Published: 10:00, 08 June 2021
| Updated: 10:54, 08 June 2021
One week after Max Bell turned 18, he went to his local for the first time. And it was one he owned.
"I actually hadn't been into a pub at that point," he admits, "I was not much of a drinker. So the first pub I really set foot in was ours."
It was one of the new breed of micropubs – small, independent drinking spots where the focus is on good chat over a decent brew.
No sooner had he lost his pub virginity, he’d quit his A-levels halfway through the sixth form and threw himself "feet-first" into making the micropub a success.
It’s a gamble which could be set to pay off.
He’s quite a remarkable young chap. At the tender age of 20 he has been in the pub business now for almost three years; he freely admits he is "breathlessly ambitious"; and he’s come up with an idea which may make him tomorrow’s equivalent of Tim Martin at Wetherspoon.
Yet his age disguises a maturity of outlook and interests. He loves jazz, Frank Sinatra and, as he puts it "the old crooners". He admits he has more in common with the pub's older clientele, with whom he chews over many a topic of the day. He has even developed a skill when it comes to filing the paperwork required to get his growing number of micropubs off the ground.
So it is probably fortunate he operates his business alongside his brother, John Beerling - 10 years his senior and, as Max admits, more "sensibly reserved".
Both hope it will prove the recipe for success for Bell & Beerling Pubs. Established in November 2018, it announced its arrival to the world with The Pub, in Broadstairs.
Since then it's added, you guessed it, The Pub in Ramsgate - which opened in May and prompted plenty of discussion after its female landlord claimed she would only employ female members of staff - and is currently putting the finishing touches to another micropub in Herne Bay, along with a separate live music venue in the same seaside town.
And the brothers are not content with that – inspired by a film about the man behind the global domination of fast-food purveyors McDonald's.
Explains Max - and yes, it's short for Maximilian: "In February 2019 I watched a film called The Founder, starring Michael Keaton. It was about Ray Kroc the gentleman who franchised McDonald's and I thought 'wow, we could do this'. I had no idea if we could, but when you're young and idealistic it seems worth pursuing."
Ray Kroc was a milkshake mixer salesman in post-war America. In 1954 he visited a fast-food outlet in California which had bought a number of his machines. There he met Richard and Maurice McDonald who had started a popular restaurant offering a limited menu but quality food and a fast service.
He became not only the first franchisee of what would become the world's most successful fast-food operation, but eventually its owner, using a franchise agreement to allow it to spread around the world, gathering enormous riches in the process.
Max Bell hopes some of the Big Mac business model will prove a hit in the micropub sphere.
"First, we find franchisees who want to open a pub,” he explains of the process. “We'll help them find a site, help negotiate the lease and do the boring paperwork. And also we'll pay for them to get their personal licence.
"Then, when they open, we take a small percentage on the stock we sell them - they buy all their stock through us - and the commitment I've made is that, particularly for ale, they'll never pay more than market rates. So the whole idea is everyone wins.
"Then we pick up 5% of the turnover which is about standard for a franchise agreement."
Although it hasn't all been plain sailing. Earlier this year the landlord of their Broadstairs pub - as in the person who owned the building, not the one pulling pints - booted them out. Which, for a brief period, meant they were peddling a franchise plan but with no outlet in operation.
"When it happened, I spoke to Nicola Werner who was our franchisee in Ramsgate and explained we had lost our pub,” says Max. “I said I could understand if she'd lost confidence and if she didn't want to go ahead that was fine. But she was brilliant. She was absolutely determined and more than happy to be the flag-bearer for us before we established another one. Which was fantastic."
Max was taking his A-levels when his brother first approached him about going into business together. Studying all three sciences and computer science at the Chatham and Clarendon Grammar School in Ramsgate - his home town - he admits he was itching to get away.
As soon as the pub opened, he quit his studies and committed to making the business work. Which may have come as a surprise to his brother, John, who had originally only proposed the idea of opening a pub as providing Max with a part-time job to run alongside his studies.
John, who for the last 10 years had worked at their grandfather's off-licence, had got to know the drinks industry and, backed by his father and uncle, was ready to go it alone.
Assisted by their cousin, Luke Bell - who at the time was a mere 19 - the trio opened their business with a combined age of just 65.
Luke, an electrician by trade, has since slipped into the background a little to allow him to concentrate on his electrical work, but the brothers remain determined to deliver success.
"I'm really hoping it takes off quite quickly," says Max, "and being young and impatient, I'm eager. We're looking at five pubs in five years as our minimum. And with any luck we can roll it out quite quickly when word gets out.
"I've got some huge lofty ambitions for the next 30 years, but it depends on the next five."
They may have timed their run at growth - which at first will be focused on Kent - to perfection.
With high street retailers increasingly ditching their bricks and mortar presence and focusing on online sales, sites are opening up. And the benefit of the new breed of drinking holes is very much that the small stores once occupied by shops, now make a perfect home for a micropub.
"As retail moves off the high street to online," explains Max, "things move onto the high street that you can't do online - like micropubs or artisan bakeries. Things with a personal touch that you can't deliver over the internet.
"The high street is going to become a destination where you go to spend time more than you do to shop.
"If people have been laid off during the pandemic or have had time to think about their future direction, they should consider this. And, to be fair, the money's not bad."
Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But surely the biggest challenge - quite aside from the lockdowns demonstrating how all the best laid plans of the hospitality sector can be decimated in the most remarkable circumstances - is that the pages of KentOnline are littered with tales of pubs which have closed down.
Explains Max: "It's very difficult today to run a freehouse or tied house (where a pub is tied to its supplies from a brewery) and get by on wet trade only without doing food. Overheads are going up, staff bills, rents are rising and brewery prices have sky-rocketed, so you only make the money through serving food. But that's the joy of micropubs - it's essentially how freehouses were 40 years ago. You can get by only serving drinks. If you have staff it's only one or two and your rent is tiny because it's just a shop unit. It means you’re not pressured to serve food."
For now, though, the focus is on getting the Herne Bay venues up and running. The live music site - which will have a standing capacity of between 70-100 if social distancing is no longer an issue - should have a soft launch on June 21. The pub in the town should welcome is first customers later this summer, if all proceeds to plan.
So has that lack of experience in going to pubs held him back or allowed him a freedom to innovate?
"I think it means you can overcome pre-conceived notions because you don't have any," says Max, "I learn by doing. Which was my folly at school, because all my subjects didn’t allow that. I jumped into this head-first.
"We opened with a good range of drinks and a bit of personality. If you can make a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, people will come.
"When you're young - you've got nothing to lose. So if you like something and you have the ambition and the drive, just do it.
"People get too worked up getting all their qualifications and most of the time they don't end up doing anything in relation to what they've learnt."
Cheers to that.