Friday 24 March 2023

Is the outlook getting wetter?

There has been talk recently of a move away from dining pubs back towards wet-led ones. This is a theme taken up in this BBC report from February, and explored in further depth in this article by Glynn Davis. However, the two examples used are not perhaps the best illustrations of the point.

The first is the Ypres Castle Inn, situated in the shadow of the eponymous castle (actually more a glorified gatehouse) in the picturesque historic town of Rye in Sussex. It’s in a location where you’d probably expect a pub to serve food for visitors. However, it was taken over pre-Covid by high-profile licensee Jeff Bell who I suspect has turned it into more of a beer-focused pub and no longer sees the need for food.

The second is the Queen’s Head in Newton, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the “famous five” ever-present entries in the Good Beer Guide. It’s situated in an attractive village a few miles outside Cambridge. It serves a limited food menu including soup, sandwiches and meat and cheese platters, but as far as I know has never attempted to be a full-on dining pub, so it isn’t really illustrative of a trend, although it does underline the point that you don’t need to be a gastropub to thrive in that kind of location. As I wrote about it, “It’s odd how the South of England manages to draw middle-class customers to non-dining village and rural pubs in a way that is hard to imagine in Cheshire”.

So, case very much not proven. It has certainly been recognised in recent years, though, that the food-driven model isn’t necessarily appropriate for all pubs, and wet-led pubs need to be considered as an important category in their own right rather than just seen as second-class citizens of the pub world. North West-based Amber Taverns developed as a pubco dedicated to wet-led pubs, and divisions of major pubcos such as Stonegate’s Craft Union concentrate on this segment.

There has also, over a longer timeframe, been a substantial retrenchment of the availability of food in pubs, to a large extent associated with the general decline of the pub trade. In the past, many pubs would offer a simple menu of soup, sandwiches, toasties, burgers and the like with perhaps a hot dish of the day, which to a large extent was aimed at customers from nearby workplaces.

But lunchtime pub visits from work are increasingly frowned on, even if they don’t involve drinking any alcohol, and many of the workplaces themselves have closed or drastically slimmed down. Tougher hygiene regulations also require pubs to have a dedicated catering kitchen rather than preparing food in their domestic one. And town-centre footfall from shoppers is much reduced too. The classic freshly-prepared “four quarters” pub sandwich is a virtually extinct species.

I wrote about this trend fifteen years ago:

...many pubs in less prominent locations that once made an attempt to serve meals and appeal to outsiders have dropped the food, gone evenings-only and essentially cater only for locals and regulars.
In many cases these pubs are no longer there at all, and if they are they’re probably not open at lunchtimes. In smaller non-tourist towns it can be difficult to find any pub food outside of Wetherspoon’s, who have hoovered up what trade remains.

Of course many pubs do thrive by concentrating on food and turning themselves effectively into restaurants, but the “mixed economy” pub with a balance of dry and wet trade is becoming increasingly rare. With pub food, it seems to be either all or nothing. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before on the blog, there’s evidence of the much-vaunted family dining pub model not finding everything plain sailing.

Some of these trends are illustrated by the changing fortunes of one of my local pubs, the Griffin in Heaton Mersey. This is a four-square Holt’s pub with an unspoilt multi-roomed interior including an impressive sash-windowed bar. In the 1980s it was so busy, mostly with wet trade, that a large extension was built on one side, the bar of which effectively became the pub’s main bar.

There was a serving hatch in the extension from which a variety of straightforward food was dispensed at lunchtimes. I remember having some tasty bacon barms there. But the general decline of pubgoing meant that it became nowhere near as busy as it once was, and Holts carried out a thorough cosmetic refurbishment, fortunately leaving the historic parts untouched, but removing the serving hatch. I’m not sure whether this was pre- or post-smoking ban.

They introduced a much more ambitious and expensive pub food menu, but it never seemed to find many takers, and the general impression that the pub still gave of being a traditional boozer probably put diners off. In hindsight, it might have made more sense to make the extension a dedicated dining area with a brighter colour scheme and return the main bar service to the old side.

So the food has now been dropped, and according to WhatPub it now only offers “pies and barmcakes”, which presumably need no kitchen preparation. It majors on TV sports, but apart from when United or City are on gives the impression of a few people rattling around in a large building, whereas thirty years ago it was often standing room only. As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, the contrast in the level of trade between it and the Wetherspoon’s half a mile down the road is very striking.

Yes, there may well be examples of more marginal food-serving pubs giving it up entirely, but I really don’t see much evidence of pubs with a major food offer dialling it back and putting the emphasis more on wet trade. It might be nice if they did, though.

As an aside, the term “wet-led” often seems to be used to mean pubs that serve no food at all, whereas surely it should also encompass pubs where food is only a relatively small part of their sales.


  1. Pubs died on the 1st July 2007. What we have now is a hospitality trade. It trades out of former pub buildings or sometimes on a smaller scale out of converted shops. It has an offer and an appeal or otherwise to differing sections of society. Some are lucrative business models, other less so.

