Much of this has been achieved by pursuing policies that come across as distinctly idiosyncratic, to say the least, but in the right location, combined with very competitive prices, it certainly does work, and results in some extremely busy and bustling pubs. But, in the past couple of years, there has been a feeling that some of the diktats emanating from Tadcaster are beginning to lose touch with reality.
First came the swearing ban. Now, most people don’t want to walk into a pub and be confronted with a wave of effing and blinding. However, surely it is something best left to individual licensees rather than being the subject of an edict from head office. It’s hard to define precisely and very difficult to enforce – away from the bar, one of the Sam’s pubs I visit still must be about the sweariest place in the locality.
Then, last Autumn, came a ban on taking card payments, so the pubs were cash only. In practice, even before, there had been a minimum spend of £20, so it only applied to groups who were eating and had no impact on drinkers. This was prompted by the EU making it illegal to impose surcharges on card payments. However, it seems perverse to turn potential business away, and I have seen groups come in to Sam’s pubs and be nonplussed that they can’t pay for a meal with a card.
They have now gone one step further by, as widely reported over the weekend, imposing a ban on using mobile phones in their pubs. A memo sent out by chairman Humphrey Smith says:
“...the brewery's policy is not to allow customers mobile phones, laptops or similar inside our pubs. If a customer receives a call then he or she should go outside to take it in the same way as is required with smoking. Whether outside or inside, tablets and iPads must be prohibited. Customers must not be allowed to receive transmitted pictures of sport or downloads music apps on the brewery's premises either inside or outside.”When they were first introduced, mobile phones were widely derided as fashion accessories for yuppies who would shout “OK yah!” and “I’m on the train!” into them. However, like it or not, they have now become an integral part of modern life, and only a small minority of adults don’t possess one. This is especially true following the widespread takeup of smartphones over the past decade.
Perhaps it’s not that unreasonable to discourage people from holding loud phone conversations in the pub, or from listening to music or sports commentaries on their devices. But using a phone to browse the Internet in silence is little different in principle from reading the newspaper, and whether this is also prohibited is not entirely made clear. Indeed the solo drinker might well now be more likely to check their phone than to read the paper. And many a pub debate is resolved by consulting Wikipedia to check the facts. It may be hard for Humphrey Smith to comprehend, but plenty of 73-year-old blokes in Yorkshire now have smartphones.
Like the swearing ban, this policy poses an obvious issue of enforceability, and also has the potential to seriously sour relations between customers and staff if there is any serious attempt to ensure it is adhered to. What may before have come across as a laudable desire to plough your own furrow could now have turned into shooting yourself in the foot.
Last weekend, I was in one Sam Smith’s pub where I was browsing on my phone, and the licensee came round collecting glasses, but didn’t say a word. And, in another one, the licensee himself was standing behind the bar checking his phone. In one that I sometimes go in there’s no signal inside the pub anyway, so it won’t make any difference.
It’s also worth noting that both the cash-only policy and the mobile phone ban only apply in Sam’s Northern region. Maybe a little more commercial reality intrudes in the South, or it is viewed as a place of irretrievable decadence. Or, possibly, those pubs are too distant for Humphrey Smith to make a sudden unannounced visit.