Friday 2 September 2016

Follow the money to the retail park

If you want to know what’s happening in an industry, often the best way is to look at where the major players are spending their money, as that’s what’s likely to influence trends in the coming years. While we’re regularly hearing reports about pubs being given “craft makeovers”, much of the serious money in the pub trade is being spent somewhere else entirely, in new-build dining pubs on retail parks and other suburban and out-of-town locations.

I recently wrote about the delights of the Vaults in Uttoxeter, but even that small town (population 13,100) has two of them – Marston’s Dapple Grey on the retail park, and Whitbread’s Water Bridge as part of the “Service Area” on the bypass.

A couple of years ago, borrowing somewhat from a blogpost by Phil Mellows, I wrote in my Opening Times column:

While these pubs cater for a different market than your average Wetherspoon’s, they come off pretty well in a direct comparison. They often demonstrate a much higher standard of seating comfort and materials, and also beat Spoons hands down in areas such as providing natural light and toilets on the same level as the bar area.

And they’re proving extremely successful, demonstrating that there are thousands of families across the country who, rather than cook and eat at home, prefer to go out for a meal once or twice a week. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed, informal atmosphere and value for money they’re looking for. It’s noticeable how busy these pubs can get around tea-time when much of the trade that traditional pubs once enjoyed has evaporated.

They probably sell a lot of beer too – after all, only one person in a family group has to drive. And virtually all of them will offer real ale. Yet, for various reasons – no interesting beer, not somewhere they regularly if ever go – this is a phenomenon that has largely passed under the radar of the Beer Bubble denizens.

I recently had cause to visit a classic example – the Corn Mill at Toton on the west side of Nottingham, owned by Greene King under their Eating Inn brand, which is pitched a little upmarket of Hungry Horse. Not surprisingly, it’s right opposite a modern retail park. As it happened, I didn’t have an alcoholic drink at all, for the combination of reasons that I was driving, it was a very hot day, and the main reason I was there was to help a friend move into their new house following a job relocation. But we enjoyed a decent, well-presented meal in congenial surroundings, and it was noticeable how it was fairly busy even mid-afternoon on a Tuesday.

It’s a very big place, with the floor area of at least twenty micropubs, ranging from a definite “vault” area at the back with pool table and dartboard (so no dusty welcome to drinkers here) through to “family dining” at the other end. I’m not sure whether that meant that children were discouraged in the area on the other side of the sign. Apart from the usual Greene King beers, there were a number of guests on the bar, including Draught Bass and some from local micros. As I didn’t try any I can’t comment on the quality. I didn’t check, but no doubt there was an East Coast IPA tap and a few bottles of Punk IPA in the fridge to give a nod to the craft beer revolution.

Certainly far from my ideal pub, but I have to admit that owes more to the concept of heritage than modern business. They’re also going to get people into pubs who otherwise wouldn’t dream of visiting them. And does the success of the new-build dining pub suggest that we are increasingly dividing into the two nations of “Retail Park Britain” and “Northern Quarter Britain”?


  1. Catering to different markets doesn't necessarily mean different people, it just means the same people but in different situations. I'm sure most people reading this blog will have been in hundreds of pubs like this over the years.

    In a strange town, or if the venue is someone else's choice, I'm perfectly happy to eat at an Eating Inn (I also know a few around Notts) or drink in a Wetherspoons, but I would never go in places like that in towns I know well, given the option, because I know where all the better places are.

    They're pubs for people who don't really like pubs, and restaurants for people who don't really like restaurants. Which is a perfectly valid offering.

    1. I think you rather overestimate the degree to which people mix and match between different types of pub. There are probably many who regularly use this type of pub who never visit a town or city centre pub. Or indeed ever visit the centre of their nearest major town.

  2. WhatPub says the GKIPA is "aspirated". Does that mean it's served as a vape liquid?

    1. I asked Nottingham CAMRA about that but they didn't seem to have any idea either...

    2. Aspirator = CO2 breather.

  3. A very good point, well made. I think I've mentioned it a few times elsewhere. Those who like a traditional experience and any sort of interesting beery diversity are in the minority. Most people vote with their feet, or more accurately their cars and there money. For many, this type of experience is a red letter day sort of thing, hence this sort of place will thrive and sadly, is the future for the mass market. Bear in mind CAMRA only has around 0.3% of UK pop. in their membership.

  4. Over the past few years Marstons have sold a large number of smaller wet led pubs and have invested heavily in these retail park sheds. They earn a very healthy return and the economies of scale are significant, not least because, as brewers, they earn the full margin on ale sales.
    From my observations many of the customers are family groups, often three generations.
    The sales spike on Sundays and for one offs like Mothers/ Fathers Day are huge.
    I doubt that they would use other styles of pub as a group, although individual family members might well on different occasions.

  5. The convenience factor scores well for these places. I don't use them often, but the last time I did, we were buying a car- at an out-of town retail park. We didn't want takeaway fast food, we were in the car anyway, and not in a big hurry. It's easy, convenient, not too expensive, you can pay with a card if you don't have cash, the food is not bad. Not a place I'd go to for a drink alone, and very different from what I look for in a pub, but if fulfils a market.

  6. The Corn Mill was built by Kimberley brewery before GK took over and closed the brewery down.
    I have always found it to be a decent pub to either have just a drink or a meal and drink and it is family friendly,they usually have beers from Nottingham brewery on the bar.

    I would like to pick up on two of PYs comments,i live in Nottinghamshire and most people in the county hate it being called Notts,also i love pubs and dont mind going in these new build pubs which do food,so wrong again PY.


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