewash and an optimistic estate agent's sign for around two years, it was optimism that greeted the news on the re-opening, as Woodies Retro Bar.

Landlady Karlee Edmunds told the local paper: "...we are confident that a retro concept is just what Wellingborough town centre needs. ...we will immediately start to fit out the premises with the theme being a '70s discotheque. We are planning a very kitsch interior with mannequins, including Austin Powers".

So far, so tacky. But you can't blame her, as there have been bar chains built on retro concepts, such as 'Flares' for the 1970s and 'Reflex' for the 1980s. (Actually, when the time is right, I'll trademark 'Common People' and 'Rehab' for the 1990s and Noughties respectively.)

What became a worry was that Karlee had taken over an existing Wellingborough pub and caused it demise three times over. A few years ago, Around Town in Cambridge Street was given to Karlee and her friend Debbie to run. It wasn't long before the place began resemble the Marie Celeste, and so they opted for a rebrand...


Urban Knights was the result, sounding more like an album title from a short-lived r'n'b boy band. As you can see from the tacky lettering, it brought forth all the charm of a diarrhea-filled skip. Stripper nights were part of the 'delights' on offer.

It didn't survive long in this incarnation, quickly morphing into Charlie Dee's. Sadly I have no pic to show you, but the glossy sign was in a nice 1930s New York art-deco font, and admittedly added a touch of class over what previously stood there. The schedule made mention of live rock bands and addition of an afternoon grill showed promise. Alas, these were axed within a matter of weeks, and the place soon fell back into the same routine, with the stripper nights returning. Pubs with hot food offerings tend to do well on a busy circuit or a main road, none of which Charlie Dee's played host to.

Unsurprisingly, Charlie Dee's closed its doors in 2009, with Karlee and Debbie quitting the venue. (It's since re-opened under new management as Bailey's.)

This brings us back to Woodie's Retro Bar, described by the Northants Evening Telegraph "a bar for the over-25s, and it has already employed 12 members of staff" back in October 2009.

An over-25s bar in Wellingborough? Very ambitious, and quite daring. It obviously cuts out a significant amount of clientele, yet could be attractive to a wide audience who would prefer familiar music and less of the testosterone-fuelled argy-bargy seen in a typical club. But by November, the management had already decided to scale back this parameter by taking the age limit to just 21...


Ironically, some of the bar staff were aged under 21. Yet deputy manager Matt Armstrong (himself aged 20) stated on Facebook that it would still retain the right kind of crowd. Well, he did so with far less tact than that...


I witnessed the opening night. As I've stated earlier, I've never entered Woodies, but while out on a pub crawl we walked past the place, playing thumping house music (not exactly 1970s) while two teenaged girls were standing outside having a cigarette break. To give it its due, it was fairly crowded.

However, I was later told by those who went, that the bar only had one till with no change available. It was a case of "exact fare only", as they say on the buses. To put the icing on the cake, a fight broke out, instigated by one of the security staff, which cleared the dance floor. This was intepreted as a minor incident on the bar's official Facebook wall...

Woodies dealt with their critics using Facebook in a belligerent manner...

...and bare-faced optimism...

Yet it wouldn't quash the criticism...

Woodies continued with their mocking tone, not realising it was building up massive hubris...

So, sneering at their kebab shop neighbours for being the Wellingborough branch of Fight Club, eh? Bear that in mind. Meanwhile, a change of age limit policy...


So much for keeping the "riff raff out". And then, we learn that despite their previous slating of the kebab shop, it turns out they are "friends", thanks to them supplying bottles of coke...

Barmen Shane Geraghty and Matt Armstrong continued to insult the customer elsewhere on Facebook, with talk of violence and a smattering of homophobia...

So, when you have your deputy manager publicly stating "guys like that need a fuckin kick in the face", do you continue to employ him? Woodies certainly did.

Come to think of it, there's also public evidence of Matt Armstrong supporting a racist organisation...

As you can see, BNP supporter Matt Armstrong continued to be employed by Woodies right up to the end. Still, it's not like this guy was in a hive of activity, as the decline of Woodies became apparent...

By this time, it was common to see Woodies play host to roughly 2-3 people every Saturday in the daytime. The pub itself could fit in 200, yet it was virtually empty, having failed to capitalise on its opening week.


What could be putting people off?..


Still, at least Matt Armstrong could rely on his heavyweight intellect, a feat proclaimed by, er, himself...


Woodies continued with its consistent policy of being inconsistent...


