Pub and beer column

So that’s it then. The pumps have run dry, the doors have closed and we're left to wonder: What now for The Minster Inn?.

Last weekend, after 14 years at this wonderful little pub in Marygate, Dave Roberts closed it, unable to meet the financial requirements of the owners, Marston's.

Dave's wife Sally has been unwell of late, unable to work, so they were forced to take on more staff. That compounded difficulties in balancing the books. In discussions with Marston's, there was a gap of tens of thousands between what they thought was a fair deal.

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It will reopen in a few weeks. New tenants have been found, says Dave. But how it will look, feel and operate remains to be seen.

Marston’s have said they believe the pub should be capable of making them twice as much money as it has been of late.

In their advertisement for a new tenant, they said the pub was making £2,250 a week through drink but should be capable of £3,500. "After the planned investment by Marston's and a new food offering, this site could achieve sales of £4,500 per week," they added, noting also that it should attract tourists.

They own the pub; they’re entitled to seek a larger return, many will say. That’s business, the argument will go.

But actually, no. Dave and Sally Roberts’ story is another sad indictment on the way the pub industry operates in this country, and it is hugely regrettable that Marston’s have not taken the chance to champion and nurture The Minster Inn for what it is: a beautiful, charming, drinkers’ pub.

York Press:

Dave Roberts behind the bar in 2010

Dave and Sally took over at The Minster Inn in 2001 and they made it their own. Dave’s endless supply of Hawaiian shirts became a running joke for regulars and a talking point for visitors. They made friends and gained regulars, as all licensees do. They covered one entire wall with old wine corks, around 2,000 Dave estimates, and many have been signed by customers over the years.

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But Dave longed for more freedom on the bar. Sunbeam, his mainstay, is a beautiful pale ale and Dave kept it very well. Most other beers from the Marston’s-owned brands are also enjoyable. But familiarity breeds boredom. There was rarely a surprise on the bar here in recent years, and Dave knew that was costing him trade. He desperately wanted a free-of-tie hand-pump, so he could sell a rotating range of locally-brewed beers that locals want. But no.

Dave grew frustrated by the constraints placed upon him and Camra, hoisted by their own rules, were left unable to promote The Minster Inn as a LocAle venue because it sold no locally-brewed beers.

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Now, Marston’s plan to refurbish the pub. Modern fire doors have already been installed on all the rooms (visible above). The large hatch beside the bar, the window into the soul of the pub, is soon to be removed. If what Dave has been told is true, half of it will become a solid door between the bar and the hall, and the other half will be blocked up or replaced with a shutter.

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Through the hatch in 1994

Marston’s will no doubt spend money creating a venue that is attractive and appealing in its own right. And Dave believes the new tenants have the pub's interests at heart. Much of its charm will remain; it will be a pleasant place.

But whose place will it really be?

Is there anyone in York who believes the city is short of food pubs? Anyone who thinks The Minster Inn needs a restructure? Or, perhaps most tellingly, anyone who had any say in this whatsoever?

The Minster Inn is a traditional drinkers’ pub. So much of its charm lies in that fact. It is beloved in York because, alongside only a handful of others, it feels truly unchanged.

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It retained its multi-room lay-out throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, when so many pubs' internal walls were torn down. It retained its focus on simplicity, with a few table-top games but no juke box, fruit machines or big screen. It continued catering to local niche groups - chess clubs, allotmenteers, trade union branches, sports clubs and the like, safe in the knowledge it was not on any marauding pub crawl or stag-do circuit.

And it retained its focus on beer because that's what its regulars wanted.

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Pam and Ron Hudson behind the bar in 1991

Business is business, I hear some saying again. Yes. But community is community, and some businesses belong, in the truest sense, to the masses not the bosses.

That sentiment is heard most loudly in sport, when proud locally-rooted football clubs are imperilled or embarrassed by maverick owners who go too far down the business-is-business route.

Supporters of countless clubs around the country have rallied when needed, fighting for their clubs' colours, their grounds, their names, their very existence. York City fans need no reminders of such battles.

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1984, when a sign-writers' error briefly renamed the pub

Such unity and indignation are needed today among pub-goers as well, before every pub in the big companies’ hands has its idiosyncrasies airbrushed away, its charms drowned in a bucket of Big Business Bitter.

Dave says he and Sally worked under five different owners in their 14 years.

“I lost count of the number of business development managers I have had in here from all the companies,” says Dave. “Yet none of them had ideas for developing the business.”

One has to ask, whether it would have needed 'developed' at all were it not on an accountants' list somewhere. And if it has failed to become as profitable as Marston's liked, is that because the business model was wrong, or because they did not give it the freedom to excel?

York Press:

Inside The Minster Inn... but outside for the toilets

Marston's has missed the mark and missed opportunity before in York. It was they, you may recall, who gave up on The Phoenix in 2008, claiming it had received "absolutely no support" from the community. Look at that place now: free, popular and thriving.

Imagine The Minster Inn, freed to serve the wide-ranging beer that The Blue Bell or The Swan does. It would be packed night after night.

It is worth nothing that, had the Government's promised pubs code been brought into force by now (as was intended), Dave and Sally would have had more power, able to push for the market rent only option that would have given them freedom on the bar. But as has long been the case with pub reform legislation, it has been delayed.

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An undated archive picture of Marygate and the Minster Inn

Last Monday morning, after The Press had broken the news of The Minster Inn’s closure, a gentleman called Alan Keech rang our office. He just thought we'd be interested to know that his family had run the pub for around 100 years, from its former premises on the other side of Marygate (when it was known as The Gardeners Arms), through to its present location.

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The original Minster Inn, on the other side of the road

His father Albert Keech, a well-known York figure, had run the pub for a while. So had his Aunt Harriet. They no-doubt made the pub their own, as did many others over time - as custodians not commanders. 

But now? Now it seems Marston's are making it their own. And one suspects that means something entirely different.