Tuesday, 9 July 2019

But where are the customers?

At the end of June, I spent a few days in Cornwall, and on the way back stayed for a night in Gloucester. While I was there, I called in to Sam Smith’s Robert Raikes’ House, which is situated on one of the main shopping streets in the city centre. This is a magnificent 16th century half-timbered building that in recent years has been very carefully and lovingly converted to pub use.

It was a sunny Saturday lunchtime, and the pub looked very appealing with boards outside advertising that it was serving food. Yet it had no more than a thin scattering of customers, when Sam’s pubs in similar central locations in Stockport, Leeds or Chester would be heaving. This has also been observed by Martin Taylor. Boak and Bailey have described Sam’s William IV in Bristol, another impressive historical building, as “a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all.” So you have to ask what is the trick Sam’s are missing.

First is the question of price. While Sam’s are noted for their low pricing policy, they apply a set of three or four fixed price bands dependent on geographical area, which don’t necessarily correspond to how affluent a particular place is. Old Brewery Bitter in this pub was £2.80 a pint, which may be about the cheapest in central Gloucester apart from Wetherspoons, but isn’t the outstanding bargain that £2 is in the North. Gloucester isn’t by any means the most well-heeled of cities, and overall is probably less prosperous than Chester.

The low prices aren’t just a matter of luring customers in purely on value for money. Once people have been tempted over the threshold, they find a distinctive ambiance that creates a critical mass of like-minded drinkers and that particular Sam’s atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but in many places in the North it’s a very successful formula – you know what a Sam’s pub in going to be like.

There is also the issue of the unfamiliarity of the brand. In the North, Sam Smith’s is a well-established company that has been around for decades if not centuries, and the name will be familiar to most pubgoers. In the South, they’re not known at all, something that is compounded by their policy of only offering their own brand products across the entire range of drinks and snacks. The barmaid in the Robert Raikes very carefully and accurately explained to a customer the difference between the four Sam’s lagers, but in most pubs you don’t even have to ask because you will recognise some of the brands on the bar.

Plus you have to consider how the building actually works as a pub. I have written previously how Sam’s very careful remodelling of the Swan in Holmes Chapel had actually ended up too compartmentalised for its own good, with the bar tucked away in one small room right at the back of the pub. And in fact that particular pub is currently closed, and has been for some time.

Of course there is much to be said for pubs having a variety of distinct areas, but they also benefit from a substantial circulation and seating area close to the bar to promote a sociable feeling. The Robert Raikes isn’t as bad as the Swan, but even so the servery is situated in one room in the centre of the pub that doesn’t directly open on to any other rooms apart from the central corridor. It also has the toilets up a flight of stairs that Wetherspoons would be proud of, which could be another factor that older customers find offputting.

Sam’s deserve praise for taking on premises like Robert Raikes’ House and converting them to pub use in a manner that respects their fabric, and where no expense has clearly been spared. There are examples in a number of other cities – the Wortley Almshouses in Peterborough spring to mind. But, for their own sake as much as the customers’, they also need to have a look at their pricing policy and the circulation of people within the building, to make sure they actually succeed as pubs and not just as pieces of architectural restoration.

12 comments:

  1. I'm bit in the dark on this one as the only Sam smith's boozer by us is the Abbey in Darley Abbey and I've been there once. Not a big stronghold in Derby but seem to thrive in certain areas...a bit like Ember Inns!!!

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  2. The Sams pub in Darley Abbey is much more basic than this - it's got the feel of an old fashioned boozer, even though it's in a listed building (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_II*_listed_buildings_in_Derby#/media/File:The_Abbey_Public_House.JPG). The Robert Raikes House feels and looks like a museum rather than a pub, and as Sams have limited external signage, maybe some people don't even realise it's a pub and walk on by.

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    1. "More like a museum than a pub" is an apt description.

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  3. Sams did use to be known in the south; well, in London at least, where their handful of pubs were sought out by real ale drinkers in the 80s & early 90s as a change from the Fullers/Youngs/Bass available at the time. This reputation no longer exists and you won't find their pubs in the GBG - the fault of the brewery as much as changing tastes in the capital. AP

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    1. They are more well-known in London, but only have a scattering of pubs across the rest of the South - odd ones in places like Bristol, Gloucester and Oxford.

