Monday, 13 January 2020

An old-fashioned success story

Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph carried a feature article by beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on the reasons behind Samuel Smith’s perhaps unlikely success story. It’s paywalled, but I believe it’s possible to read a limited number of articles for free. It includes a brief quotation from me (albeit without any explanation of who I am):
They are pubs as they used to be,” says Peter Edwardson, “though I do think the mobile phone ban is bonkers and represents eccentricity taken a bit too far.”
And a lengthier explanation from Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, which hits the nail on the head.
For Peter Alexander, a Rochdale-based beer writer and CAMRA activist, the pubs’ popularity is due to the fact that visiting them is “like stepping back into the late 70s and early 80s. They are clean and bright, not hugely over-decorated and well run. There is no music. The beer is cheap, with a pint of keg mild being £1.29 and Old Brewery Bitter below £2, so they attract people who don’t have much to spend. The bottled beer and spirits prices are higher though — £6 for Imperial Stout for instance.

“The thing about Humphrey Smith,” he adds, “is that he has a demographic of customers who find the pubs comfortable, and they are mainly in their fifties, sixties and seventies. He also doesn’t stint on heating with the pubs always having coal fires in the winter.”

This comment from an ex-manager sums it up very well:
A former licensee I spoke with (on condition of anonymity) said that the pubs’ success was due to the fact that they have got their business model absolutely right. “They trade off their heritage, which is real and authentic. They are streets ahead of other pubs that also try to trade as traditional pubs. The authenticity is why I bought it into it. They were also the first brewery to be vegan, and the beer is also crucial to their reputation as it is so natural.”
No other pub chain comes anywhere close to matching the ambiance of pubs as people imagine they used to be. In Sam’s pubs, people do talk to each other in a way they rarely do elsewhere.

It was also very well explained in Anthony Avis’ book on the postwar brewing industry. He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies”, and says “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”. This was written in the 1990s, but remains just as true today, especially the “unfashionable comfort” point, at a time when many other operators seem determined to make their pubs as uncomfortable as possible.

As regular readers will know, I have long been a strong supporter of Samuel Smith’s general approach to their pubs, and locally often find them the most congenial places to go for a drink. However, while I can easily manage without my phone for the time it takes me to drink a couple of pints, I do regard that particular policy as a ban too far. I am also somewhat dismayed by Humphrey Smith’s refusal to employ relief managers, which leads to unnecessary and often protracted closures of pubs that on the face of it appear to be perfectly viable.

17 comments:

  1. Long live Sam Smiths (and Wetherspoons)!

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    1. But are Wetherspoons pubs?

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    2. Are Wetherspoons pubs what?

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie17 January 2020 at 11:06

      T'other Mudgie,
      You surely remember some members of a now closed forum arguing not only that Tim's "high street barns" weren't Proper Pubs but also weren't pubs at all.
      Wetherspoons's own publicity has often used "venue" which is surely acceptable to all.

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  2. Apart from their London outlets, which seem a law unto themselves, we don't have any Sam Smiths pubs in this part of the country.

    When my wife and I had our speciality beer off-licence - 14 years ago, Sam's were a valued supplier and we sold large quantities of their excellent bottled beers. They had an admirable policy of only dealing with independents, like us, and were very supportive in terms of pos material, and other items.

    Humphrey may be a dinosaur, in some ways, but I agree wholeheartedly with Adrian's article and your endorsement, Mudge.

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  3. Sam Smiths do employ relief managers, just not enough. Most of the pub closures are because the managers have been sacked or upped and scarpered, and regardless of how fond folk are of the company, Mr Smith's attitude to employment rights and law echoes that of an 18th Century mill owner. I think the ban on mobile devices is a step too far but it's his rules and if people don't like it other pubs are available. That said, if he simply banned customers from making or receiving calls in the pubs, leaving people to read or browse the internet, that would surely suit most people?

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    1. I could understand pubs being closed for a few weeks if managers leave abruptly, but not for months on end, if not years.

      In the early days of mobile phones, when all they did was calls and texts, it wasn't unusual for customers to be expected to step outside if making or receiving a call. Some pubs even had boards with the phones of offenders nailed to them!

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    2. The long-term closures aren't due to lack of relief managers, but whatever passes for strategy in Mr Smith's grand plan. Most are unexplainable and beggar belief. It's not just pubs either - Nun Appleton Hall has been closed off for 30 odd years, the old King Edward’s School building in Bath, derelict since he bought in in 1989, the Lower Ship Inn, Reading, closed since he bought it in the 80s, and a large property in Camden Lock, also closed for decades.

      I always step outside to use my mobile - it's only polite, and I don't want eavesdroppers!

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  4. Also a former seamen's mission church in central Bristol, derelict for at least 30 years.

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  5. Turns out there's a bigger market for cheap bitter than expensive bitter. Who'd have thought it?

    Tell us all again why beer needs to be more expensive, beer geeks?

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  6. Why are the London outlets so completely different from the Northern ones (apart from the beer range)?

    Far from being 'clean and bright' they are pretty much all cluttered and dingy and labyrinthine, the clientele is overwhelmingly city suits/lawyers and tourists, and there's no sign that a ban on phones is being enforced.

    It seems like an odd policy to maintain pubs that feel markedly different in a different part of the country, when the opposite approach has been so successful for Tim Martin and his imitators.

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    1. I know what Tandleman means - while many of their Northern pubs are Victorian in feel, others were either built or remodelled in the inter-war period or the 1950s and still have the restrained, unfussy design ethos of that period. See the photo of the lounge in this account of the Crow's Nest in Cleethorpes.

      It's really Wetherspoon's who are the outliers in imposing a single format on all their pubs. Pubs belonging to family brewers will typically vary greatly in character depending on the location and clientele, and Sam's are probably more standardised than most. In some of their pubs in cities outside their traditional trading area such as Bristol and Oxford they try to recreate their London formula with rather mixed results.

      Most of the clientele in their Northern pubs are older people from the C1C2DE social groups, mostly although not entirely male, a demographic that is relatively rare in central London.

      As in many other things, for example politics, London is very different from the rest of the country.

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  7. You spoiled it by criticising his mobile phone ban. Clearly there is a market for it. I don'y carry one around with me and still manage to function.

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  8. Not many people know if Smiths' really is a success story since the firm went private some 15 years ago and there is hence no obligation to make their accounts public - which they don't. This of course includes director's remuneration - although the board now seems to be all family members. The company is 'unlimited' so the shareholders can be pursued for unpaid debts, which might influence their attitude to trading with third parties.

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    1. Surely even private companies need to lodge basic accounts with Companies House, though.

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    2. The problem is that vulnerable individuals get doxxed because of companies that are long-defunct.

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