Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Fox and Hedgehog

“Customer experience” expert Ian Golding has taken an in-depth look at What makes a good British pub? In particular he reports on the contrasting impression given by four pubs in West London all owned by the same pub company. His conclusion is very clear: “it is vital that each and every pub that still exists in the UK does one vital thing…….CLARIFY its PROPOSITION!!”

He certainly makes very valid points that many pubs don’t seem to be sure what they’re really about, and that a grudging, off-hand welcome is still far too common. It is astonishing how many pubs that serve food still fail to make it clear exactly what is on offer, and when. However, there are a couple of important caveats that need to be made.

Unlike shops and restaurants, to some extent most pubs serve a variety of functions that sometimes come into conflict with each other. For example, my local pub, with varying degrees of success, combines the roles of alehouse, dining outlet, sports bar, live music venue and drink and chat haven. One of the keys to success is maintaining a balance between these different aspects and customer groups. Some pubs can be specialist alehouses or quasi-restaurants, but most can’t.

Pubs also have a sense of community that you don’t find in shops and restaurants. People meet up there to socialise, and often spend a lot of time in there. It’s a home from home, not just a retail outlet. Successful pubs are also often at the heart of their local social scene, as the hub of sports teams, hosting meetings and arranging trips. This leads to a sense of belonging that goes beyond just what food and drink is on offer on any particular day, and in a sense is comparable to the allegiance shown to football clubs. I’ve been in pubs where the customers have been grumbling “the beer’s not much cop today” – but they still sit there and drink it.

A further point is that the trade of pubs often results from a very specific combination of occasion and geography. Very often, the choice is not so much which pub to go to, but whether to go to the local or just not bother.

Some pubs even give the impression of trying a bit too hard, with a plethora of special offers, promotions, events, product launches and theme nights all advertised on brightly-coloured notices and chalkboards. Many of the best pubs, though, just are what they are and don’t have to shout too loudly.

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus is reputed to have said “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” There are many pubs called The Fox, few if any called The Hedgehog.

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