Why did a struggling Sheffield pub chain buy itself?
Plus, our house of the YEAR
Dear readers — welcome to this week’s Tribune briefing. We have a big announcement about next week, which is that we’ll be going on holiday!
While Dan and I will still very much be working from 14th to 21st August, we’re collaborating on what we hope will be a very significant story and need as much time as possible to do it right. That means there will be no newsletters from The Tribune next week, although we’ll be back the following Monday. We hope you don’t miss us too much but it’s definitely for a good cause.
Last week, a Sheffield brewery and pub chain celebrated being bought out of administration, saving the jobs of more than 300 staff. However, on closer inspection, the “white knight” that purchased True North Brew Co was only worth £2 last year and has the same three directors. Why would a struggling company buy itself?
Read on for a truly bonkers (Grade II-listed!) home of the week and an old friend returning to The Leadmill tonight.
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Catch up and coming up
If years of local journalism have taught me anything, it’s that it’s often the most wholesome community organisations that suffer the most ferocious internal schisms. Case in point, for our weekend read, Dan looked into a year of heartbreak and fury at Heeley City Farm. Was its short-lived chief executive really “the epitome of a SNAKE OIL SALESMAN,” as one Facebook comment claimed? Read that here.
Last week we also sent out two great newsletters to our paying members. The first, also by Dan, asked whether Sheffield, once “a bit demolition-happy,” is now learning to love its modernist buildings. For the second, I got yelled at by a lot of restaurant-owners while trying to ask about their food hygiene scores, even though the story was actually about a massive backlog at Sheffield City Council.
An extract from Dan’s Tuesday piece is below.
In the long run up to its demolition, there was a late campaign for the building to be saved through an “emergency listing” by English Heritage (now Historic England), but as we all know this failed. Castle Market finally met the wrecking ball in late 2014, a few months after I arrived in the city. Later this year, many years after it was meant to start, new development to unearth the castle remains will finally take place in the vast, gaping hole the market left in Castlegate when it was flattened. Whether a chance to reveal the castle site while retaining some or all of the market was lost in the rush to demolish it we’ll never know.
This week we’ll send out two more, including one by Dan about the last miners of South Yorkshire. To help fund a new way of doing journalism in Sheffield based on subscriptions rather than clickbait and celebrities, please subscribe using the button below. It costs £1.34 a week if you pay for 12 months up front (23p a day).
The Big Picture: True devotion 🦉
The 2023/24 Championship season kicked off at Hillsborough last week, with Sheffield Wednesday playing Southampton. Unfortunately for Owls fans — especially this devoted man, snapped for Getty Images by George Wood — the team lost 2-1. So we don’t get accused of favouritism, we are of course equally excited for the Blades to start in the Premier League this Saturday.
This week’s weather 🌦
Our forecast comes from dedicated Sheffield weather service Steel City Skies, who say this week will feel a lot more like summer, as high pressure briefly teases very warm air from midweek, though the risk of showers returns by the weekend.
Monday ⛅️ A risk of showers, but they will generally be isolated, with much of the city enjoying a fine and bright day. Breezy from the west with highs of 19°C.
Tuesday 🌦 More cloud likely with the risk of some patchy light rain, clearing to brighter skies later on with mainly light westerly breezes. Highs of 19°C.
Wednesday ⛅️ A very good chance of a dry day as high pressure builds in. Winds light from the west and the day is likely to feel a lot warmer, with a high of 23°C.
Thursday ⛅️ The peak of the warm-up, with another dry and fine day expected under fair-weather skies. Winds light from the southeast with highs a balmy 26-27°C.
Friday 🌦 Risk of a shower as a low to the NW attempts to destabilise the atmosphere. Windier from the southwest too, as our heat ebbs away. Highs of 22°C.
Outlook: A cooler and fresher weekend is expected with a familiar westerly regime re-establishing. Sunshine and showers with temperatures back to average.
The big story: Why did a struggling Sheffield pub chain buy itself?
Top line: Last week, a Sheffield brewery that owns 12 pubs and bars across South Yorkshire went into administration, threatening the jobs of more than 300 people. Thankfully, their livelihoods were saved the very same day, when the brand and all associated assets were snapped up by another Sheffield company. What makes this nice story more interesting, however, is that True North Brew Co essentially bought itself.
What is True North? The company that was until very recently known as True North Brew Co Ltd was created in 2002, although the real story begins 10 years earlier. As stated on the brand’s website, in 1992 Kane Yeardley “bought an old, disused warehouse and turned it into one of Sheffield's most loved venues,” The Forum near Devonshire Green. Two years later, his company bought The Halcyon, which later became The Old House, and the brand has continued to grow ever since.
Things go south: A statement from True North, given to The Tribune, says the brand “grew successfully for over 30 years” but, like the rest of the hospitality industry, was “struck hard by the Covid-19 pandemic”.
In the 20/21 financial year, turnover dropped 70% to just £3.7m, compared to more than £12.5m the previous year. By April 2021, True North owed almost £369,000 but was optimistic about the future once lockdown eased.
They may have been too optimistic. In the 21/22 financial year, the company made more than £13m but still ended up with debts of more than £46,000, which independent auditors warned could “cast significant doubt” on its future. True North had made the bold decision to open two new sites in 2021 — the Old Grindstone and the Horse & Jockey — but then the country went back into lockdown that December, wiping out its “most profitable trading period of the year”.
