Thursday 9 May 2024

Flight to the suburbs

Back in 2020, just after the end of the first Covid lockdown, I wrote about how the shift from city-centre offices to home working was likely to lead to a permanent change in the dynamics of the pub trade. And indeed so it has proved. While there has been a significant move back to offices, the level of working from home remains well above what it was before, especially in the public sector. This obviously has had a major impact on the business of city-centre pubs and bars.

In response to this trend, the Daily Telegraph reports that Star Pubs and Bars, the retailing division of Heineken UK, have announced a substantial investment in its suburban estate.

Heineken is to spend £39m on reviving hundreds of “tired” suburban pubs in a bid to attract punters working from home. The brewing giant’s retail arm, Star Pubs & Bars, is planning to improve more than 600 pubs across the UK, as bosses respond to the surge in remote working since Covid. The investment drive will include reopening 62 pubs in 2024, with 94 other sites set for full refurbishments. The remaining pubs will receive varying upgrades.
The report goes on to say:
Heineken said it wanted to “broaden each pub’s use and appeal” in response to an increase in people working from home, giving customers more reason to visit throughout the day.

Lawson Mountstevens, chief executive at Star Pubs & Bars, said: “Fundamentally, the changes in people’s working habits means that in a lot of these suburban locations, you’ve got more people who are around those areas a lot more.

“It’s not rocket science. Those people are looking for pubs of a certain standard.”

It comes as hybrid working forces the hospitality industry to divert their attention away from city centres and focus increasingly on towns and villages.

Heineken said its refurbished pubs, which will each receive an average of £200,000 in investment, will have dividing screens to help separate areas for different types of customers.

Mr Mountstevens said that many pub visits were now taking place earlier in the day, with customers arriving and leaving earlier than they used to. He also dismissed suggestions that younger customers were visiting their local less due to high living costs.

By the end of the year, Heineken is expected to have re-opened 156 pubs since the start of 2023, including in places such as Barnsley, Carlisle and Derbyshire. Its entire UK estate includes 2,400 pubs.

One fairly local pub to me that is reported to be affected is the Hesketh in Cheadle Hulme, pictured above, which has been closed since the autumn of last year, and where plans to convert it to a Pesto Italian restaurant have presumably fallen through.

The switch to visiting the pub earlier in the day as been widely observed, with pubs often busy in the late afternoon and early evening, but trade tailing off much earlier than it once used to. However, I have to say that some of my local suburban pubs still seem deathly quiet during the daytime, so maybe the trend should not be exaggerated.

It’s also good that the desirability of compartmentalising pubs is at last being recognised, after many years of asserting that knocking everything through was more modern and democratic. People want to engage in a variety of activities in pubs, and there are few more dispiriting things than walking in to an echoing one-room barn entirely dominated by TV sport, often with only a small knot of customers half-heartedly watching.

You might have thought that any investment in pubs would be welcome, especially if it involves bringing closed pubs back to life. However, there were the inevitable sour grapes in some of the responses. The Drinks Business site bizarrely asked whether it would help or hinder beer. I would have thought it was obvious that enhancing the appeal of pubs would increase beer sales, but it seems that some people have an axe to grind. You get the impression that some would prefer that pubs didn’t receive any investment at all than that it was done by an international brewer.


  1. Beer geeks don't seem to like Heineken. They want pubs open but not by them!
    Are Heineken any better or worse than the usual suspects when it comes to pub chains? Dunno.

    1. About the same as the others, just appalling in different ways.

  2. Heineken will have looked at the rate of return on their investments in each site, and the potential for future growth, and allocated finance accordingly. Clearly some sites will have more growth levers than others.

    It remains to be seen if this will generate substantial uplifts in trade across their portfolio.

    If they don't invest in the people running their pubs at the same time it's a huge missed opportunity. Crap pubs with a 200k investment will still be crap pubs if publicans are not on board, and fully engaged with the transformation of their pub, and what they can offer new customers, whilst driving sales amongst regular patrons.

    1. Much of the finance will be extracted from the lambs to the slaughter that Heineken will recruit to run these pubs. Many will be run on their management agreement, where the self-employed manager retains a proportion of the turnover. The problem is that to make a living, they have to work ridiculous hours as staff costs are deducted from their cut.

  3. People realised that city centres were pretty horrible places to be after about 8pm, and public transport also then becoming patchy and unreliable.

    It's more often about a sit down meal as well as drinks now, due to increasing prosperity.

    I still recall being surprised though at passing Greek St in Leeds at 2pm Saturday and it already looked like the "nightlife" had begun!

    1. Particularly over this last weekend in Manchester and Sheffield, the "nightlife" started about 11am, driven by more hen parties than I've ever seen.

    2. Piccadilly Gardens is tramp, spice and get knifed central 24/7
      But to describe it as horrible after 8pm is very snobbish, imv.

  4. I think pubs where possible should be multi room obviously there are pubs which have from the beginning been one room since their opening before the mid to late 20th century. Some pubs like my local have a narrow path between the front and back even though technically the bar and lounge distinction has been abolished, though persists as pillars block the view of the two parts and the back is where the television is put on.


  5. The Hesketh, which is local to my son, used to do a marvellous carvery and wonderful pint of Lees Manchester Pale.


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