To play house, garage and dubstep in a so-called 'retro' bar is like serving up rare steaks in a vegan restaurant. A clearly dumb move. Even when situated within a pub themed around dance/r'n'b music (Urban Knights), this plan didn't work.

What's even dumber is charging £3 for admission when all other pubs are free to enter. Let's not forget this takes place on 2nd January, a time when the vast majority of punters have spent the last of their disposable income on New Year's Eve. As you can tell by the comments, the night was a flop.

So what new ideas did Karlee Edmunds have to turn around this ailing joint?


Yes, it's back to the strippers. Observe how there's two separate nights, one for lads to ogle a couple of classy female strippers, and one for ladies to salivate over two hunks. Although for £2.50 a throw, I guess I'm being generous with the terms of "classy" and "hunk". Still, Woodies believes in equal opportunities.

In spite of previous failures with stripper events, staff were hyped up beyond the realms of all rational optimism...


As you can see, barman Shane is reasonably sceptical of the event's expected success. Matt is ambiguous yet ludicrously optimistic. However, with the pub continuing to be about as popular as a bacon sandwich in a mosque, management decided to lay someone off. I bet you can guess who that would be...

Classy and professional, huh? Shane took it in his stride, and brought an alleged under-age drinking incident to the public's attention...

Naturally, the "extreemly (sic) intelligent" Matt Armstrong has something to say about this allegation...
So, one worker feuding with an ex-worker, threatening to kick his head in. Not the first time Matt has spewed out his violent tendencies. Remember all this is going on in the comments area of a message posted by the Woodies Retro Bar Facebook account.

A further comment from Shane shines the light on what Karlee and Debbie promised their 12 bar staff when Woodies opened...


And it continues with Matt, who actually calls for a fight at Woodies...
In case the subtlety has been lost, Matt states exactly how he is going to beat up his former colleague...
Thankfully Shane gets the 'conversation' back on track, and with him no longer on the Woodies payroll, he's able to post some home-truths about how badly the pub is doing...

Back to the proposed stripper events, and the Woodies Facebook account continued pasting the two stripper adverts continuously, sometimes three times in one day, just in case you weren't aware. They even reduced the tickets to £1 each during the last week of January. The stripper events got a total of 43 mentions, yet didn't exactly go down well with their Facebook friends...

Hmm, jealous of someone stripping in Woodies at Poundland prices?


By late January, I had heard on the grapevine that their barrels were starting to run out. It wasn't long before they resembled a 1980s Soviet Russian supermarket...

There is an unconfirmed rumour of someone going in there, asking for two pints of Stella. The barman apparently stated how they were unable to offer it on draught. The customer said to use the bottles in the fridge.

According to the rumour, the barman pours several bottles into the two pint glasses, and says "that'll be £12 please", basing it on the cost of the bottles. Twelve quid!? Common sense would dictate that you'd charge the customer the same price as a draught pint. Should there be any wonder why this pub failed?

This past Thursday, I was informed of the pub's closure...

A quick real-life glimpse on the door to confirm...


Yes, that familiar message, "closed for refurb". Seen frequently on businesses that end up being closed permanently, such as the Old Swan nearby, which died after hedging its bets on ladies' nights.

Let's not forget that the Woodies venue was actually done up back in October and November in time for its opening, so why the sudden need for a refurb? There's already cynics out there on the Woodies Facebook wall...

So, just a "refurb", right? That's the official line, and the pub wouldn't contradict itself? Well, take a look at this explanation on their Facebook profile...

It doesn't seem likely that Woodies will ever resurface. I could be wrong, and that's why there's a comments box at the bottom of this post.

Bear in mind that the location for Woodies is on a main stretch of the town centre circuit. At night, there's a buzz of people all heading down towards the Horseshoe Inn and/or Bar Life. Woodies is situated in a position where the Star Bar and Wetherspoon's Red Well act as 'feeder' pubs, yet once news of the fights and dismal atmosphere spready quickly, people actively avoided Woodies.

One Wellingborough Pubwatch report I've heard was that the venue had a total of 19 customers on one weekend night. Ten people were in there, as they left, nine people headed in. That was their entire custom that night. This was a typical audience for the venue.

Having no seating didn't help. Being painted in the colour scheme of a Wacky Warehouse didn't help. The constant spamming on Facebook of their doomed-to-fail stripper nights didn't help. In short, I'm not sure how you could deliberately run a worse pub than this. I have considered that it might actually be a taxloss.

For now, I think I'll leave the last words to the BNP-supporting violence-threatening deputy manager Matt Armstrong, a man whose intelligence is eclipsed many times over by his optimism...