    What works in one place may not work in another. What people want and where depends on demographics, work patterns, holiday or leisure patterns, changes to geographical areas as either gentrification or urban decay, or just basic economic growth or decline.

    You can spot macro changes to hospitality as wide industry changes or micro changes as the appeal of your town either increases or declines to your needs and wants.

    Either way, Pubs died on the 1st July 2007. None of these is pubs. They are hospitality venues.

  2. As long as I can get a pickled egg or a ham and cheese toastie.

  3. There's never going to be a one size fits all approach, but for most pubs that don't want to go down the destination food approach, a simple menu that can be prepared with minimal staff costs seems to work the best. Having no food on at all definitely limits custom to an extent as drinking on an empty stomach isn't appealing and it's not always possible to eat prior. But it doesn't have to be fancy, just some fodder to keep you going like a sandwich at lunch. One of my regular haunts does pot meals for a modest cost. Presumably it costs pennies to knock up a big vat of the stuff, and stops customers moving elsewhere, but they probably don't make a fortune from it.

    The other option is to tie up with a local restaurant, but done properly it should have menus and the ordering done at the bar. Hopefully a good relationship would see the pub charging full price, but receiving a discount from the restaurant.

    1. Agreed, but I'm not seeing these pubs offering a simple menu of food for drinkers.

      On your second point, I've long thought it would be a good idea for pubs to tie up with local sandwich shops to provide lunchtime food, but I've never actually seen this done.

    2. They'd get drunk customers bothering them. A pub is paid to deal with this, sandwich shops aren't.

    3. No, what I mean is that, as was suggested with restaurants, the pub has menus at the bar and takes orders for delivery to the pub. And there wouldn't be many drunks at lunchtime.

    4. Something similar to this happens in No. 13 Bonny St in Blackpool.

      The staff have a radio to the chippy 4 doors away and they pop round with the meal while the pub supply cutlery etc.

    5. Non food pubs make more sense in urban areas as there are restaurants around. The lunchtime office worker drinker even if it is only one glass (half pint) of session strength beer is low hanging fruit for HR than the workplace tyrant.

      My regular is a non food pub crisps, peanuts for a euro and a bit toasty sandwiches for a few euro. There is also a chipper nearby and frequently on a Friday afternoon when College is finished I will have my lunch and a pint in this pub.

  4. Aaaah, The Ypres Castle, (The 'Wipers')...

    I did much of my formative drinking there when I regularly went for lunch in the sixties! Dorothy's cheese and potato pie, with a ladle of the soup of the day and a pint of Fremlins was absolute nectar! Percy Ide tipped me off about a favourite drink for the fishermen out of Rye Bay, which was half a pint of Fremlins Five Star Bitter, mixed with a nip of Gold Label! (We always took note of what those guys did and said, they're still around despite sea fishing being in dire straits...)That gorgeous concoction nearly blew your head off, and became a favourite for high days and holidays!

    Johnny, the perfect epitome of a seafarer even smoked a corn-cob pipe and chatted with anybody with a hugely happy, egregious manner! Somewhere in Rye is a famous painting of him mending his nets - I wonder what happened to it...

    The problem is actually negotiating the steep steps, either up or down, and we can't get there nowadays, more's the pity!

    1. Just remembered, the Fremlins Five Star was 'Draught County Ale', and the bottles were fabulous too!

    2. Sadly, the Fremlins brewery in Maidstone, closed a couple of years before I started drinking - thanks to Whitbread, who had also bought up and closed, several other Kentish brewers.
      I therefore missed out on Fremlins legendary County Ale. Production of Fremlins Three Star was switched to Faversham, although it had the ignoble fate of being known as Whitbread Trophy for a while.
      Still a fine drop of ale, until brewery wreckers Whitbread closed the Faversham plant as well. ☹️

    3. That was a sad time, Paul, (Scrobs here), the old brewery in Fairmeadow can still be seen from some old aerial pics, where it actually bridged the road from the riverside! Whitbreads did indeed massacre the old 'Elephant', but did they take over Style and Winch across the road? Again, aerial pics from back then show a huge brewery, and I can remember several pubs with their signs around Rye!

    4. Hi Scrobs, it was Barclay Perkins, who later merged with Courage, that took over Style and Winch.
      As you point out, it was a massive brewery, now sadly all gone apart from the small area, below ground, now occupied by the Old Cellars micropub.

    5. Thanks for that, Paul! I've just looked at the Francis Frith aerials again, and can just remember driving under the Fremlins bridge back in the 'seventies! That part of Maidstone was pretty grim back then; quite industrial!

  5. I see from WhatPub that the Ypres Castle is now card-only. One to give a miss, then.

    1. Thurston McCrew25 March 2023 at 16:55

      Not just that but it only opens Thursday-Sunday 12-10pm and according to their Twitter account closes at 8pm on Sunday " 'cos we're knackered by then. " Young master Geoffrey does seem to get bored of his pubs after a while ...


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