Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hiding your light under a bushel

Boak & Bailey recently posted a picture on Twitter of a sign outside the Dock Inn in Penzance listing the beers that are on offer. This struck both them and me as a good idea, especially for pubs that don’t offer a constantly varying range of guest beers where you know you’ll be taking pot luck, but those where a particular beer might tempt you in off the street. In that case, I’d certainly fancy trying the Spingo.

This reminds me of an Opening Times column I wrote back in 2002 which remains just as true today:

Walking around a popular tourist town, I was struck by the way many pubs sell themselves short in trying to attract customers. They may have looked welcoming enough, but there was nothing at all to indicate what kind of food and drink they sold.

In the past, when most pubs belonged to specific breweries, their ownership gave them a clear identity. Not only did you know what beer was on offer inside, but you also had a good idea about what kind of pub to expect, as most brewers had a distinctive house style that ran through their estates. Now that so many are in the hands of faceless pub companies, there’s nothing outside to tell one from another. While it would be a waste of time to display “Punch Taverns” or “Enterprise Inns”, a listing of the major beer brands on offer would surely be extremely useful.

Pubs also fall down in failing to display menus outside, particularly when there is plenty of passing trade on foot. Many people don’t appreciate the wide range of good value food on offer in pubs, and seeing a particular dish on a menu may make the difference between crossing the threshold and going elsewhere. When traditional pubs face such strong competition from branded bar and restaurant chains, they really should not be hiding their light under a bushel.

Fifteen years later, it is still a puzzle as to why pubs are so coy about what is on offer inside. It’s another example of them seeming to imagine that they are exempt from the normal principles that apply to every other type of retail business – the failure to display opening hours being another. I was actually under the impression that restaurants were obliged to display menus outside, but presumably pubs don’t think that applies to them. It can often take only a very small cue to trigger the decision between going in and walking by.

It’s also interesting to reflect on the point I made in the top item.

Obviously no official publicity campaign extolling the virtues of the swift half, or saying “the world’s a better place after a couple of pints”, is likely to be forthcoming. All we can look for is that social changes will over time reduce the attractiveness of heavy drinking to the young, as the talkies did in the 1930s, and rock’n’roll and coffee bars in the 1950s, and hope that process will not drag down many traditional pubs in its wake.
It’s certainly true that social changes have led to a dramatic fall-off in drinking, both heavy and light, amongst the young, which was hard to foresee back then. But, sadly, it hasn’t resulted in a renewed vogue for the “swift half”.


  1. I've seen a variation whereby the keg badges (but it could equally be pump clips) are displayed outside. Slightly off-topic but another pub decided to put a live feed of the beer garden on a monitor in the front porch but this backfired when people could see the pub was deserted without walking in. But I did think at the time it could be a shot of the beer engines instead. Pubs do advertise what's on tap via social media so I suppose that's a modern take on it. Visitors probably wouldn't be following the pub though.

    1. The Bree Louise, Euston, is an example of a pub that puts all its beers and food of the day up on boards outside the pub, as well as having screen lists and menus inside.
      Wonder what the overall effect is? Sometimes encourages me inside; sometimes walk on by if nothing on particularly want, when might have popped in and then had something anyway if there hadn't been confirmation outside.

  2. I was in Kent with my daughter, aged around 20, and had time to kill so went to Rochester to see the cathedral and castle. We walked down the High Street at lunchtime: we were looking around more than looking for somewhere to eat but were aware of the time. I saw two or three reasonable looking pubs but they did not display even if they did food: the last pub we passed before the end of the High Street was a Wethersoons. They may not do great food, although the curry and side orders were perfectly acceptable, but we did expect them to do food and at a reasonable price. Why would we try one of the other pubs when we did not even know if they did food?

    1. Yes, Rochester is precisely the kind of place, with a lot of casual visitors on foot, where this point is most relevant. I remember visiting there some years ago and finding the selection of pubs on the High Street distinctly uninviting.

  3. The Blocked Dwarf20 March 2017 at 00:23

    " It’s another example of them seeming to imagine that they are exempt from the normal principles that apply to every other type of retail business"

    While I don't disagree (especially about Opening Hours, in this flexi-time world) I do feel uneasy about Pubs 'conforming' to 'normal retail principles'. A public house should be just that ie a house or home, and how many people put up chalk boards outside their home proclaiming visitors will be served with Typhoo and Jaffa Cakes? In some ways a pub is the exact opposite of a 'normal' retail business or even a restaurant.

    1. I think that's true of "locals", but not really of High Street venues that are having to compete with Spoons and Pizza Express for the business of casual punters.

    2. The Blocked Dwarf20 March 2017 at 18:58

      "for the business of casual punters"

      Except every publican, indeed pretty much any other retailer, I have ever met would have said that he'd prefer ONE solid regular to ten casual punters. Problem with casual punters that if they don't become regulars, which I agree can happen, they'll casually take their diner's club card elsewhere.

  4. Aren't pubs meant to look grim and uninviting? That way the families with kids swerve the gaff and go to the chain restaurant.

  5. The statutory requirements vary - see for the varying display obligations on 'food supplying' areas. Pubs are treated differently, but even the legal requirements there are often ignored in my rather limited experience.

    Good businesses will make it clear from the outside, whether it is proclaiming so and so's famous stouts and ales, or traditional ales, food and board, cheap eats, what's on offer. But while it may be clear at my local it doesn't stop people coming in and asking where the dining room is.

  6. Your post rings a lot of bells with me: I too have sometimes found pubs can be quite bad at letting people know what they're up to. If they're happy with their existing custom, then I suppose it's okay, but if they want more people in, it requires a bit of time and effort. I wrote something similar in February.

  7. I'd be happy with just opening hours and food service times, though I agree a menu outside makes a lot of sense.


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