Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Makes a pub a Pub?

"If pubs are owned by people who love pubs, People will love pubs. If they are owned by profit focused companies, People will hate them"

Chris Roche, a friend who's an Architect said that on a Facebook post I captioned: 'Calling All Pub Lovers"

He said:

"Your point is well made
If pubs are owned by people who love pubs
People will love pubs
If they are owned by profit focused companies
People will hate them"

Calling All Pub Lovers
Chris said what I have been saying, in much more long winded way, for twenty years. Chris has seen me work like a driven slave, all night and all day, twenty days in a row, campaign, blog, lobby, shout, and cry, all about pubs. He's right. He got me thinking about pubs.

My boys are twelve and fourteen. They have grown up around pubs because among other things I am a publican and I love pubs and have lots of friends who also are people who are publicans among other things who also love pubs. Pubs are our LIFE (but not exclusively). To throw a little balance into the mix, their mother is a teacher and between us we have a wide range of friends from all walks of the world. So the boys have spent a lot of time going to pubs. They were born near a pub. Their first outing as a newborn, each, was to a pub. They are fairly fluent about pubs. They have a feel for what a good pub is and what isn't and that hasn't been proscribed by rules, it's been set by experience, discussion and observation of what happens in pubs. They know what they like. And, in fact, they have said to me, standing at the door of a 'Sizzling Pub' in deep Sarf London: 'We're NOT going in there dad'. Why? 'Just LOOK at it' pointing into the dismal interior, and that was when the eldest was nine.

Last year, when the boys were eleven and thirteen, we stopped off at the Pine Marten, a new pub just off the A1 near Dunbar.  In that past year on different trips we had been to many, many pubs around the country, among them the Snowy Owl near Northumberlandia (I know, I know) the Rashleigh Arms in Charlestown, St Austell.  As we were waiting for food to arrive at the Pine Marten, it crossed my mind that I had had exactly THAT feeling in three other pubs in the past year.  And I wondered whether the boys might have developed the same sort of pub radar...  So I asked: 'In the last year we've been to lots of pubs and restaurants and cafes and bars but this one reminds me of some of them in particular.  Does it remind you of any of them?'  In about three minutes they'd narrowed it down to this;  The Pine Marten reminded them both of Snowy Owl and the Rashleigh Arms.  They didn't remember the fourth that had crossed my mind in that moment - that was the Lindisfarne Inn - again on the A1, near Holy Island, but then we only walked in there and walked out once and on another occasion we parked there and Ed got out the car and looked through the window came back and said 'let's go home and have something to eat there'.

The point I wanted to make with the boys was then made in the conversation that followed:

'What is it that reminds you here of those other pubs?" They went on to list a whole bunch of items from music to the pictures on the walls, the carpets, the chalk boards, the menu presentation, what was on the menus, the smells, the way the staff talk to customers, the 'feel' of the place the way the toilets were decorated and the way the food was boring and even when it looked good, it was bland. There were positive things too but it got to the crunch when I asked:  'And what do you guess is it that links these pubs, with maybe 500 miles between them up and down the country, and makes them all 'feel' the same?'

And Ed said 'Are they all owned by the same pub company?'

GIVE ME A HIGH FIVE ED! You got it in one.

The Pine Marten is Marston's.
The Snowy Owl is Vintage Inns'
The Rashleigh Arms is St Austell's
The Lindisfarne Inn is owned by a small but fast growing company that's had a load of money pumped into it called Lindisfarne Inns (Bamburgh Castle) Ltd but whatever they are doing great. No doubt soon they will be bought by a big pubco.

The point about these pubs is they are all set up and owned and operated by completely different companies but they are all so alike that it's impossible to tell them apart.  Apart from being in different parts of the country and apart from 'branding' which in some cases even looks like its copied it from the others,  they are the same.  Identikit.  Anodyne.  Bland pointless pubs doing exactly the same mediocre characterless thing as each other and that is being pub not Pub.  There is nothing, nothing whatsoever, to distinguish them.  It's SUCH a profound thing this erasure of PUB from pubs that a close friend who LOVES pubs like I do actually broke down and cried when we were having Sunday roast from the carvery at the Rashleigh - the pub was no longer the pub she remembered from her childhood.  She said:  'It's just like all the other chains now, isn't it?  it's horrid'.  It was busy mind. So what the hell does it matter if it's a food and drink dispense machine now instead of a Pub?  When EBITDA is good, LIFE is good.

And you know what? When two boys age eleven and thirteen can spot it and the CEO's of pubco's don't care that they are running pubs, not Pubs, there's a sickness abroad, a disease, a plague, a pestilence. And Chris hit the nail on the head.

Thanks Chris. Brevity.


  1. Pubs are a driver of social change. And the way pubs have been going for the last twenty five years since the Beer Orders, they have been driving it in the wrong direction - the wrong way up the highway to nowhere good.

    This HAS to change or we will have lost our pubs and will drown our empty selves for we will have lost the last of England and, unfortunately the English habit of making the disease infect the rest of the UK is long underway.

  2. Just to take one example - people hate JDW (profit focused) to the tune of £1.3 bn in turnover in 2012/13.

    They (and the other managed chains who seem to be in a growth business) must be doing something right.

    1. Although still anonymous I will respond. It is not Rocket Science.

      Of COURSE. This is THE POINT: Managed chains are in growth. Pubco's are divesting their tied estates and moving into managed because success takes investment to get it going and their estates are failing (manifestly) because they have not been invested in for so long that they are beyond economical repair.

      Managed estates are properly capitalised, the Managed pubco's spend substantial money going into a new business (no such thing as 'Low Cost Entry) and are MANGAGED.

      These pubs have economy of scale, supply chain rationalisation, central purchasing and distribution, head office oeprataion processing and overseeing licensing, legal, insurance, maintenance, EHO compliance, payroll, HMRC, accounts and many other day to day administration and operational issues, leaving on site management to do the important work of customer service, training and day to day housekeeping of busy premises.

      Because of these factors and many more, Managed easily provide better appointed pubs, more comfortable retail environments for customers, better maintained, solid and quality feel than the majority of tied pubs. And sell a wider range of products at better prices while making better margins.

  3. Now I'm confused.

    All of the chains are profit focused, but, as you have said, have a lot of things going for them and consequently are in growth.

    You may hate them, but many obviously don't - they're spending more and more money in them.

    1. You're confused because it suits you to be so. People are spending money in chain operators because they are everywhere and a lot of the time people don't even know they're IN a chain operation. They are able to provide consistently better accommodation and product at better value than many 'independent's because of scale of operation, training and many other things that make it easier for large chains to fare well

  4. We seem to agree. The chains (profit focused) give some people what they want and the independents (not profit focused??) give some people what they want. It's not a question of profit = hate and non profit = love. It's not black and white, it's shades of grey.