Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2013
Have Wetherspoon’s proved a blessing or a curse for British pubgoers?
OVER THE past twenty years, the rise of Wetherspoon’s from very small beginnings has been one of the most obvious changes in the British pub scene. They now have over 850 branches, and one or more of their pubs can be found in pretty much every substantial town in the country. Their large average size means that they command a much higher market share than that figure might suggest, and it is reckoned they now account for one in ten of all pints of real ale sold. Like many new developments, they have strongly divided opinion and sparked some passionate debates over whether, on balance, they have been a good or bad thing.
In their favour, they have enjoyed conspicuous success during a period when large swathes of the pub trade have been struggling. Most of their pubs have been brand-new openings rather than having been bought from other pub operators. All of their pubs sell a range of real ales, and they are strong supporters of small independent breweries. In many of the places they operate they have by far the best choice of beer in town. No less than 256 of their pubs now feature in CAMRA’s “Good Beer Guide”. They have introduced customer-focused measures such as all-day opening and all-day food which, even after the 1980s liberalisation of licensing hours, were still rare. They offer conspicuously good value across the whole range of food and drink, and their pubs are bright and welcoming and attract a wide range of customers from all age groups. Their Chairman, Tim Martin, has been an articulate and outspoken defender of pubs and drinkers in opposition to the government and the anti-drink lobby.
On the other hand, their detractors argue that their establishments are soulless, open-plan drinking barns singularly devoid of traditional pub atmosphere. One way they achieve low prices is economising on staff numbers, resulting in endless waits at the bar and tables groaning with uncollected glasses. Their food is specified down to a price, rigorously portion-controlled and warmed up in a microwave. Their wide range of customers often seems to be dominated by elderly drunks and single mothers with offspring in tow. Perhaps most telling of all, many paint them as the Tesco of the pub world, using their financial muscle to drive down prices from suppliers and ruthlessly undercut the local competition. They end up replacing characterful, independent pubs with standardised corporate drinking outlets with the same range of food and drink and general ambiance from Penzance to Wick. You know what you’re getting with a Wetherspoon’s, but that’s because, like McDonalds or Starbucks, they’re basically all the same.
I have to say that, all things considered, I tend to incline more to the first view than the second. You can’t knock their success, and, at a time when closed and boarded pubs are a common sight, they are opening dozens of new ones every year in a variety of locations. They have hit upon a formula that obviously works and pulls the customers in. They started from a single pub thirty years ago, and the same business opportunities have been open to everyone, but nobody else has taken them to anything like the same extent.
Pubs, just like any other business sector, benefit from healthy competition, and, when Wetherspoon’s were starting up, much of the pub trade was very complacent. However, their formula is basically to do a wide range of things reasonably well, and if you choose to specialise you can still make a decent living. Wherever there’s a Wetherspoon’s, not too far away there will be pubs with one or more of better food, better beer, a more traditional and intimate atmosphere, better pub games and better live music. Yes, the kind of bog-standard pub that tries to be all things to all men may struggle, but perhaps that’s no bad thing.
My biggest criticism is that, with few exceptions, they’re very “unpubby” in feel, with open-plan layouts avoiding internal divisions and traditional pub-style fixed bench seating. Whatever else it may be, a Wetherspoon’s pub is scarcely ever cosy. However, I’ve reached the conclusion that’s a deliberate policy to appeal to customers for whom old-fashioned pubs came across as a touch intimidating.