Saturday, 17 August 2019

Typecast

Last month, I wrote about how it was becoming ever harder to find pubs whose decor and general offer hadn’t fairly recently been put under a corporate microscope. One result of this process is that, over the years, pubs have become much more differentiated in terms of the type of clientele they’re aiming to attract.

Of course, going back forty years, there were plenty of different types of pub – rough boozers and genteel middle-class haunts, those with youth appeal and those frequented by the older generation, those that did a healthy food trade and those that made a speciality of live music. And, given the typical lack of external cues, it could be all too easy to end up in the “wrong” type of pub and feed distinctly out of place.

However, they also had much more in common. The vast majority were owned by breweries and offered that firm’s standard beer range regardless of their customer base. They tended to have names like the Dog & Duck and the Northumberland Arms. Hardly any brand-new pubs had been opened since the war apart from those on new housing estates, or replacements for pubs lost to the Luftwaffe or to redevelopment schemes. There was much more commonality of interior design, with most pubs still having public and saloon or lounge bars with a distinction in furnishings. Nobody had ever heard of posing tables, and the only televised football was Match of the Day and the FA Cup Final.

Since then, though, whenever brewers and pub owners had money to spend on their estates, they started to look much more closely at exactly what kind of customer they wanted to attract. One of the first manifestations of this in the 1980s was the youth-oriented fun pub, which has now pretty much died the death but for a time was all the rage. By definition, the older person wanting a comfortable seat and a quiet pint felt excluded.

There have been a variety of other trends pulling the pub trade in different directions. The rise of satellite TV sport, especially football, has led to many pubs where that is the core of their appeal. In contrast, others have concentrated on ever more ambitious food to the extent where dining becomes their prime or even sole purpose. The growth of innovation in beer has resulted in more and more pubs and bars that deliberately set out to appeal to beer enthusiasts who may often pass many others to visit them. And the relaxation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has allowed venues to spring up that make no pretence to a generalist appeal, many of which entirely lack the “body language” you associate with a pub.

The result is that we now have different types of pub with very little overlap in clientele. There is the lively, sports-oriented boozer, the upmarket gastropub, its more plebeian family dining cousin and the specialist craft beer bar. When people are planning a pub visit, there are many more places that they won’t even consider. I’m always struck by how, in the Stockport suburb of Heaton Chapel, the Heaton Hops, a small modern craft bar, stands directly opposite the George & Dragon, a big Edwardian boozer majoring on TV sport and cheap and cheerful eating. I wonder how many customers ever go out unsure as to which one they plan to visit. It was once the case that, in many smaller towns and suburbs, having a wander round the local pubs was a popular Friday or Saturday night activity. That’s much less common now, and even if people do it many of the pubs will be ruled out because they don’t fit the bill.

Pubs with a broader appeal across different categories of customer do survive, but they tend to be the smaller and less high-profile ones, and nobody is opening new ones. The one category that is missing from the selection being developed is those specifically catering for the traditional core purpose of pubs, simply meeting and socialising over a few drinks. There is, of course, one pub operator for whom that is their USP, but at present they rather seem to be contracting rather than expanding.

It could be argued that Wetherspoon’s fill that niche, and they certainly attract a much wider range of customers than many of the other pub categories. But they are also themselves a very carefully targeted proposition that is deliberately pitched to be nothing like traditional pubs, and whose design militates against cosy conviviality.

One benefit of this segmentation is that it reduces the chance of inadvertently wandering into the “wrong” type of pub, but it doesn’t entirely eliminate it, and many independently-run dining pubs don’t obviously advertise that fact. It’s still entirely possible to end up in a pub and think “Oops, I’m the only one in here not eating!”

Pubs are often viewed through rose-tinted spectacles as hubs of the community where all classes and types of customer happily mingle together. That was always a somewhat optimistic view, and the ever- greater fragmentation of the trade further undermines social cohesion. How can a pub be the heart of its community when its business formula deliberately excludes whole sections of people?

