Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Putting your wares on the table

The bar counter is a key element in a pub. It allows it to showcase the products that are available and highlight any new launches or lines being promoted. The customer can scan the rows of handpumps and taps, peer at the contents of fridges, cast their eye along the spirit bottles on the top shelf or even peruse the display cards of snacks. In many cases, product names and logos are created to make an impression in a bar service environment. Deprived of that shop window by the introduction of mandatory table service, pubs have to find other ways of selling their products.

The easiest option is to do nothing. Most customers tend to drink the same thing, or simply order a generic product, and they know what is on offer. The occasional question as to what lagers or white wines they have can be easily answered. Even if they can’t see the bar from where they are sitting, customers are likely to pass it on their way in, or to the toilet, and get a general impression of the range. The risk with this approach is that it will lead to a concentration on familiar, best-selling products, and anything more niche or marginal will be sidelined. It also makes it very difficult to introduce anything new.

The obvious solution is to produce a printed drinks menu, although for hygiene reasons this may need to be a disposable paper item. Yes, you can also put it on a website or app, but that won’t be available to everyone, and a sheet or paper is more visible and in-your-face. Wetherspoon’s have been doing this for years. This will force you to analyse your drinks range and possibly rationalise it – maybe you really don’t want to list that bottle of Sheep Dip whisky that’s been sitting around behind the bar for years. It could possibly make it more likely that people will choose some of the more obscure bottled beers or spirits that ordinarily they wouldn’t notice, and if pubs are so inclined they could even add tasting notes.

But what a fixed list will do is militate against having a rotating beer range, which supplies the bread-and-butter business for many small breweries. Many customers will scan the row of handpumps or keg taps for something unusual that takes their fancy. Of course a pub can produce an update of its drinks list each day, or print out an additional guest beers supplement, and in smaller bars and pubs a beer board may be visible to most customers without much difficulty. But there can be little doubt that, overall, the introduction of table service will lead to reduced opportunities for guest beers, especially in the more mainstream pubs where the pumpclip on the bar is what sells them.

Some people have said that the introduction of table service creates an opportunity to train bar staff to become more knowledgeable about the products on offer. However, at present, when pubs have their backs against the wall financially, this comes across as a pious aspiration. It also always seems to be very beer-centric – why shouldn’t they also know more about the range of wines or whiskies? It’s something that might be reasonable to expect in a specialist beer bar, but it’s not realistic to imagine that a server in a sports boozer will be able to explain the difference in flavour profile between Stella and San Miguel.

In Sweden, to buy any alcoholic drinks in the off-trade beyond weak beers, you need to visit a state-run Systembolaget store, where in the past you had to order your drinks from a printed list and have them brought to the counter from a store-room, Argos-style. Nothing was on display. Maybe having table service in pubs could be seen as a dress rehearsal for a future alcohol display ban in this country, in the same way as already applies to tobacco products.

As I’ve said before, there is nothing inherently unfeasible about table service in pubs, but it can’t be denied that it is much more labour-intensive than bar service, which is something that pubs will struggle to achieve in the current climate, and which in the longer term will inevitably push up costs and prices. Cooking Lager has some interesting things to say on the subject here.


  1. Excellent points.

    I hate table service, even though I never stand in pubs and I'm not too fussed about beer choice. But it's killing the pub experience and means I take ages to get and then pay for a pint, sometimes meaning staff have to visit my table 4 times with menus, glass and card machine after escorting me safely to my table.

    The heroic assumption that table service will turn bar staff on minimum wage into beer cicerone is the height of beer twitter snobbery.

    See also; Pubmeister's reflections today, which quote publican Adam Brooks https://pubmeister.wordpress.com/2020/10/13/just-in-timberland/

  2. Cheers for the link
    Maybe you are correct. Without menus people will pick what they know
    But table service is different from bar service. Table service is tippable. You all know I'm right.

  3. Wee Nippie (ironical name) would love that Swedish system.
    Many Scots already realise that she is a Swede, a tumshie,

  4. I've never been in a Systembolaget, but I have walked past and looked through the windows of a few, and they have very impressive ranges on display. I can't find one on street view that is open and doesn't have lots of reflections making it hard to see, but you can just about make out here: https://goo.gl/maps/TyxWUeBpwizryBuX8.

    I'm not denying that ones like you describe exist (I haven't noticed them, but by nature they'd be less noticeable), just that they can't indicate a government policy there not to display alcohol.

    1. You are right. According to Wikipedia, the system I described, which used to be general, has now been phased out in favour of self-service.

    2. "According to Wikipedia, the system I described, which used to be general, has now been phased out in favour of self-service."

      Don't feel bad Mudgie. In Ontario (Canada) they still have The Beer Store (it used to be called Brewer's Retail but tourists didn't realise it was the place to buy beer!). When I lived there years ago you had to put your order in to the fellow at the till, then someone in the back would slide your case of beer out from the back on the conveyor. Now it's all self serve and take to the till to pay.


  5. This period has highlighted something to me I've only ever had a sense of before about my pub behaviour, I really do value a pump clip.

    A blackboard or menu, even with a brewers name (recognisable or not), beer description and ABV just doesn't cut it and I'd be even less enamoured with any member of staff describing what they have got and what its like.

    Granted there are plenty of crap pump clips out there that don't even do the basics right but when it all comes down, it feels like a more free choice. Plus there is always a lag between menu/blackboard updates and what is actually on at the bar at the best of times.

    1. Yes, I always feel psychologically more confident if I can see the pumplclip, even I'm in a pub I trust and a board tells me it's on in the other bar.

  6. Is there any difference between Stella and San Miguel?

  7. Bizarre innit?
    One minute there's too many beers on and it's all sarsons. Better if there was just one bitter!
    Next it's can't see all the pump clips of all the bitters, oh noes!

    Make your minds up lads.

    1. One bitter is quite enough, Cookie. But the dog still prefers to see the rabbit.

  8. Professor Pie-Tin14 October 2020 at 10:58

    News from the dark side.
    The local is closed again.Only two weeks after re-opening for the first time since March except for the disastrous weekend serving pizza.
    No inside drinking allowed.Any outside space is limited to 15 people even if it's the size of a football pitch.
    The politicians say the latest measures are for three weeks only but no-one believes pubs will be open again this side of Christmas.
    The one thing that gets me through the gloom and darkening evenings is the utter and completely irrational loathing I have for knee-taking opportunistic tosser Kier Starmer.
    I'd like to take a knee to the nuts of Sir Max Headroom and see how his circuit breaks.
    By heck, I feel better for that.
    Cans at home it is.
    See you in 2021.


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