Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2015
Coffee shops arenít direct competitors to pubs, even if they sell alcohol
IT WAS a sign of the times that the long-running US sitcom ďFriendsĒ saw the main characters socialising in a coffee shop rather than a bar. It began showing in 1994 and, since then, while Iím not suggesting itís a direct result, coffee shops have enjoyed exponential growth and become a standard feature of most British High Streets.
Personally, I have never really seen the point, but their success is undeniable. I would say they have created their own market rather than taking existing trade from pubs Ė they come across as welcoming, unthreatening and, dare I say it, female-friendly. A coffee shop is basically a window on the world, whereas a pub is a refuge from it. Even the best-run pub still has a slight whiff of edginess and misrule.
Recently, the market-leading operator Starbucks have announced that they are going to roll out the sale of alcohol in some of their UK outlets, following successful trials in the US. Itís part of an ďevening conceptĒ that also includes serving more substantial meals. I canít imagine that Wetherspoons will be quaking in their boots, but itís easy to see the appeal to tourists wanting a pre-theatre snack, or office workers enjoying a glass of Chardonnay after work before getting the train home.
Itís another example of how the on-licence scene is fragmenting and diversifying. If youíre having a drink outside the house, itís becoming less and less likely that youíll be doing it in somewhere that is recognisably a pub. However, I would say that trying to ape coffee shops is about the worst thing pubs could do. As with many other marketing gimmicks, the risk is that you alienate your existing customers without winning over many new ones. And itís worth noting that Wetherspoons are the biggest on-trade coffee sellers in the country.
Micro-pubs should not mean micro-facilities
THEREíS ONE part of the pub that every customer will need to visit at some time, namely the toilets. Itís an inevitable result of drinking beer. In the past, many pub toilets were disgusting, but in recent years there has been a marked improvement. In general I would say the minimum acceptable standard for pub toilets is to have one urinal and one trap in the gents, and two traps in the ladies, although I recognise that some smaller pubs only have one in the ladies. But the recent rash of micropubs and mixed bottle shops and bars donít seem to be able to achieve even this level.
If youíre primarily an off-licence, but allow customers to sit down and sample the occasional beer, then it may be OK to have a single unisex WC. But if your establishment at some times of the week becomes a busy bar, then people will be queueing up. If someone decides they need ten or fifteen minutes in there Ė as sometimes happens Ė those in the queue will be left in a very awkward situation. In the past, Iíve been in basic, remote country pubs where there was just a single WC out in the yard, and that seemed distinctly primitive. So why should new-wave bars be judged any differently?
Frankly, if your establishment has become a popular bar, rather than a bottle shop with the occasional sampling customer, itís just not good enough. Personally, I would not be comfortable spending much time in a bar with only a single unisex WC. Plenty of established small pubs, such as the Queenís Head in Stockport town centre and the Olde Vic in Edgeley, still manage to provide proper separate gentsí and ladiesí toilets. If youíre enjoying success with a new-style bar, you would do well to heed this lesson, even if your toilets have to be placed up or down stairs.