Tuesday, 4 October 2022

A crack in the edifice

Last week, I was taken aback to go into a Sam Smith’s pub and find that they had started accepting card payments. On everything too, not just food orders, and with no minimum spend. I had heard a rumour that this was in the pipeline, but it still comes as a shock to see it actually happen. I’m not sure whether it applies to all their pubs, or just those serving food.

There’s maybe something to be said for wet pubs being cash only, as it’s a good way of keeping twats out. But, when it comes to ordering group meals costing over £30, many people will find it much more convenient to pay by card, and if a pub will not accept that form of payment they may well take their business elsewhere.

Indeed, I once saw the licensee of a Sam’s pub give a couple a personal cash advance, which they then refunded by a payment into her own bank account made by online banking using their phone – outside the pub, of course. That’s no way to conduct a business. And it seems that Humphrey Smith has finally noticed that this policy was damaging his bottom line and decided to relent. (It’s worth noting that, beforehand, there was a minimum spend that effectively restricted card payments to food orders, plus a surcharge. Card payments were discontinued when surcharges became illegal in 2018).

However, a policy remains in charge that arguably is even more offputting to customers , namely the complete ban on using smartphones or any other kind of electronic devices. This is something that most people will regard as completely ridiculous, and is a regular source of friction between staff and customers. I’ve heard staff apologise for having to remind people about it, but they have said they’ve had a warning from Humphrey and are left with no choice.

It would be fair enough if customers were asked to keep devices on silent, and take any animated conversations outside. But to pounce on them for simply checking the time of their train home is absurd. It is just the prejudice of an eccentric old man who seems to be living in the past. I’m prepared to put up with it while I read the paper over a pint or two, but it’s hardly surprising that it leads many people – including pensioners – not even to cross the threshold of a Sam’s pub.

Being put in a position of being expected to enforce ridiculous rules is unsurprisingly a major disincentive to people wanting work for the company as managers, and at least a third of the estate is currently boarded up, including some very attractive properties in prime locations. This piece about the lovely-looking Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in North Wales underlines the point. The whole sorry situation is described in this article by Glynn Davis, although it has since been superseded by the relaxation of the card payment ban.

Life would be very dull if all pubs were much the same, and for many years Sam’s have sought to cultivate a distinctive appeal, which is summed up by Anthony Avis in his book The Brewing Industry 1950-1990: “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”. And, as I wrote back in 2017, which still holds true today:

What really makes the difference is the pubs. What I’m basically looking for in pubs is to be able to enjoy a quiet drink and chat in comfortable surroundings, and Sam’s deliver that much more reliably than any of their competitors. There’s no TV football crowding out everyone who isn’t interested, and no blarting piped music played for the benefit of the bar staff. I can’t recall a single example of a high-level posing table in a Sam’s pub, while bench seating and comfortable chairs are the norm.

While plenty of Sam’s pubs serve food, you never get the overwhelming concentration on dining that makes anyone just wanting a drink feel out of place. And, while there’s no general ban on children, you don’t tend to come across too many infants screaming and running amok. Yes, a well-kept pint is important, but I don’t really want to go chasing after a slightly better beer or a wider range in otherwise uncongenial surroundings.

It should also be added that Sam’s have been very respectful custodians of their pubs’ architectural heritage, particularly in contrast to a certain Stockport brewery. They have carried out a number of very high-quality refurbishment schemes in their London estate, and other parts of the country have benefited too, such as the Queen’s Head (Turner’s Vaults) in Stockport, which is a superb example of pub conservation with a unique interior.

Humphrey Smith is now in his late seventies, and one can only hope that when the time comes that his successors will respect the company’s distinctive heritage and appeal while removing the obstacles that deter people from both visiting their pubs and working for them. But there must be a nagging fear that they will end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

21 comments:

  1. And I was ridiculed when I said a few months ago having seen flower pots and curtains in Colpitts that next there will be card payments and jukeboxes.

