Fruit machines, darts, pool and other bar games established themselves long ago as part of UK pub culture. Has their heyday gone forever or is it time for a revival, wonders James Pringle
Pubs and bars have looked to food to boost turnover since the smoking ban reduced customer volumes, but what else can be done? This might just be the time for a renaissance of bar games.
“Indoor games such as table skittles, shove ha’penny and cribbage used to be very popular with pubs and clubs,” says Alan Mitchell, Stable Mates Toys. “As a comparative rarity now, we recommend re-introducing these traditional games, which can then be promoted as an unusual gimmick for a business.”
A leading player in the pub and bar games arena is the fruit machine, which comes in two basic categories: amusement with prizes (AWP) machines found in pubs; and club machines, which can be used only on licensed club premises and which have bigger jackpots – up to £250. A law change on 10 June this year doubled AWPs’ maximum stake from 50p to £1 and top jackpot from £35 to £70. Pubs mostly rent these machines or have a supplier install them on a profit-sharing basis.
Scottish & Newcastle Pub Enterprises has experts to advise lessees on maximising profits from machines and games. Machines manager Mark Papworth says: “You will get as much out of machines and games as you are willing to put in to promoting them. The old analogy is that you have to take £1000 over the bar to generate the equivalent of £100 from a fruit machine, so it’s worth looking at your machines and games as a serious revenue stream, which can also boost your wet and dry sales.
“Few people have space for a pool table at home, which is why pool is one of the most effective ways to attract customers. An annual knockout tournament or biannual league will ensure your table gets maximum use and generates maximum income.”
Elton Mouna, retail marketing manager at Fuller’s, the Chiswick-based brewery, says: “There’s money to be made on slot machines if you have the right supplier. Few businesses don’t recover their outlay quickly. Online gambling is making it easier to bet at home, though, and bookmakers’ shops have fixed-odds betting terminals with prizes much higher than pubs can offer.
“Darts bring in business if you associate with a team or local leagues, and pool tables can earn good money if you position them correctly”
Pool your resources
To maximise income through pool tournaments, Scottish & Newcastle’s Mark Papworth recommends:
- Keep entry fees as low as possible to attract as many players as possible
- Offer discounted meals to competitors
- Introduce back bar snack items that can be eaten between frames
- Site your pool table so there is easy access to the bar
- If bar sightlines to the pool table area are restricted put a bell by the hatch or take drinks orders for table service between frames
- Arrange pre-ordering of half-time meals, snacks and drinks
- Hold a start/end of season party, perhaps with an exhibition match between a professional player and last year’s champion, trick shot demonstrations and so on
- If you have satellite TV promote your league with regular screenings of televised pool matches
- Broaden the range of your competitions with tournaments for Dads and Lads, Seniors/Juniors leagues, and challenge matches with other pubs.
Adapt the above to make other speciality nights such as darts, quiz and poker go with a profitable swing.
When the fruit machine jackpot limit went up, Barcrest Group enabled Mecca Bingo clubs to offer £70 games on the first day. Barcrest remotely delivered new games electronically, while a taskforce visited clubs to install attention-grabbing £70 top boxes. Among Barcrest’s self-contained Category C multi-stake £70 machines are Alien, a spinning reel-based game based on the cult movie, and Ca$ino Deluxe, a video-based attraction available in standalone form or downloadable via the server system.
Amusement Caterers supplies South Yorkshire’s licensed trade with fruit machines and skill-with-prizes machines such as Crystal Maze and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, along with bingo machines, video games, table football and pool tables. “Our games have formats and cabinets to suit all locations and bartop machines for sites with restricted space,” says Andy Cater, partner in this family-run business. “Quiz machines and modern touchscreen games are performing well, particularly when equipped with the tournament facility.”
Darts is played regularly by six million people in the UK, including the ladies’ and men’s teams at The New Inn at Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, and manager Gary Woodley confirms that their events boost bar sales.
Beaumont sells dartboards, dart sets, flights and stems through all Bestway and Batleys stores. Products include heavy-duty competition-quality Winmau boards at just £16.89 from Bestway and Batleys compared with £18.12 from other cash & carrys.
To Wii or not to Wii
It would seem that the jury is out when it comes to offering Nintendo Wii not only as a chance for regulars to enjoy a spot of exercise with their pint but an electronic babysitter for accompanying children. At Manchester’s Binary Bar, for example, the Wii has gone down a storm. “We’ve had people coming in specially,” says manager Adrian Grist. Conversely, Les Clarke, manager at the Robin Hood Inn in Lambley, Nottinghamshire says: “The previous manager started Wii evenings, but they were a flop.” Brixton Bar & Grill in south London has also given up on the idea. “Round here, if something’s not nailed down, it’ll get nicked,” says manager Anthony Zee. “Anyway, people can play Wii at home – it’s so cheap. On the other hand, the pool table does quite well – it takes £400 in two weeks.”
Skittle alleys in rural pubs are disappearing to make way for new eateries. The game is most popular in the West Country. Gloucestershire has more than 12,000 players and a growing number of leagues and teams – but a shortage of venues.
The Barley Mow in Epsom keeps skittles alive in Surrey. Licensee Phil Innes says: “We use an outdoor skittle alley and have a pool table, shove ha’penny and an Indian game called Carrom. Games nights always attract extra people. We also find that you can depend on fruit machines to pay their way. When people get fed up with a certain machine, we change it.”
You can find a little piece of France in South Yorkshire if you go to The Saddle Inn in Fulford. “Our games of pétanque [also called boules] are popular and our team plays teams from other pubs,” says barman Alistair Horne.
Pétanque is one of the games handmade by Masters Traditional Games, which also produces skittles in regional varieties as well as portable skittle alleys, scoreboards, balls, dominoes and outdoor table football and pool tables.
Gaming and the law
Gaming is permitted on any premises with an alcohol licence and a bar serving alcohol for consumption on the premises without a requirement that it is served only with food. There are separate provisions for gaming in clubs and miners’ welfare institutes.
Dominoes and cribbage have no limits on stakes or prizes. For all other types of equal chance gaming there is a stake limit of £5 per person, per game.
Under section 282 of the Gambling Act 2005, alcohol-licensed premises can have a maximum of two gaming machines without a permit or licence. The machines may be category C (jackpot for which is now a maximum of £70) or D (non-money prize other than crane-grab machines). Licensees should notify their local licensing authorities of their intention to make gaming machines available, and pay the required notification fee.
If a licensee wants more than two gaming machines he will need to obtain a licensed premises gaming machine permit from the local licensing authority. A number of statutory conditions relate to the way gaming machines are used, and licensees also need to ensure compliance with the Gambling Commission’s code of practice on the location and operation of gaming machines. See gamblingcommission.gov.uk or call 0121 230 6666 for further information. For VAT requirements visit customs.hmrc.gov.uk.
There is no statutory limit on the number of gaming machines that individual premises may apply for, but the licensing authority has the discretion to restrict the number of machines on individual premises (or change the category of the machines) to meet the objectives of the Gambling Act.