Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Spoonfuls of character

Over the years, the subject of Wetherspoons has been extensively discussed on here, and in general the conclusion has been that, while they may tick a number of boxes for what you’re looking for in a pub, their establishments are so devoid of pub atmosphere that it’s hardly surprising many of them have “Moon” in their name.

On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, outside the obvious busy times, many pubs are now embarrassingly devoid of customers, where once they would have been at least ticking over nicely. Nobody wants to sit in a pub in solitary splendour.

And the thought occurs to me that much of the traditional “all human life is there” pub trade has now gravitated into Spoons. You’ll probably find a greater variety of customers there than anywhere else, from genteel pensioners having a bit of lunch to weirdos holding forth at the bar. It’s there that the pub buzz is most likely to be found, and also where nowadays you may still come across the archetypal pub “characters”, who may be annoying, but add to the interest of life. And, whatever the time of day, you’re unlikely to find Spoons deserted.


  1. Last week of November? Getting your CAMRA tokens used up? Found yourself enjoying the cheap booze? Need to somehow rationalize it to yourself as it questions pre-existing prejudices? You do that Mr Curmudgeon, if it makes you feel better about rubbing shoulders with us plebs. Just leave your metropolitan liberal elite values at the door, that's all we ask. Don't be tweeting any pictures.

    My van is in the car park, taking up 2 spaces and me and the lads are the ones having a fight in the amusingly misnamed "beer garden". You're welcome to join in.

  2. I'd agree with all of that except for the 'pub buzz'. There's something unique about a (pleasantly) lively pub on the scale of a house, as most older town pubs are - it almost feels like you're at a party (again, I mean that in a good way!). A room the size of a small aircraft hanger that's buzzing feels very different - you can be reminded of many things (a school hall, a university dining room, a mess hall, a Butlin's canteen) but 'somebody's house' isn't going to be one of them.

  3. Ote la moustache, Cookie, on t'a reconnu!

  4. @Phil - you may find more of that in some of the smaller Spoons such as the Gateway. I agree in some of the bigger ones the customers just seem lost.

  5. Okay, but what did you think of the shitters on a score of 1 to 10, and how did they compare to nearby shitters?

    Any comment on bog roll quality combining softness and enough resilience to prevent your finger going through much appreciated.

  6. The relative "success" of Wetherspons is pitifull in it's simplicity
    Subsidized ale
    Closure of local competition
    Central location
    Appeal to the(daytime) living dead.
    The problem is ,when will enough
    waken up to arrest the demise

  7. Martin, Cambridge26 November 2014 at 22:42

    Spot on. If you want to see a cross-section of society enjoying a pub in Cambridge tonight, you'll find it in the Tivoli, not in the excellent middle class beer houses of Mill Road. I thoroughly enjoyed the Wilfred Wood down the A6 for the same reason.

  8. Interestingly, Last night at around 7 I had a pint in a fairly recently rejuvenated former S&N estate pub in Heaton (a suburb of Newcastle) which was jumping. mostly a younger trade, but a few oldies like me, and a couple of families. Food was constantly rattling out of the kitchen and the bar staff were busy. Prices range from three quid for a pint of average strength cask to £4.40 for Vedett and the excellent real food is no more expensive than Spoons Brakes ping/BinB offering. By contrast, when we passed (no point in going in because we were out to visit pubs) the nearest Spoons, a massive high street location in Byker, it was almost deserted.

  9. Why do spoons get so much attention from beer geeks? They have no market dominance. Any city or town will have companies with more pubs in the locale than spoons. They have some nice and some crap pubs like any other company. Is it the strong branding and corporate standard feel of the places? Your own Stockport has more Greene King pubs or John Barras pubs that there are Wetherspoons. All those have to same standard corporate plastic feel. It has a Robinson’s domination if any one company can be said to restrict choice. They are comparatively cheap in cities but in towns they are often not the cheapest, if cheap is what you want.

    Is it because Spoons try on the beer front? Changing casks, festivals, beard tokens, camra corner, sponsoring local camra events? All in a plastic pub? Would they be ignored by beer geekery to go about their successful business if they knocked that on the head?


  10. I'd say it's mainly because of the sheer scale and uniformity of the Spoons estate. The "offer" is basically the same in every outlet. I don't think any other specifically branded pub chain goes above the 200-250 mark and those are not so prominent as they tend to be family dining pubs in suburban locations.

    But the characterisation of Spoons as something distinctive in the pub market goes well beyond beer geeks.

    The fact that they do make an effort on the beer front is also a factor - you never hear people moaning about Brewer's Fayre or Sizzling Pubs because of their poor beer selection.

  11. A quick google suggests there are over 400 Greene King pubs. In my observation all these are clearly branded and have identical menus, including a fiverish beer and burger offer & the usual stuff on it & a cheap offer standard lager and smooth flow keg bitter.

