Wednesday, 3 April 2019

A ban too far?

In the past, I’ve often praised the way Sam Smith’s preserve a traditional, cosy atmosphere of pub conviviality and conversation in a way that sets them apart from any of their competitors. In a Sam’s pub, you’re likely to find comfortable bench seating and a real fire, but you won’t find any TV sport or piped music and, while many do serve food, it isn’t allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else, and you’re unlikely to suffer screaming children running around.

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.

30 comments:

  1. Maybe Humph is just trolling us all? He’s seeing what people will put up with to get a cheaper pint? The last laughter of an old man taking the piss?

    Like you, I like Sam’s pubs. The ale & lagers are great quality & they maintain an old school authenticity of pubs that is a selling point. And it’s cheap. Can’t argue with cheap.

    Many of those getting annoyed at the audacity of Humph are not the types likely to use his pubs anyway, so much of the criticism means little. You can’t boycott a pub chain you never go in anyway.

    If you take the swearing ban. Most gentrified pubs don’t have a problem with Effers and Jeffers propping up the bar, dragging the place down. Maintaining a respectable establishment if you price at the value end is a challenge. You’re not pricing out the deadbeats, so you need to strictly enforce rules that control the deadbeats and don’t put off respectable custom. Sam’s have this challenge as do Spoons. Some pubs manage the challenge better than others. As you say, this can be more about the landlord than central edicts, but you can’t blame Humph for establishing a standard any more than Timbo. Once the rule is there, he is better placed to call out the rougher pubs.

    As for the mobile device use. I’ve noticed that pubs during the day are mainly solitary blokes reading mobile devices. Whether 20 years ago this was the same but with newspapers, you tell me. If you offer Wi-Fi you’ve gotta be careful on the legality if people are streaming shows or sports, I would guess. Do people want to talk to each other? I’ve talked to strangers in pubs, that’s why I like to arm myself with a Daily Telegraph.

    As for cash/cards. Cash has costs. Card has costs. It is the cost of doing business. If you want to maximise your trade, you take all forms of cash. Those that don’t have guessed that some trade isn’t worth the cost. All the trendy brewery taps near Piccadilly station are card only and all punters I saw wanted to pay with cash. Go figure. I buy sausage rolls in Greggs with a Samsung smartwatch, because I’m down with the kids.

    Like all Humph edicts, the proof will be in the application and likely altered if trade drops off a cliff. Those shouting the loudest don’t really drink in the value pubs.

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    1. 20 years ago, before Spoons and the smoking ban, blokes in pubs were more likely to actually chat to each other.

      It's also true that most of those calling for a boycott of Spoons over Brexit/low wages/screwing small brewers or whatever are those who never go in there in the first place.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie4 April 2019 at 14:08

      I've often thought that blokes in a Wetherspoons might not actually chat to each other because most of them are such soulless depressing venues.
      I would never call for a boycott of Tim's venues but very rarely use them myself, especially after noon. Now where's the address of our old friend in Sussex for posting my 50p vouchers ?

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    3. " I’ve talked to strangers in pubs, that’s why I like to arm myself with a Daily Telegraph."
      Oh, you would not want to do that in Brighton pubs, you will get granola thrown at you!

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  2. This isn't new - just a reiteration of a policy that's been in place for at least three years and was a result of him finding people watching live sports on a tablet - which could potentially make him liable for various licensing and copyright breaches and costs because it was taking place on his premises, regardless who was playing it. Humphrey is hell-bent on keeping the pubs traditional, affordable and profitable. This is the only remaining vertical brewing and pubs operator that doesn't add a retail margin at the point of sale. Something that should be celebrated, but of course not by the whining progressives, who, as Cookie pointed out, won't go in, but like to be outraged anyway.

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    1. I'd vote for a Cookie/Electric Pics coalition, particularly if they banned those dogs that lick your feet.

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    2. It is also the only pub chain selling what the old timers refer to as "beer from the wood", but as this comes from 36 gallon wooden barrels it requires turnover. So they only sell the one cask & sell it cheap. Yet those that would campaign, complain it does not offer "choice", despite offering a choice unavailible elsewhere. The choice they appear to want is identical to the choice availible in many other pubs in the surrounding area.

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    3. I believe they do also supply OBB in 18-gallon wooden casks.

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    4. enhancing choice is offering something unique to the market, not offering the same as every other pub.

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  3. Down in London, lots of folks go to Sam's in mid afternoon for a bit of peace to do some work on the old laptop - rather in the way that the yoof use Starbucks etc. The bartenders, whether Aussie, Kiwi or Eastern European, are constantly checking their mobiles. Even when the places fill up in the evenings with businessmen, students, with the occasional tradesman - these Marylebone estates employ painters and chippies to keep them smart - cash is seldom used and they only serve food upstairs, thus segregating drinkers from feeders. A ban on mobiles and cashless payments would probably be unworkable

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  4. Surely it is a case of "My gaff, my rules". If Humphrey is prepared to loose money in order to indulge his prejudices that is a rich man's privilege.
    For the rest of us: we can frequent his pubs or not according to how important ones mobile phone is to one.

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  5. Most pubs are too noisy for a proper phone conversation. I tend to use mine to check that people I am due to meet are on their way (or I'm in the wrong pub!), and also if I need a cab home. Because I have some mobility problems, this is the most important use given that most pubs now seem to have given up on phones to cab firms - in fact, along with customer phones in general.

    In my part of London there are no Smiths pubs anyway - there were at least 26 once across London but the total has perhaps halved since those days. However, if staying somewhere in Yorkshire I'll know where not to go for a last pint of the evening.

