Manchester’s bravest pub bounced back from gunfire and arson – but could be killed by a perfect storm
Simon Delaney sits in his pub in Wythenshawe talking about soup. Specifically, he talks about the cost of making soup and how, like many other things, it skyrocketed during the cost of living crisis.
Before the lockdown, it was on the menu at Simon’s pub on Firbank for £4.45. But now, to make the same profit, the price would have to be £6.
“No one is going to pay £6 for a bowl of soup, especially not here, so we had to keep the prices the same,” says Simon. “As a general rule, you should make 60% gross profit on food, before bills and staff costs are taken out.
“At the minute, we’re running around 30% gross profit. That means there’s not enough money left to pay for anything else.”
The Firbank pub has been at the heart of Wythenshawe since the 1960s. A classic flat-roofed boozer, it has survived and thrived after shootings, arson, a blackmail plot and a smoking ban.
Simon, 56, who took over Firbank in 1995, prides himself on only employing premises with an M22 or M23 postcode. It has won awards for the pub’s efforts to bring the community together, including Britain’s Best Community Pub, Spirit of Manchester and Pride of Manchester.
But now he faces a battle like no other. Covid and the cost of living crisis have been a double whammy for the hospitality industry.
In October last year, a report found that more than 1,000 pubs, restaurants and nightclubs in Britain had closed within three months of the full lifting of restrictions. Since then, many others have followed suit.
Rising prices mean that profit margins are squeezed or wiped out altogether, while customers also have less money to spend on ‘luxuries’ like going out for a drink. Add to that the fact that many people have lost the habit of going to the pub during the pandemic, or are still nervous about socializing, and it means times are extremely difficult at the moment.
And like everyone else, pubs are also battling soaring energy costs and staff shortages, while trying to absorb a rise in the minimum wage. It’s a perfect storm.
But Simon, who also runs the Little Bee in Sale, says it’s a storm the business could face if the trade was good. Unfortunately, it is not the case. Some weeks Firbank’s turnover is 60% lower than it was before covid.
Only 16 people saw New Year’s Eve in the pub, when it would normally be packed to around 20 times that number. And some Saturday night staff closed early because it was empty.
“In our 27 years here, we’ve never closed early on a Saturday,” Simon said. “Wythenshawe has changed enormously over the last 20 years, but it’s still quite a poor area. Money is tight for a lot of people. Going to the pub is a luxury, and it’s luxury that suffers by the minute , especially in neighborhoods like Wythenshawe.
“And because of covid people have lost the habit of going to the pub. I’ve been a pub all my life – I’m a pub champion – and even I’m not in the pub as often as I l used to be.”
Simon, a former DJ, admits that the pressures of confinement, the financial worries he has brought with him and the pressure of coping with regularly changing rules and restrictions have taken a toll on his mental health. Normally a “happy and outgoing” person, he has had therapy and says these are days he cannot stay at home.
“At the moment we are not taking a salary,” he said. “We live day to day, week to week. Everything that comes in goes out to pay a bill.
“It was horrible. I’m 56, I had a plan, I knew where we were going. Then covid happened and it derailed me. Mentally it’s hell. Some days I can’t face the world and I’m staying home with the dog just to have some space.”
The government, Simon believes, does not appreciate the contribution of pubs to the economy. More could and should have been done to help the struggling industry, he says.
“They’ve been talking about reforming corporate rates for years, it’s never happened,” he said. “In France, they have reduced VAT for the hotel industry. They just need to help the industry and appreciate the important role it plays in the economy. But I don’t think the Prime Minister is coming. in pubs like the Firbank. Maybe he goes to pubs in crowded London and thinks everything is fine.”
But all is not gloomy. On Thursday afternoons, about 20 pensioners enjoy sandwiches and free tea and coffee.
They are there for the weekly Firbank lunch club. Run with the Wythenshawe Good Neighbors scheme, it allows elderly people in the South Manchester estate to dine for just £2 – every penny of which goes back into the charity’s coffers.
After 20 months of closure, it restarted just before Christmas, much to the relief of its regulars. Sue Baxter comes weekly with her friend and neighbor Elsie Purdy.
“It’s a gift from God,” Sue said. “Everyone was a little suspicious at first, but it’s great that it’s coming back.”
“I never used to go to the pub,” Elsie added. “But Sue asked me if I wanted to come with her. I thought I would go once and if I don’t like it I won’t go again. That was three years ago and I just from. “
Events like the lunch club are one of the reasons why, despite everything, Simon says he remains “cautiously optimistic” for the future of Firbank and the pub business as a whole. But the key will be to get people back into the habit of going for a pint.
“I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we need people to get back to pre-covid normalcy, supporting their local pub. Not just this pub, but all pubs. That’s my job to bring people back.
“It’s not the same to stay at home. You don’t have the company and the characters. I hope it’s like the smoking ban and eventually people come back. But what I know is that we will continue to work hard to make this a great place to come.”