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Very early doors

The determined band of drinkers who assemble in Wetherspoon’s at 9 am are often viewed with a mixture of amusement, derision and pity. There’s sometimes even a whiff of moral panic about it: “just look what 24-hour drinking has led to!” However, Tandleman recently found himself in a branch of Spoons at this hour and took a considerably more sympathetic view:

By ten past nine when I leave there is a noticeable air of contentment and the genesis of a conversational buzz... Some spend quite a few hours there, but by four even the most hardcore will be gone, many resting for a repeat performance the next day. This is an interesting sub culture of pub goers. Good luck to them I say.
The last is an important point. They’re not settling in for an all-day session; many will be gone at lunchtime, and pretty much all by mid-afternoon. And is it really all that different from the regular sessions straight through from 5 or 5.30 to 11 pm that used to be commonplace and hardly remarked upon? I’d also suggest that in many cases they will only be drinking at a leisurely pace too.

The Eastern Daily Press reports how the phenomenon has spread well beyond Wetherspoon’s in Great Yarmouth, with pubs even offering happy hours for early morning drinkers. There seems to be a general feeling of conviviality and sociability. One customer said “I love the atmosphere in here and it's great to catch up with my mates. The pints are cheap and everyone is in good spirits”, while a barmaid commented “Everyone knows each other in here and they just have a laugh. There's no trouble.”

Other customers gave safety as a reason for coming out earlier. One said “I don't feel safe coming into the town any later. There are too many yobs on the streets and who knows what might happen”, and another added “It's not safe for someone like me who has health problems to come to the pub in the evening.” These fears may seem a touch exaggerated, but many towns that encourage a lively nightlife do develop a distinct “atmosphere” later in the evening that makes older drinkers feel uncomfortable.

It may not be something that appeals to you or me; it’s unlikely to meet with the approval of the public health lobby, and it’s certainly not compatible with holding down a job. But isn’t this really just a case of the liberalisation of licensing hours opening up opportunities for people to go to the pub at times that suit them? In this respect it’s similar to the busy sessions now seen in some pubs in the late afternoon when tradespeople knock off, a time of day when, before 1988, the pub doors would have been firmly shut.

Rather than laughing or sneering at the early-morning drinkers, shouldn’t we just accept that they’re taking advantage of longer opening hours to drink in a way that suits their particular pattern of life? It’s also usually going to be a calmer, more relaxed and sociable way of drinking than is typically associated with late nights. That surely is what pubs should be all about.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Under pressure

The Morning Advertiser reports on a survey which claims that Millennials feel five times more likely to be pressurised into drinking alcohol when socialising than older generations. Now, this has to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, as it has been produced on behalf of a maker of low- and zero-alcohol punches, but it completely flies in the face of my own experience.

I would say that, over the past twenty years, the pressure to drink alcohol on social occasions has greatly reduced, and in many situations not drinking has become the norm. This is particularly the case with anything connected with work, after hours as well as at lunchtime. Indeed, it is often the person who chooses an alcoholic drink who stands out and ends up being stigmatised. When visiting friends and relatives, you are much less likely to be routinely offered an alcoholic drink than you once were.

Back in 2002 I asked Can a responsible person ever be seen with an alcoholic drink in their hand?

Twelve people from my workplace went out to the pub one Friday for someone’s birthday. Apart from myself and one other, it was a round of ten Diet Cokes, including one for the person who was supposed to be celebrating. Anyone would think that a pint of bitter or a glass of wine would have them throwing up over the boss or copying their backsides on the photocopier. Is it any wonder that the licensed trade and the brewing industry are in such a bad way?
And it certainly hasn’t got any less so in the intervening years.

It would be interesting to be given examples of precisely in what kind of situations people do feel pressurised into drinking, as I really don’t see this at all. One area where this is often mentioned is in social life in higher education institutions, but they provide a huge range of activities, most of which don’t involve drinking in any way. The fact that someone has organised a Carnage pub crawl doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to go on it.

The article says that people don’t drink alcohol on two out of three social occasions, so the pressure can’t really be that intense. If they truly were having their arms twisted to drink, surely we wouldn’t be seeing so many pubs closing. And, if you really don’t much care for drinking, but most of your friends seem to do nothing else, maybe it’s time to find some new friends.

In reality, this is an example of the common phenomenon of something attracting more criticism as it becomes less popular. We have seen exactly the same happening with smoking. Forty years ago, there undoubtedly would have been more social pressure to drink, but nobody complained about it back then.