Last week, a pub called The Queen closed down in Bradford, for what must be the umpteenth time in the 12 years I’ve been living in or near Bradford. Unfortunately the pub’s location just outside Bradford’s main railway and coach station means that its boarded up windows reflect badly on a city where there are already far too many empty shops. This led the local paper, the Telegraph & Argus, to ask whether pubs in Bradford have a future?
Invariably when a media outlet poses a question in a headline, the answer is yes, but I think that the T&A’s article is overly negative. Bars in Bradford do, in fact, have quite a bright future, as I’ll mention shortly. The Queen, as you’ll notice from my photo of it taken last week is owned by Enterprise Inns, one a number of so-called ‘PubCos’. These companies own the pubs, but essentially franchise out day-to-day operations to tenant landlords who then buy all of their beer from the pubco. They can’t buy in beer from elsewhere and usually have to meet aggressive sales targets. It’s no wonder that four pubs close in Britain every day.
Free houses, on the other hand, are owned by their operators. They’re free to sell whatever beer they want, as long as the business is viable. Consequently, more innovation is happening in this more liberated area of the market.
So, back to Bradford, and specifically the North Parade area of the city. It’s right at the top of the city centre, and currently home to two relatively new bars. The Sparrow opened three years ago in 2011, and was one of the first of a new generation of ‘bier cafés’ in Britain. Within weeks it had been named as one of Britain’s top 10 craft beer bars by the Guardian, and remains popular to this day. It was joined last year by Al’s Dime Bar, which is loosely themed as a New York style dive bar and specialises in good value cocktails as well as imported American beers.
A third bar, called The Record Café, is due to open later this year on the same street, subject to planing permission being granted. As well as serving real ale and craft beer, it will also be a delicatessen and an independent record store, which Bradford no longer has. I’m assuming it will follow a similar model to Friends of Ham and The Reliance which have done well over in Leeds, albeit with a record store as well.
And around the corner on Rawson Road, brewing of beer will return to Bradford city centre for the first time in many years, with the opening later this year of The Brewfactory. It’ll be a brewpub, operated by the Bradford Brewery.
So the independent bar sector in Bradford is actually pretty healthy, with four new pubs opening within four years, in places where there were none before. I’m not surprised, as pubs like The Queen offer very little – the same bog standard beer that you can buy more cheaply in supermarkets, for example. Whereas the likes of The Sparrow are run by people fanatical about beer, with regularly changing brews on tap from independent microbreweries and interesting food offerings. That, in my mind, is how it should be.