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    1. There are actually 37 Sam Smiths pubs in the London boroughs. That number increased steadily since the first were bought in 1978. The big push started when the former Henekeys estate was bought from Grand Met in 1982 taking the total at the time to 12. None have been sold but a couple were leasehold properties and were handed back when the leases weren't renewed.

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  6. Incidentally, Wetherspoons are having 40 year celebrations this year, not 20.

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  7. A ban that is impossible to enforce (either through indifference or being deliberately ignored), isn't a ban at all.

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  8. I'm all for mobile phone bans so let's hope Humphrey's idea catches on. Perhaps pubs could build outdoor phone shelters for users.

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  9. The observation of people streaming TV and therefore potentially falling foul of public performance licencing is an interesting one I hadn't considered, but I don't think the provision of wifi really is relevant to that now 3G/4G is fast and common enough to stream without it. I'd be interested to know where the responsibility would lie, legally, if I was to walk into a pub that didn't pay for BT sport with a tablet, and start streaming it to a table of mates, for example, not that I'd do it (for many reasons).

    Personally, my own views on device use are that it's fine, if silent or used with headphones (which would solve the licencing issue too, surely?). Phone calls should be made outside to avoid disturbing others. Cards and cash and Apple/Google pay should be accepted, because making it easy fro customers is good, maybe with a minimum spend on cards to counter handling fees (though as Cookie points out, handling cash isn't free either, and if 'spoons or Greggs can afford to take card/phone payments for a couple of quid a pop, then there's no excuse, really.

    Sam Smiths' bans won't affect me, as they don't trade anywhere near me, but I'd take my business elsewhere if asked to put my phone away, because I'll often surf the web on it. I'll chat if conversation occurs, but I'm happy just surfing or reading a book.

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    1. agreed, its surprised me if it is an issue in terms of the law,has there ever been a successful prosecution yet or a test case ? because fine its not something thats necessarily widespread in pubs yet, but Ive seen it happen enough in pubs with wifi to know the people doing it dont feel they are doing anything wrong and the broadcasters go out of their way it seems to make their content as available anywhere via mobile platforms.

      but to be fair most pubs have really poor wifi coverage due to the buildings themselves,inner walls, location of the wifi hub,setup, etc and that usually translates to lack of data signal on a mobile network, so Sam Smiths just need to keep running old traditional style pub buildings and the problem will in most cases resolve itself

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    2. You can get a mobile signal in my Sams local, as long as you don't mind holding your phone as high as possible near the bar windows.

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  10. The Stafford Mudgie4 April 2019 at 02:17

    "both the cash-only policy and the mobile phone ban only apply in Sam’s Northern region" - so are Londoners paying a £1.40 a pint surcharge for the privilege of swearing and 'phoning ?

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    1. AFAIK they're not exempt from the swearing ban.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie4 April 2019 at 10:07

      Swearing, paying by card, using mobile gadgets - at my age it's all too easy to mix up things one doesn't do (much) !

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  11. The Stafford Mudgie4 April 2019 at 08:54

    It is indeed "not that unreasonable to discourage people from ...... listening to music or sports commentaries on their devices".
    While staying in Ambleside last week the pub I used the most was the Golden Rule, more for being a Proper Quiet Pub than for the Robinsons Beers.
    Two couples sat at the next table to me were sharing some sort of entertainment on a mobile device, were asked by the barman to desist and switched it off.
    The Golden Rule, in Matthew chapter 7 verse 12, is "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them" and ideally that would be the only rule necessary.

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  12. Every pub has a swearing ban. Name a pub it's okay to go in, prop up the bar and start effing and jeffing and using f**k as constant adjective? Okay, every pub except rough as arseholes flat roof pubs. Every respectable pub.

    Every landlord will ask a punter to tone it down if they are annoying other punters or spoiling the tone of a place. Maybe on occasion ask someone to leave. Humph goes in to one of his own bargain pubs and the landlord has let standards slip. So, he sends out a central edict telling all his landlords to maintain standards. The only difference to other pubs is Humph seems to feel the need to set some standards and rules that largely should be a given and unnecessary to write down. A bit of micro managing after seeing someone in need of micro managing. I'm guessing it makes it easier to bollock those landlords in need of a bollocking once it’s a written rule.

    How many customers are claiming to have been unfairly chucked out or told to tone it down and feel hard done to because on one occasion they might have uttered “bugger me backwards” when surprised over an unexpected occurrence and chucked out?

    Every one moaning about this unreasonable restriction of the freedom to say the word f**k drinks in a pub where no one would ever say that anyway because such people have been priced out and have sodded off down spoons.

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    1. Interesting conversation with landlady of one of my locals the other lunchtime; she said tat when the pub was refurbed a few years ago, the pubco wanted to knock it through, and her and her husband wanted it left as 2 rooms, precisely because the bar can get sweary at knocking-off time, and the lounge might have families dining. This is neither a rough as arseholes pub, or some poncy gastropub; just an ordinary pub in an ordinary suburb. Knowing the landlady, she'll stop it if it gets too much- and this seems the right way to handle it.

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    2. sounds as rough as arseholes.

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    3. We can't all frequent the same classy establishments as your upwardly mobile good self :-)

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    4. For true refinement find yourself a clean tabled spoons, none of your sticky tabled spoons like what Mudge goes to in Stuckpit. ;)

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  13. I love Sam Smiths pubs. Superb OBB from the wood. Excellent prices. Good conversation. More power to Humphrey Smith.

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  14. I work for Sam Smiths an like the many rules. But find my job so hard as we do get alot of stick from some people. But if they don't like our rules then jog on.

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