The York pub interviews: Pivni – ‘Our city’s a playground of great bars’

One day a cosy pub, the next hosting a house party… Khaled Abdulgani behind the bar at Pivni. Photograph: Nick Love
One day a cosy pub, the next hosting a house party… Khaled Abdulgani behind the bar at Pivni. Photograph: Nick Love

In the second of his Good Beer Guide pub interviews, York CAMRA’s Nick Love calls in to a modern market tavern

Success in the licensed trade is all about small margins: those on what you sell; that between success & failure; getting your brand image just right to appeal to the greatest demographic without being so fuzzy that you end up attracting nobody.

How many times have you heard the phrase “they really don’t know what they are or what they want to be”?

Sadly numerous businesses open up in York to which you could apply that phrase and usually no more than a year later they are no more!

Wrong location; wrong offering; wrong marketing; wrong demographic… You could spot the four horseman of the retail apocalypse galloping towards their business at a healthy rate of knots, but they couldn’t, such was their lack of foresight.

If however you want a business that exemplifies those chameleonesque qualities needed to survive in the ever competitive York pub trade then look no further than Pivni.

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This is the founding father of the Pivovar pub chain, which went on to spawn the York Tap and its sister bars in Sheffield, Harrogate and Leeds. Such is the demand for what the parent pub delivers that Pivni’s second floor is being converted into another lounge.

The pub’s further physical and cultural metamorphosis is a gratifying signal of intent.

Now under the helm of a real force of nature in the form of Khaled Abdulgani, the team refuse to glance over their shoulder at past glories as they focus relentlessly on staying at the top of their game.

Khaled brings such an indefatigable approach to running this bijou hostelry on Patrick Pool that you wonder what he’s going to do next.

He talks in detail and with enthusiasm, as you’ll find out, about getting all parts of the operation just right – to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

It may seem strange to see an incarnation of the “aggregation of marginal gains” in a bar in York, but it’s undeniably in evidence.

For the uninitiated, “aggregation of marginal gains” is the watchword of Dave Brailsford and the British Cycling Team that has delivered their unparalleled success over the last few years.

It is the concept of finding a one per cent margin for improvement in everything you do – which soon starts to realise startling results if you apply this to 20 or 30 of the distinct activities within a retail operation.

Changing moods

What Pivni has got so right is that you can have a completely different yet congruous experience whenever you visit.

During daylight hours when daylight streams through leaded windows onto gnarled 12th century beams and creaking floors, it can be quiet and reflective and yet as evening falls it oozes a crepuscular charm that is both alluring and relaxing.

Yet there is no dissonance – even at weekends when it’s at full throttle, it feels right, which I guess is why it’s so popular.

There is an art to being the architect of this kind of retail stereotomy, making all the pieces fit into one superb operation that keeps you going back time and time again.

Khaled draws on both qualifications and life skills to make this happen.

There’s the degree in hospitality management which gives you an insight into his approach to customer service when you visit, but this is alloyed with real life experience of living in America and working in craft beer bars before they started to exert a benevolent influence on the British brewing scene.

From pale ale through to porter, the many beers of Pivni
From pale ale through to porter, the many beers of Pivni

Practical experience and hospitality theory is evident on and behind the bar.

Charismatic IPA’s from across the pond rub shoulders with the best that Europe and the UK has to offer and are served by insightful staff that enjoy imparting knowledge to ensure you get something that’s right for you.

There is a rotating and eclectic mix of excellently kept real ales which has ensured their Pivni’s first ever entry into the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, of which they are rightly proud.

I will cover the “real” versus “craft” ale debate on another day – suffice it to say that whether you have a proclivity for one or the other you can sample the best of both, side by side, in a single place in Pivni.