    A weekend paper offered a free pint of either in one so I googled them and found 2 in walking distance. The nearest I'd forgotten existed. I went in for the free pint of Carlsberg.

    It was like a clean spoons where someone had removed the empties from the tables and wiped them. It was as plastic and corporate as you'd expect. The only cask ale on offer was the IPA and Speckled Hen, no guests or varied range. They also had Sky sports showing the Sunday afternoon game, which Spoons don't have. After the free Carlberg I bought a Speckled Hen and watched the game and it was an okay pint of bitter. Smartish, clean. Respectable punters. Middle of the road. Nothing to either annoy or excite.

    Nothing to attract the beer geekery and nothing to get their knickers in a twist. So I guess they can operate what appeared a successful standardized chain flogging cheap Carlsberg without the ire directed at Spoons, by just slipping under the radar and not attracting attention.

    Some of Spoons branding arguably benefits them. Before then I thought the cheapest lager was a longer walk to a Spoons. I associate Spoons with cheap beer the same as McDonalds is my first thought of junk food or Starbucks is my first thought of a poncy coffee. That's despite preferring a KFC and Costa having more Coffee shops.

    Some it attracts criticism. Spoons appears a by word for binge drinking like McDonalds appears the fault of a national of fat jabbas. The reality is my local spoons is full of pensioners, not pissed riotous yobbos.

    Anyway, for cheap lager and the footie game, turns out I have a shorter walk. Good marketing, that newspaper token.

  12. Greene King have various sub-brands, though, such as Hungry Horse, Meet & Eat, Olde English Inns and Flame Grill, plus unbranded pubs, so they're much less standardised than Spoons.

    It's only relatively recently that Spoons have started stocking a wide range of micro beers - in their earlier years it was mostly just a selection of national brands such as Pedigree and Spitfire.

  13. Greene King has over 400 pubs? Surely more, or it's a very odd situation that has found seven of them in my local big town, er city (which has only about 35000 people). Which was a big part of the reason (GK objections) why it was only last year a Wetherspoons opened there(I think you might have covered that before in fact).

    The menus look pretty similar but they've used this to try and cover a lot of segments - "traditional" pub with real ale (tourist magnet); Oirish bar, student venue; MOR dining pub;and a beer/sports bar with 24 all-keg lines about 16 of which are lager. Three rotating craft(y) lines reading Belhaven/ Belhaven/ Hoegarden (!) last night. I found myself there drinking a pretty decent pint of Urquell and watching footy.

    The Wetherspoons is probably posher than the lot of them.

  14. Google also tells me there are over 200 John Barras pubs. These too are plastic Wetherspoons type places with identical menus but standard national brand beer. Rarely a word spoken against them. Never a word spoke for them, neither. But they sell plenty of beer and burgers, all the same.

    By not having guest beers, festivals, beard tokens they keep the beer geeks out.

    You can't stop them from popping in every 2 years and grumbling about the half of vinegar you serve them but at least it discourages them from hanging about.

    Keeping the beer geeks out might be a better business strategy than trying to attract them.

  15. It's only relatively recently that Spoons have started stocking a wide range of micro beers

    Don't know about that - the first Spoons' I ever went into had a reasonably interesting range, and that was a while ago. (It was in Bedford; there weren't any in Manchester at the time.)

  16. There are two fairly small niches of people who don't like Spoons:

    1. A subset of older CAMRA members who don't like them because they're not 'traditional' enough and they associate the opening of a Spoons in their town 15 years ago with the closing of their Crudginton's local.

    2. A subset of middle-class professional women who for some unspecified reason find Spoons a bit icky or common or unclean or not sufficiently winebar-like or something.

    Pretty much everyone else who goes out for a drink drinks in Spoons at least some of the time.

    They're never going to be the very best pubs around but in most areas they're better than 90% of the competition, and cheaper than the 10% which are better pubs.

  17. Martin, Cambridge27 November 2014 at 23:52

    Beat me to it Phil. Spoons was where I really started seeing small brewery beers 15 years ago, and that was pretty much across the country.

    Wetherspoons do differ in feel considerably; the older outer London shop conversions are markedly different to the smart new builds e.g. Bishop Stortford, Melton.

    What's wrong with a standard Spoons menu ? More to the point, is there really any difference between the Greene King sub-brands. Pub food pretty much standard in chains, a point you've made many times.

    Will say it again, consistently good beer in quiet pubs.

  18. I used to pop into a Spoons occasionally that was located in a shopping centre thingy. That was about 15 years ago when I lived in UK, and I found it very handy when the wife was shopping. Although it was nothing like my village local, it was ok. A bit clinical, but clean. Reasonable selection of beers, and prices must have been ok, because I don't remember them.

    But not somewhere I would have chosen to go.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments are liable to be deleted unless I recognise the author. If you intend to make more than the occasional comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.