An Olympic Pub Crawl (and Business Survey)

The London pub trade is up and down, but mostly down
Patrons watch the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony in a pub in central London. Photograph by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Our tour begins at All Bar One near the foot of the JPMorgan Chase tower in Canary Wharf on Thursday afternoon. My guide Jess, a London friend, tells me the place is normally “slammed” with bankers this time of the week. There are a couple of tables full of men in standard-issue finance wear inside, but mostly the very long bar is very empty. “We rely on the people from the offices,” says deputy manager Patricia Jones, “and they are not here.” Last year this same week, she says, the bar took in £94,600 ($147,600). This year, it’s on pace for about £65,000. Most of the regulars disappeared once the Olympics began last Friday. And while there has been an uptick in tourists, it’s not enough to make up for the missing finance crowds.

“Normally we do about £3,000 on a Sunday,” says Jones. “This Sunday we did £8,000.” Then, instead of business jumping to about £14,000 when the workweek began, as she expected, it stayed at the Sunday level. So she’s been cutting bartenders’ hours. Matters are even worse, she reports, at the chain’s branches in the financial district in the City of London, where business there has fallen to about £6,000 per night. “At least here we have the tourists,” she says, pointing to a table of customers with a baby stroller alongside.

From there we stroll east under a light rain to see the superyachts docked nearby—the Favorita, the Seanna, Sea Bluez, and Westfield Group Chairman Frank Lowy’s 200-foot Ilona. The lawn at West India Dock—set up with tables, umbrellas, and a big screen showing the day’s shooting event—is a ghost town except for a local day care taking toddlers out for a walk and a couple of security types wired with earpieces.

At the Henry Addington, another bankers’ pub in Canary Wharf, there are a dozen patrons standing about watching the games on a big screen. “Is this quiet?” I ask the bartender, a skinny young man with glasses and a scruff of beard. “Very, very quiet,” he says. The manager, a middle-aged blonde woman who doesn’t give her name and doesn’t want her pub mentioned, tells us that all of Canary Wharf is quiet, but that pubs near the Olympic Park in Stratford are jammed past the point of comfort.

So we take the 10-minute train ride to Stratford. Olympic spectators are funneled from the station to the new three-level Westfield mall, one of Lowy’s properties. It is packed with tourists, press, Olympic volunteers, and the occasional athlete. The pubs and restaurants are overflowing, except, inexplicably, for a Thai joint called Busaba Eathai.

We head over a bridge away from the Olympic Park into the borough of Newham. The crush of people dissipates almost entirely within a couple of blocks. Inside the Builders Arms pub—where the sign out front is missing the “u”—the tables and red, leather-backed chairs are empty. Two flat-screen TVs are showing cycling and men’s gymnastics. Four regulars sit at the bar, sipping pints, reading the paper, and teasing the bartender Simone Leach, whose brother Kevin has owned the pub for 15 years. A few tourists wander in and out to ask about Wi-Fi (which is available) or fish and chips (which aren’t). Another couple of locals come in from the tables outside now and again to do shots of Courvoisier or Jose Cuervo. “That’s your change,” Leach tells this Yank, who has left a pound coin on the bar as a tip after we order a lager and cider. (Tipping on a couple of pints is apparently not customary.)

Leach is a teacher, off for the summer, who came to help during the games. Kyla Ledgister, who has been working at the pub for a few months, is with her behind the bar. The opening night of the games was “manic,” she says. Since then, pockets of tourists have been dropping in now and again, but not as often as they had expected. “It’s not completely dead, but it’s not busy, to be honest,” says Ledgister. “They keep saying it’s going to pick up when the athletics [track and field] start,” Leach adds. We finish our pints and step outside, where the Olympic Stadium and ArcelorMittal Orbit dominate the sky to the west.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.