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  2. I only hope Humphrey imbues his heirs with the same whims because it's depressing to see people at the pub glued to their phone. I love SS pubs precisely because of their rules.

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  3. Had to do a double take when I saw the sign in Alty yesterday. Shame the beer was sh*te. Easily the worst of the day. Suspect the pub doesn't have the throughput these days and the locals are moving to keg.

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie5 October 2022 at 10:52

    "Card payments were discontinued when surcharges became illegal in 2018".
    So Humphrey's is now losing about 10p, that's a florin in proper money, from each pint of his OBB sold to those paying with a card.

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  5. Others may have reliable information but from my experience the Central London pubs always accepted card payment, or at least were some of the last to give it up. I certainly remember paying card for drinks when the general rule was in place.

    As for smartphones, whilst clearly ludicrous in my opinion, a pub should be free to impose any rule it wishes (bar some extremely broad things that would be prohibited by law). Whilst I'm not suggesting anyone is arguing to the contrary, if there's a niche market for it, it offers a USP at least. I know many older people are avid smartphone users, but I'd say that the niche is a dying one and the policy will eventually change.

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    1. Yes, they're fully entitled to apply such a policy provided it doesn't discriminate against any protected characteristics. However, it seems totally counter-productive and at odds with present-day realities. I'd be amazed if it actually attracted *any* customers in comparison to a policy of tolerating silent browsing.

      On the other hand, I had no problem with the common policy in pre-smartphone days of requiring anyone to step outside to make or receive mobile calls. Indeed, I remember on one occasion an old-school landlord spot someone on the phone and immediately bellow "Outside!"

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    2. Yes, all the Sam's in London I use have taken card payments for years. And I've never seen a member of staff even try and enforce the mobile phone ban.

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    3. The southern (mainly London) pubs are run a bit differently from the northern ones. I believe that the southern ones are run by Humphrey's son. Jobs are advertised on the website rather than Gumtree. A bit easier going on the mobile phone rules, but higher prices. Currently about 120 out of their 240 or so establishments are mothballed, only 3 I. The south are advertising for managers. Many of the shit pubs maybe uneconomic to open in current climate as genuinely good managers will be ble to get good pubs with other brewers.

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  6. I love Sam's pubs. Very decent beer, good prices, and very few twats. Certainly not the morons glued to mobile phones like many people now. Beer from the wood in many pubs too. Cider is lovely too. Poor quality crisps though.

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  7. I think the Tories are fascists, but I am quite happy for the government to track all my movements and purchases. Why does that make me a twat?

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    1. That's not the government's job, and it costs money - our money.

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  8. I love Sam's, and the Stout is a classic, but I agree with Mudgie that not being allowed to check train times on the phone is a pain.

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    1. Which Stout, the Oatmeal or the Imperial? Both are very good beers.

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    2. I would assume they mean the draught stout.

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  9. Professor Pie-Tin6 October 2022 at 11:11

    What happens if you want to use Google Pay on your 'phone to buy a pint?

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    1. Yes, you can do that too. The only legitimate purpose for which you can use your phone inside the pub.

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    2. I was wondering how they take card payments without an electronic device. And do they use old fashioned mechanical cash registers.
      Or is it just customers who are banned from using electronic devices?

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    3. As you were saying you have recently been in the Crown in Glossop you will have been able to observe their till arrangements. IIRC you are also a regular visitor to central Stockport and so might visit the two there as well.

      My understanding is that the ban does not apply to, say, a stand-alone digital camera or an electronic calculator.

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    4. My observations at the crown, where I happily read my kindle and checked my bus, made me wonder about the veracity of your statement that all electronic devices were banned

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  10. Mobile phones and tablets being banned is OK but a simple Kindle just takes a biscuit!

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    Replies
    1. Reminds me of my old school where, in free periods, we were allowed to read hardback books but not paperbacks

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