Manchester’s bravest pub bounced back from shooting and arson attacks – but could be killed by perfect storm

Simon Delaney is sat in his pub in Wythenshawe talking about soup. Specifically he’s talking about the cost of making soup, and how, like many other things, it’s rocketed during the cost-of-living crisis.

Before lockdown it was on the menu at Simon’s pub the Firbank for £4.45. But now, in order to make the same amount of profit, the price would need to be £6.

“No-one’s going to pay £6 for a bowl of soup, especially not round here, so we’ve had to keep the prices the same,” says Simon. “As rule of thumb you need to make 60 per cent gross profit on food, before bills and staffing costs are taken out.

“At minute we’re running at about 30% gross profit. It means there’s not enough money left to pay anything else.”

The Firbank pub has been at the heart of Wythenshawe since the 1960s. A classic flat-roofed estate boozer it’s survived and thrived following shootings, arson attacks, a blackmail plot and the smoking ban.

Simon, 56, who took over the Firbank in 1995, prides himself on only employing local people with an M22 or M23 postcode. He’s won awards for the pub’s efforts to bring the community together, including best community pub in Great Britain, the Spirit of Manchester and the Pride of Manchester.

The Firbank

But now he’s facing a battle unlike any other. Covid and the cost-of-living crisis has been a double whammy for the hospitality industry.

In October last year a report found more than 1,000 pubs, restaurants and nightclubs in Britain had shut down in the three months after restrictions were fully lifted. Since then many more will have followed suit.

Increased prices means profit margins are being squeezed or wiped out altogether, while customers also have less money to spend on ‘luxuries’ like going out for drink. Add that to the fact many people have gotten out of the habit of going to the pub during the pandemic, or are still nervous about socializing, and it means times are extremely tough right now.

And like everyone else pubs are also battling soaring energy costs and staff shortages, while also 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 weather if trade was good. Sadly that’s not the case. Some weeks the Firbank’s turnover is 60 per cent down on what it was pre-covid.

Just 16 people saw in the New Year in the pub, when normally it would be packed with around 20 times that number. And some Saturday nights staff have closed up early because it’s been empty.

“In 27 years of us being here we’ve never closed early on a Saturday,” said Simon. “Wythenshawe has changed massively over the last 20 years, but this is still a fairly poor area. Money is tight for a lot people. Going to the pub is a luxury, and it’s the luxuries that are suffering at the minute, especially in areas like Wythenshawe.

“And because of covid people have got out of the habit of going to the pub. I’ve been a pub person all my life – I’m a champion of pubs – and even I’m not in the pub as often as I used to be.”

Football fans watching England vs Tunisia at the Firbank during the 2018 World Cup

Simon, a former DJ, admits the pressures of lockdown, the financial worries it brought and the strain of coping with rules and restrictions that changed regularly have taken a toll on his mental health. Normally a ‘happy, outgoing’ person, he’s undergone therapy and says they are days when he’s unable to house.

“At the minute we’re not taking a wage,” he said. “We’re living hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, week-to-week. Everything that comes in goes out to pay a bill.

“It’s been horrible. I’m 56, I had a plan, I knew where we were going. Then along came covid and it just derailed me. Mentally it’s hell. Some days I can’t face the world and I stay home with the dog just to get some headspace.”

The Government, Simon believes, doesn’t appreciate the contribution pubs make to the economy. More could and should have been done to help the struggling industry, he says.

“They’ve been talking about reforming business rates for years, that’s never happened,” he said. “In France they cut VAT for hospitality. They just need to help the industry and appreciate the big part it plays in the economy. But I don’t think the Prime Minister is coming to pubs like the Firbank. Maybe he goes in pubs in London which are packed and thinks everything’s fine.”

Simon pictured collecting the Firbank’s Manchester Be Proud award at Manchester town hall

But it’s not all doom and gloom. On Thursday afternoon about 20 pensioners are tucking into sandwiches and free tea and coffee.

They’re here for the Firbank’s weekly lunch club. Run with the Wythenshawe Good Neighbors scheme, it sees the south Manchester estate’s elderly dine out for just £2 – every penny of which goes back into the charity’s coffers.

After being closed for 20 months it started back up again just before Christmas, to the relief of its regulars. Sue Baxter comes every week with her friend and neighbor Elsie Purdy.

“It’s a God-send,” said Sue. “Everybody was a little bit wary at first, but it’s great that’s it’s back.”

“I never used to go to the pub,” Elsie added. “But then Sue asked me if I wanted to come with her. I thought I’ll go once and if I don’t like it I won’t go again. That was three years ago and I’ve been coming ever since. “

Simon, pictured in 2015, celebrating 20 years at the Firbank

Events like the lunch club are one of the reasons why, despite everything, Simon says he remains ‘cautiously optimistic’ for the future of the Firbank and the pub trade as a whole. But the key will be getting 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 normality, supporting their local pub. Not just this pub, but every pub. It’s my job to tempt people back.

“It’s not the same staying at home. You don’t have the company and the characters. I’m coming hoping it’s like the smoking ban and people will start back eventually. But what I do know is that we’ll keep working hard to make this a great place to eat.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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