Monday, 31 August 2015

Hit and miss

In recent years, we have seen a huge expansion of the German discount supermarket chains ALDI and Lidl. Before acquiring any new site, I’m sure they study very carefully the demographics of the local area, the prominence of the location and the ease of access to it. No doubt Greene King and Marstons do the same when looking at building new dining pubs, and likewise BrewDog and Wetherspoons. Spoons sometimes get it wrong, but they generally don’t, and their failures generally result from going a little outside their comfort zone.

But pub operators in general don’t have that luxury, and are in effect saddled with the estate they’ve already got, which will generally have been established in times when the pattern of demand was very different. Most of our pubs are still on sites that were pubs before 1914, and something that is often forgotten is that, in the days before buses and electric trams, many men would regularly walk two, three or four miles to and from work, and thus had plenty of opportunity to call in for a pint or six on their way home. This helps to account for the way pubs are (or were) strung out along all the main radial routes from cities and large towns, but clearly it is something that no longer applies.

The distinctive trade of many pubs has developed over the years in a kind of hit-and-miss fashion – this one a music pub, this one a sports pub, this one a codgers’ pub, this one a young folks’ pub. But any pub operator investing substantial money in a refurbishment scheme needs to consider the potential market very carefully. It’s no longer a matter of “if you build it, they will come”, if it ever was. In the past, pub operators have been guilty of many ludicrous flights of fancy that might have seemed a good idea after a long lunch but were based on no market research whatsoever – who ever imagined that doing a pub up as a smugglers’ cave would boost trade in the long term?

I still get the impression, though, that many modern-day refurbishments are done on a kind of seat-of-the-pants basis without any in-depth research. Pub operators really need to consider:

  • Who is going to come here?
  • Will they be people already in the area, or will they make a special journey?
  • How are they going to get here, and back again?
  • At what times of the day will they come?
  • What beers and other drinks will they want to buy?
  • Will they want food and, if so, of what kind?
  • What is the key factor that will make them visit this pub as opposed to another?
But I’m not sure whether they really think this through, or just take the view that, if it’s a bit smarter than it was before, the customers will flock in. Recently, Robinsons have carried out quite an expensive refurb on a pub in one of Stockport’s satellite towns. It’s quite sympathetic, but it’s all a bit pastel, the beer offering verges towards the “crafty”, and the lunchtime snacks are a touch “gastro” and a long way from basic butties. I can’t help wondering who they think they are targeting, and that any idea this will become the trendy go-to meeting place in the locality is surely misguided.

Going back a couple of decades, there was a trend for the major brewers to convert pubs to the then-trendy “alehouse” theme regardless of any consideration whether there would be a demand for it in that location – the Chapel House in Heaton Chapel being a prime example. Over the years, I’ve seen several examples of pub operators trying to introduce an up-market food format in obviously unsuitable locations, and indeed a smaller number of cheap’n’cheerful food operations in prosperous middle-class areas. There are obvious examples of thriving pubs of various kinds, but it shouldn’t be assumed that a winning formula will translate to another location, especially if done in a half-hearted, by-numbers way.

Locally, Holts’ attempts to turn the Griffin in Heaton Mersey into a smart dining pub particularly stand out. They carried out a thorough refurbishment to make it look posher and introduced an ambitious, expensive menu, promoted by prominent on-street A-boards. But it clearly didn’t work, and the food offer has been repeatedly reduced and made more affordable. Unlike some other Holts’ pubs, it’s not really a good location for a dining pub, and its general appearance and layout still shout “boozer”. It seems they have lost the lunchtime clientele who used to have a couple of pints and a bacon roll without attracting any replacements who fancy a pan-fried lamb shank.


  1. As an aside you reference a pub done up as a smuggler's cave. Not sure where that is, but in my hometown of South Shields there is a pub in a *real* smuggler's cave in the cliffside, accessible from a very old lift from the top or from steps up from the beach at the bottom. Called the Marsden Grotto, I think. I must admit I've never been inside it - too young to want to drink there when I was a kid, and only been back to the town a couple of times since then. I assume it's still open as I think it was/is popular.

    1. It was still open when I last visited the north-east five years ago.

      I didn't go in so can't say how busy it was.

  2. Martin, Cambridge31 August 2015 at 18:21

    Interesting piece, and typically perspective about food. As you guess, my sense is that pub companies assume that slightly smarter eating houses are the way to go, and then gradually pull back on quality and cost as they're proved wrong. Chef & Brewer and Vintage Inns were genuinely quite good when they started (e.g. fresh fish in the C&B) before moving to £5 lunches and me-too menus. Only Brunning & Price seem to be operating at restaurant-standard level, and Wetherspoons mop up most of the lunchtime budget trade.

  3. Just realised I've never been in a Lidl in this country (there's one near the gaff in Italy I've used) and I've never been to an Aldi anywhere. In fact I'm not sure I've set eyes on one. Where are they? My mum and dad love em

  4. Martin, Cambridge31 August 2015 at 18:44

    Aldi is opening up everywhere down here (Cambridge/Ely). Taking Tesco custom.

    By the way Stonch, that Marsden Grotto was there when I was there last a few years back. Gorgeous beach.

  5. This is the pub I was thinking of that was done up as a smugglers' cave - complete with live alligator! Such bizarre themes were common back then.

    My local ALDI is so popular that on Sunday mornings they're queueing to get into the car park!

  6. You're right that it does sometimes seem to be a gamble rather than judgement but when it works, it really works -- the Nags Head in Walthamstow was an absolute lost cause but when that opened 'a bit smarter than before', it drew out a lot of people who'd either not been going to the pub, or had been going to the pub in Central London rather than where they live.

    But I appreciate that London is an odd place.

    A pub round the corner from us in Penzance that got the pastel paintwork treatment last year doesn't seem to have worked out at all -- not 'pubby' enough for drinkers, and not gastro enough for gastronauts.

  7. @Bailey - there's a special skill in spotting the signs and getting in right at the start of the gentrification process.

  8. I'm sure you're right, CM, but I get the impression that pub designers think they can dictate taste and steer what people want. They're wrong of course: if a customer pokes his nose around the door of a favourite local that had been done up and doesn't like what he sees, he'll turn on his heel and go elsewhere. You then have the job of building up a different customer base from a lower level than the one you had pre-closure.

  9. The two most expensive refurbishments in my area,one a normal pub,the other an ex Smith & Jones pub,have lead to pubs doing wet sales only and pitching their prices just above the two local Wetherspoons.

    But these are towns on the west side of Nottingham where most pubs are wet sales only in the town centres.

    PS that link to the crocodile pub was taken by me when i went in in the mid 90s.

  10. @RedNev - yes, I'm agreeing with you there. Designers seem to impose what they think is a good idea rather than what the customers actually want. For example, who has ever asked for posing tables to be installed in a pub when it is refurbished?

    FWIW I think restaurants tend to do a lot better on this front, because everyone has to sit down somewhere, and it's easier to work out revenue per table, so it's clearer what works and what doesn't. And you'll often find restaurants actually have more bench seating than many pubs.

  11. From my working life I know that some retailers and pub operators (e.g. Aldi and M&B)use very detailed research & complex stats models, some take a half-baked look at local consumer data,and others do their own thing until it all goes wrong. The problem with pubs is that as consumers we're not as predictable in our destinations as, for example, we are with supermarket shopping.

    Go on Jeff let the folks take you to an Aldi - live a little!


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