Friday, 19 February 2016

Pub eat pub

Two Robinson's pubs next
door to each other
A Marston’s tenant in Droitwich has complained that her business has been adversely affected by the company giving preferential discounts to other pubs in the area. On the face of it, this seems totally unreasonable – a pub operator should offer all its licensees in the same area the same terms. But, given that the other pubs were “new sites”, you have to question how far they were away, and whether they were targeting the same market. If one or both were dining pubs on the bypass two miles away, it’s doubtful how much trade they would extract from a wet-led local.

It’s an interesting question for any pub operator to what extent their pubs compete with each other. Clearly, for dining pubs, the distance will be greater as customers will be more willing to drive to them. I believe Greene King have a formula to work out the required distance between Hungry Horses so that they won’t cannibalise each other’s trade. For wet-led pubs in urban areas, it will probably be well under a mile.

But many operators have collections of pubs much closer to each other. Some of our remaining traditional brewers have a strong concentration of pubs in their home town, such as Jennings in Cockermouth, Adnams in Southwold and Palmers in Bridport. As long as it doesn’t extend too far, I’d say that’s a feature of the British brewing scene that we should cherish. It’s always good to drink a beer on its home territory.

Our local brewer, Robinsons, have never had a dominant position in central Stockport, but have ended up controlling the vast majority of pubs in some outlying areas. In Hazel Grove their position has been eroded by closures and the opening of a Wetherspoons, but they still control all five “proper” pubs in the centre of Marple, although there are a couple of micropubs in the process of opening up.

From a competition point of view, that’s less than ideal, but it doesn’t necessarily involve a bland uniformity. On the CAMRA forum, one poster suggested that, given the relative size of their estates, Wetherspoon’s were much less dominant than Punch or Enterprise, but that failed to recognise the fact that every Wetherspoons pub provides essentially the same offer. Their recent programme of closing branches close to another suggests they have recognised the risk of cannibalising sales. On the other hand, nearby Punch pubs may be very different from each other in terms of beer and food offer and general ambiance.

If you have a concentration of pubs in a particular area, the key to success is to differentiate them from each other. One may be a vaguely trendy “craft” bar, another a live music venue, another a codgers’ drinking shop, another a family dining outlet. There may be a lack of choice in terms of beer, but that really isn’t something that bothers most pub customers, and they still have a wide choice of types of pub. There are still pairs of Robinsons’ pubs next door to each other, such as the Grapes and Three Tunnes in Hazel Grove (pictured), but the brewery have in recent years tried to differentiate their pubs into various “themes”. Over time, the customers often end up determining the character of each pub anyway without any deliberate influence from the owners.

And, if you’re Marston’s, or any other large pub operator, you need to ensure that any of your pubs that are in close promixity do not compete directly with each other with a very similar offer. If they do, and you give one favourable treatment over another, then you shouldn’t be surprised if your licensees cry foul.


  1. You make a good point about cherishing towns with a number of pubs from a family brewer. I guess Lewes and Harveys, and Faversham and Sheps are other examples (there won't be that many others); the pubs there all seem to have their supporters despite a lot of similarity. Faversham does offer a lot of variety.

  2. Brakspear's in Henley used to be another good example - about 25 pubs of which only 3 belonged to any other brewer. And Cockermouth and Keswick are still dominated by Jennings pubs, likewise Tadcaster by Sam's. There aren't from memory that many Harvey's pubs in Lewes itself.

    In my formative drinking days, Warrington and most of north Cheshire were heavily dominated by Greenalls, which wasn't something to be cherished, although when well-kept their beer could be much better than often given credit for.

  3. oh come on, whilst retail the price of a pint matters less in a restaurant than a pub it is a shyster pub co that sell at differing prices to his tenants.

    The big pubcos seem to get most stick for dodgy practice but even the smaller ones are dodgy. I've seen Hydes & Robbies beer in Spoons near either tied house £1 a pint cheaper. I would suspect its a wake up call to the tied landlord that he's in bed with someone he needs to dump.

    You'd be a mug to run a pub as anything other than freehold.

  4. A funny thing is happening with Everards in Leicester. They have a lot of pubs in the city and county, and it is still the case that you can buy a pint of Tiger cheaper in a freehold than you can one of their tied houses (which must be a bit baffling and seem counter intuitive to customers).

    However, I have noticed that they are now doing a lot more free of tie deals and letting tennants brand their pubs as non-Everards. Also, where refurbs are done they seem to be moving away from conspicous Everards signage. Maybe they are ahead of the curve.

    1. Kieran - those Project William pubs are some of the most impressive developments I've seen. It's a shame that Tiger so often disappoints as a beer, with the Original being good but a bit too strong for a session.

    2. Yes I agree, and I think they have rightly won 'best pub company' or some such for their efforts. Shame, like you say, that these days their brewing is not up to scratch. Some of the seasonal brews can be ok (especially Regimental IPA in Nov for poppy day). Some are awful, like Tighthead, currently on for the 6 nations.

  5. Some of the old family breweries with tied houses had a surprisingly low profile in the town centres that they brewed in. Harveys in Lewis only had one tied house before the 1980's, the Southover Arms, and the other pubs selling their beer in Lewes belonged to Beards who gave up brewing after a yeast infection. Holts in Manchester had no pubs near the brewery -not even a brewery tap (neither did Harveys have one). Most of the tied house estates belonging to smaller breweries were accumulated ad-hoc at the end of the 19th century and those that didn't get any went bankrupt (even big ones like Allsops). So, geographic distribution of tied pubs could be odd.

    1. Burtonwood, while they had three pubs in their home village, had virtually none in the large nearby towns of Warrington, Widnes and St Helens, which were dominated by Greenalls. Their largest concentration seemed to be in and around Wigan. And Marston's pubs were thin on the ground in Burton.

      Holts did (and still do) have the Derby Brewery Arms which was fairly close to the brewery, although a half-mile slog out from the city centre. It's described on WhatPub? as the brewery tap.

  6. I was a student at Padgate College on the edge of Warrington in the 1970s. Greenalls rightly called the area Greenall Whitley land, and you could even get GWL car stickers. In all that time, we found only one pub in the surrounding countryside, not in Warrington itself, where we considered the beer to be good. The very few Tetley pubs were a welcome respite, and we found one that still sold the old Walkers Bitter. I cannot agree that Greenalls "beer could be much better than often given credit for", and I'm sure you wouldn't if you'd lived in the area for five years in the 70s.

    Boddingtons was the revered beer at the time among us students, and - being from Liverpool - I also was very fond of Higsons. If we wanted either, however, we had to travel. Greenalls is a fine example of how mediocre a brewer with a captive audience can become.

    1. A lot of Greenalls beer back then was tank, and so not real. But, especially south of the Ship Canal, many of their pubs had cask. Not the greatest beer in the world, but as I said pretty decent when well kept. From that era I particularly remember it being good in the Ring O'Bells at Daresbury and the Hatton Arms at Hatton, both just south of Warrington.


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