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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What Makes a Successful Pub?

It's not exactly clear what doomed the Green Dragon. Perhaps the complex truth will only be told on barstools, between friends. But it has been open for over a year--enough time for something of an experiment--and I know a great deal of thought and planning went into it before that. Among its several virtues are ambiance (the space is perfect), a fantastic beer list, good food, and a central location. Depending on where you're sitting in the place, it can feel like a speakeasy, a European-style cafe, an English pub, or a music venue about a half-hour before a show. When I first started hearing about the troubles it was facing, I wasn't sure how to process it. I mean, it's pretty close to the exact kind of place I would have designed.

Constrast that with the Double Mountain, which I visited on Friday on my way down the Gorge. We arrived at 4:37, and there was one table available. By the time we left at six, tables were a distant memory and bodies were three deep to get to the bar. I understand why people clamor for Double Mountain's beer--I'm a fellow-clamorer. I even get why locals might clamor for the pizza there; it is a near-perfect facsimile of the amazingly popular pizza at Ken's Artisan just around the corner from my house. But the little cafe the brewery runs is a nondescript, bare-bones affair. It looks a lot more like an espresso shop than a pub.

Is it just the food and beer that draws people?

These two examples by no means offer any kind of counterpoint. One's in a densely-pubbed region of an urban area, the other in a small town with few beer choices. As we sat and ate our fine pizza and drank our fine beer, I watched as the people poured in. They seemed almost exclusively to be locals--guys coming in after work, young families with babies, retirees. It had that lovely feel of a neighborhood pub where people know each other and call them by name. When Sally was ordering, a small child let out a wail from across the room and she commented, "he's not a happy boy!" The bartender said, "he's my nephew." Since the Dragon is bounded by an industrial zone on two sides, it's not in walking distance from too many people's homes. So there are definitely differences.

Still, it's an odd thing. Pubs are by design unique; sometimes the vibe works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm not really going anywhere here, just noting that it's not always so obvious which pubs are going to succeed or not when they open. Maybe some of you have seen a pattern?


  1. I think it is interesting to look at the difference between Bailey's and the Green Dragon.

    Bailey's seems to have a clear vision of what they want to be: a beer bar. The Green Dragon never gave me that impression. Was it a Belgian inspired bistro? Was it a pub? Was it a brewery? Was it a distillery? I had hopes that they could pull it all off, making it the greatest establishment on earth.

    Perhaps it all comes back to the old home brewing rule, KISS. Keep it simple stupid. (I in no way think anyone at the green dragon is stupid.)

  2. I'd have to agree with "Joe."

    But, other than a proper focus and identity, I would say a proper financial base and a solid financial business plan and research. This isn't a market where you can just willy nilly open a pub with some buddies and call it good. Not saying that was the intention of GD, but considering the financial Founders club and the like, it looked pretty close.

    Bailey's is a perfect example of a fairly well thought out business opening. (As far as I can tell!) The location is very good; Great foot traffic; The space looks big, but really isn't which probably cuts down cost per square foot and remodeling. It's focused on being just a beer bar. The fat is cut and what you see is what you get.

  3. Thanks "dr wort." All good points, that I think go hand in hand with having a clear identity.

  4. It's funny, because Bailey's was launched with far less fanfare, and I thought at the time that while I loved it, it seemed like kind of a longshot. But obviously, it's whirring along on all cylinders.

    I think the business plan is a big issue here, and not one available to the casual pub-goer.

  5. you might be right "jeff".

  6. no offense, but "the space was perfect" made me cringe. It's like drinking in an airplane hangar, unless you're in the "bistro" which is like drinking in a commercial kitchen... sorry, just don't share your view on that one.

  7. I loved the idea of the place, but something about it--I can't really put my finger on what exactly--just felt very unwelcoming to me. The vibe of the GD was just off, IMO. I'm sure there are loads of people in the beer community who'd disagree with that, but I'd guess that for a place that size, they'd have to draw more than an insular beer community crowd, and I'm not sure they did.

  8. Perhaps a common theme is lead with the beer. Starting with the beer as the point and focus and then building off of that (with good financials, business plan, etc.) seems to lead to a higher probability of success.

    GD is great but is trying at once to be many things - upscale, fancy eats, trendy - and hasn't even gotten its own beer off the ground. Compare that with nearby Roots which has been beer first, all the frills later.

    Dunno, just musing...