The company began selling its less profitable sites — shedding The Blue Stoops last October and its second ever venue, The Old House (now Vocation & Co. Sheffield), earlier this year — but “pressure on cash flow was still significant”.
A not-so-surprising rescue: Since 2007, the company formerly known as True North has had three directors: its founder Kane Yeardley, Sean Kelly and Alexander Liddle. The company that bought True North out of administration has also had three directors, as of July this year: its founder Kane Yeardley, Sean Kelly and Alexander Liddle.
This company was created in 2015, when it was called Cocktails and Craft Beers Ltd, although it very recently renamed itself True North Brew Co Ltd. For many years, it was a dormant company with assets of just £2, registered at an address that appears to be a private — and very expensive — home in Dore.
The statement given to The Tribune says the new True North Brew Co “plans to retain all of its [predecessor’s] staff and valued customer base, both of whom they wish to thank for their loyalty and patience as they work for a seamless transition of the business”.
What’s going on? When The Tribune asked how this sale could possibly benefit True North, given it wasn’t actually changing hands, a spokesperson for the brand made it clear they’ll “be making no further comment”. However, companies in administration can’t be subject to legal action over their debts, something the government website describes as a “breathing space”. If sold, proceeds from the sale are “distributed to creditors in a statutory order of priority”.
A small business owner in Sheffield, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Tribune that, in practice, this means creditors owed smaller amounts are unlikely to ever see it. “One of our clients went bust — we were one of the smallest creditors, they owed us a couple of thousands of pounds — but we never received a single penny.” For smaller companies, who “don’t operate with much cash in the bank,” the consequences can be severe.
While acknowledging that tactics like this are “legal and above board,” he said it frustrated him that True North can “sound like heroes for saving jobs,” when the sale might have serious consequences for other businesses in Sheffield and beyond. “I don’t know how much they sold it for, they could turn around and say they paid off all their small debtors, but I’d be very surprised.”
The future of True North: When I pop into one of the busier pubs owned by True North, the bartender I speak to is just relieved he’s keeping his job. In his opinion, the company simply “expanded too fast” and likely would have folded if its founder wasn’t a very rich man. He’s grateful Kane didn’t just cut his losses and walk away, although he says he “wouldn’t be thinking about long term” if he worked at one of the company’s quieter venues.
In their statement to The Tribune, True North said the management team are “confident in short-term viability and profitability, as well as the long-term viability of the business to grow”. The spokesperson added that “there will be no change to any business operations”.
Our take: While we’re pleased hundreds of people kept their jobs — and the city gets to keep some very nice pubs and bars — the possible effect on True North’s creditors could still mean people end up being made redundant over this. Plus, as the small business owner pointed out, “people aren’t stupid”. If they aren’t paying off all their debts, True North may find other companies are less than happy to do business with them in future.
Our media picks 🎧
Chef's Counter brings great food to underused community spaces 👨🍳 Chef Chris Hanson wants to breathe new life into Sheffield’s underused spaces by hosting community meals. Chef’s Counter held its first event — a “Persian-inspired feast” — at Sheffield General Cemetery's Samuel Worth Chapel on 20 July, donating all proceeds to the cemetery to help maintain their grounds and buildings. The next event, in September, is already sold out, but luckily there’s more to come.
£10,000 of bespoke coffee stolen in raid targeting popular business ☕ The warehouse of Sheffield coffee company Cafeology has been burgled in what co-founder Bryan Unkles claims was an “obviously targetted” heist. Reportedly, CCTV shows masked thieves drilling through the wall and making off with £10,000 worth of bespoke coffee. Unkles added: “It’s really strange as it is roasted coffee... It's really difficult to understand it.”
South Yorkshire Police constable sacked over racial slur in Snapchat video 🚨 A South Yorkshire Police officer was sacked without notice on Friday after he was filmed using a racial slur. Austin Ainsworth was on a night out in London when, in his words, he “appropriated” the word as a “term of endearment” after hearing it used by a black man.
Home of the YEAR 🏡
Not all of us are on property websites actually looking to buy — I work in local news, the odds are not in my favour — so, for some of us, it’s just about the joy of looking inside unusual homes. Case in point: this Grade II-listed “Gatehouse” in Nether Edge, a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house most of us would usually have no chance of even glimpsing, as it’s set in private grounds. Even the estate agent that wrote the listing is practically salivating: “The Gatehouse has to be one of the finest homes to reach the market for some time.” The guide price is £925,000 but you can ogle for free.
Things to do 📆
Gig 🎶 Tonight, Miles Kane will bring an “unforgettable night of genre-fusing indie magic” to Sheffield, with doors opening at 7.30pm. The gig is taking place at The Leadmill, of which he has been a long-standing supporter. Tickets are £15 and available here.
Kids 🐄 On Thursday morning, children are invited to a “jam-packed” open day at a working dairy farm in Sheffield, Our Cow Molly. Kids aged 4-11 will get to milk a cow, try their hand at making butter and meet one of the farmers in residence. Tickets are £3 and available here.
Art 🖼️ On now at the Dorothy Pax bar at Victoria Quays is an art exhibition showcasing the work of Sheffield pop artist Daniel Halksworth. Halksworth has made a name for himself doing incredibly lifelike paintings of food, from fried eggs to Greggs sausage rolls and plates of beans on toast. The free exhibition, which is the artist’s first solo show, runs throughout August.