Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2014
New-build dining pubs reflect confidence in the future of the British pub trade
WE ARE OFTEN told that the British pub is in headlong decline, with a tidal wave of closures and pubgoing increasingly becoming irrelevant to the majority of people. However, our two biggest British-owned brewers, Greene King and Marstonís, are bucking this trend by opening large numbers of new-build pubs, which are generally pretty big establishments, not dinky little niche bars. They donít get the recognition they deserve, though, as theyíre family-oriented dining pubs located on retail and leisure parks, and thus far from the stereotype of community local or multi-beer alehouse. Thereís a good local example of this in Greene Kingís Flying Horse near Manchester Airport, opened last autumn, which must be the first new-build pub in Stockport and its immediate environs for over twenty years.
While these pubs cater for a different market than your average Wetherspoonís, they come off pretty well in a direct comparison. They often demonstrate a much higher standard of seating comfort and materials, and also beat Spoons hands down in areas such as providing natural light and toilets on the same level as the bar area.
And theyíre proving extremely successful, demonstrating that there are thousands of families across the country who, rather than cook and eat at home, prefer to go out for a meal once or twice a week. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed, informal atmosphere and value for money theyíre looking for. Itís noticeable how busy these pubs can get around tea-time when much of the trade that traditional pubs once enjoyed has evaporated.
These family dining venues are a long way from my vision of the ideal pub, and arenít where Iíd choose to go and read the paper on a Sunday lunchtime. But they certainly meet a demand and their success is undeniable. Surely itís a good thing for the future of the pub trade to get people visiting somewhere that is at least a vague approximation to a pub, and serves cask beer, rather than an establishment that bears no relation to one. Beer enthusiasts sneer at them at their peril.
But applying the formula to existing pubs may seem insensitive and ill-considered
HOWEVER, itís one thing to apply this format to a new-build site, but something else entirely to convert an existing pub, as Holtís are in the process of doing with the Cheadle Hulme. They have set up a new joint venture company called Touchwood Inns in conjunction with the people behind the Cloverleaf Pub Company, who built up an estate of new-build dining pubs in the North of England that they eventually sold to Greene King. The intention is to apply this formula to a mixture of new developments and current Holtís pubs.
I canít help thinking, though, that the Cheadle Hulme isnít the right location for this. In recent years, Cheadle Hulme has seen a number of new pub openings and has developed into something of a drinking circuit. Situated right next to the station, the Cheadle Hulme pub has a mixture of food and drink trade and surely it would have made more sense to try to tweak the balance between the two rather than imposing an overwhelmingly food-led formula that would be more at home on a leisure park. Itís also in a prosperous area where this style of operation may seem rather cheap and cheerful.
While you canít blame Holtís for trying to develop the food trade in their pubs and get away from their traditional image as operators of no-frills boozers, their actions on this front sometimes seem to demonstrate an uncertain touch.