      There are still a few Sam's pubs in the Good Beer Guide, such as the Colpitts Hotel in Durham, the Olde Murenger House in Newport (Mon) and the Crown in Glossop. The reason there are so few now has much more to do with CAMRA's handpump-counting attitude than the beer itself.

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  4. "in most pubs you don’t even have to ask because you will recognise some of the brands on the bar"

    This is indeed half of the story - the other half (not literally a half, but the other portion) is people like me who want the exact opposite of this.

    Sams are caught between two tools with their offering. 'Normals' who want familiar brands - Carling, Doom Bar, Guinness - will feel uncomfortable in their pubs for the very reasons you outline. And those of a ticker/craft/cask persuasion are also going to avoid them because the beer choice is very limited and always the same.

    Their customer base is thus largely restricted to people who both know the product *and* who happen to like it. This can work where you have enough pubs concentrated in a local area to build up a bit of loyalty, as was commonplace for a long time under the tied house system, but is rather less effective with far-flung outposts and casual trade.

    So, what can they do about it? It wouldn't affect me one jot if Sams relented and stocked big-name brands. It might benefit their further-flung pubs a bit, perhaps at the expense of their heartlands and their unique identity.

    But personally (and unsurprisingly) I'd like to see some movement in the other direction - it doesn't have to be much. Maybe just bring back Museum and have one seasonal/monthly special cask ale, which could sometimes be based on one of their many existing non-cask beers. That would put them in the same sort of category as fullers or Sheps pubs in my eyes, and would be enough to tempt me and my ilk to look in when passing by. Rather than simply passing by.

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    1. Many of the family brewers struggle to sell seasonal beers in their own pubs, and most of the market for them is in the free trade where there is a constant demand for something new. There probably wouldn't be enough beer geeks wandering into their pubs to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, I'm sure they could spark a lot of interest in the enthusiast community by producing cask versions of beers like India Ale and Oatmeal Stout which were targeted at the free trade. They also produce some keg beers for the US market that are never released in the UK.

      It's not really for me to tell companies how to run their business, and indeed many of the things I like don't seem to be very commercially appealing :-( However, places like the Robert Raikes do rather come across as vanity projects, and from a commercial point of view they might be better advised to look at buying more existing pubs within their main trading area with a target clientele that conforms to their customer demographic. After all, there's no shortage of pubs on the market, and most sizeable towns in the North could probably support at least one Sam's just as they can support a Spoons.

      Next month we're having a day out in Preston, and it will be interesting to see what the level of trade is like in their Olde Blue Bell.

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    2. The problem with them producing more cask beer is the insistence that all cask OBB is supplied in wood, and they stopped supplying cask to the free trade years ago because of quality issues. Buying historic buildings is far from a vanity project - he's identified at-threat properties and puts them to good use, often after a good, costly fight with local authorities and developers. More of a cause I'd say.

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    3. Maybe "labour of love" would be a better phrase, and the world is certainly a better place for Sam's having preserved nuildings like Robert Raikes' House. However, it's still not a strictly commercial activity, and something Humphrey can only afford to indulge in through running a privately-held company. Three cheers for British eccentricity, though!

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    4. Labour of love - perfect description. Back in 1990 he identified the derelict Prince of Wales in North Shields - just a mile from where I live - as a project after Cosalt - a marine supply outfit - decided it wanted to demolish it to extend their warehouse. Not having it, Humphrey fought the development tooth and nail, taking on both Cosalt and North Tyneside Council. He won, having deeper pockets and better lawyers than either. It reopened in 1992 having been expensively and accurately restored to its 1927 rebuild plans although a pub has been on the riverside site since 1674. It took three years for it to turn a profit although the long-term view won through and it's doing well now. And CAMRA turn their noses up at the company.

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  5. Thinking that pubs need customers to survive is the old paradigm. 20th century thinking.
    Lot's of businesses lose money hand over fist, but the stock keeps rising.
    All they need to do is rename the pub "The Blockchain Craft Beer Company" and keep issuing new equity to investors.

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  6. I used to be a regular in the Citie of Yorke pub on High Holborn. A Sam's of course with very reasonable food. Used to go in three times a week for years. Lunchtime drinking. Excellent!

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