Plenty of challenges remain for Bendigo's watering holes: publican

Three pubs closed in 10 months. 

Roughly one pub per 2000 people within Greater Bendigo. 

Anecdotal evidence suggesting half as many people frequent the central business district on the weekend than they did a decade ago. 

With the maths not looking particularly promising for Bendigo’s remaining watering holes, the question remains: Why are some local pubs struggling?

The price of alcohol, spiraling rental charges, and changing consumer preferences have all be cited as reasons for the decline by a prominent local publican. 

Andrew Lethlean, who owns a number of licensed venues, said punters have less disposable income than they did 10-15 years ago.

“People have got greater (financial) commitments than what they used to have – they have more expensive houses, televisions, cars,” he said.

A publican with 15 years’ local experience, Mr Lethlean said two of the CBD venues to close this year – the Black Swan Hotel and the City Family Hotel – may have suffered from the reduced foot traffic in central Bendigo over the years.

The recent closure of the Huntly Pub – situated in a growth area of the municipality – was less clear, he said.

The price of alcohol and the apparent reduction in consumption amounts all contribute to the complex issue.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 10-year survey of the nation's drinking habits – released late last year – showed that overall, Australians were consuming less alcohol, from an average 10.8 litres of pure alcohol per person in 2008–09, to 9.7 litres per person in 2013–14.

JAM PACKED: Punters enjoy the last night at the Huntly Pub last week.

JAM PACKED: Punters enjoy the last night at the Huntly Pub last week.

Mr Lethlean said, broadly speaking, landlords were not understanding of the drop in trade, with some publicans paying more rent that they did five years ago with considerably less income. 

“There’s quite a few mum and dad operators doing 70-80 hours a week to keep things afloat – and that’s not much fun,” he said.

The number of licensed venues considered as pubs within the municipality has not altered dramatically –according to figures from the state’s liquor regulator – since early 2015, but statistics don’t often tell the complete story.

Bendigo, like other gold rush towns, was historically littered with hotels, but the contemporary situation was “unique”, according to Mr Lethlean, given the onset of a number of smaller boutique bars which also vied for trade.

“We just don't have the foot traffic and numbers to sustain the hotels and smaller bars,” he said.

Despite this, owners, and indeed landlords, had to put their hands in their pockets at some stage. 

“People have got to reinvest in the business and a lot of people don't do it as much as they should,” said Mr Lethlean, who envisaged more pub closures over the next few years.

Good food is the key

Smaller pubs relied on their food, according to part-owner of Braidies Tavern in Strathfieldsaye, Trev Taylor.

“If you’re not doing a good food trade you won’t stay open,” he said.

Located in a hi-growth area of the municipality, the pub was “on the right track”, according to Mr Taylor.

“(If another pub opened in the area) it would probably be a concern for us but not enough of a concern that would put us in a position where we would look at closing,” he said.

“For us we've been smart with our contracts and lease. We're on the right track - providing we play our cards right.”