Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Wet-Led Woes

The decision of Marstons to sell some 200 of its wet-led pubs has met with a degree of concern that is hardly surprising, but should that really be so?  The giant PubCos are a mess and have little coherent branding, but Marstons and Greene King, huge in themselves, but disconcertingly under the radar in most circumstances, are quietly changing their wet focus into food-led with drink as an add on.  They are building large new pubs to emphasise this point, so there is surely little shock that bottom end pubs with little prospect of fitting into a different mainstream future are being disposed of? It is not simply the move to food that has motivated Marstons however, as the company needs to reduce its £1 billion debt and the £90 million deal will come in handy for this purpose.  But it will also be used to build more new pubs, or should that be pub/restaurants? 

What is more worrying is the buyer. In this case NewRiver Retail, which plans to convert most of them into shops or supermarkets.  The pubs it seems, have been sold for that very purpose. This already happens a lot, sometimes openly, but often by stealth and in ones and twos.  CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale feels that to allow such change of use without the planners being able to intervene or the public to object, is a loophole which is too easily exploited.  Maybe, but in some cases at least the alternative will never and never could be retaining them as pubs, so poor is the business.  In some cases though, it is not so clear cut.  CAMRA has announced it will oppose the changes of use. Mike Benner, the Chief Executive said "The fact that this sale has happened is a result of a dysfunctional planning system which means pubs are regarded as easy pickings by developers.  CAMRA will be using this development to press home the case for tougher planning protection for pubs and for greater consumer consultation when they are threatened with alternative use."

All well and good and I agree that it is right that planning law should include changes of use in such cases, especially since so many shops are empty (though often, unlike pubs, in the wrong places) but the underlying trend of big brewers and small getting out of many marginal wet led pubs will continue.  As Curmudgeon pointed out, even here in Manchester, Lees and Robinsons are doing just that, though not in their cases to alleviate debt.  It may well be the case that the wet led pub has a limited future under certain kinds of ownership and that is likely to be under the control of individual owners and small chains, where they see that the market exists if the right beers are sold and the right offer is made.

At least this time we will know in advance which pubs are affected.  That's useful, but one thing is for sure, they won't all be viable as pubs.

I'll of course be interested as a local CAMRA Chairman to see if any of our pubs are affected. That'll put more meat on the bones.


Unknown said...

The problem is that wet-led pub in general are struggling. In many ways I think it is folly to try and fight whist is inevitable. The general public do not want the old fashioned pub any longer.

Fighting through planning permission restrictions is, in my mind, damaging. If something isn't viable restricting it's closure by planning only prolongs the pain. It'll die eventually.

What I do think should be looked at is restrictive covenants. Just because one enterprise doesn't make it work does not mean that have the right to stop another from having a go.

Sell the property on the free market and see where it goes.

pyo said...

If I had to drink Marstons, I wouldn't bother going to a wet-led pub either.

Here in Cambridge we've seen 5 new beer focused wet-led pubs open in the last year and another 2 have just received planning permission.

Turns out if you sell beer that doesn't taste like drainwater, there IS still a market for it.

Cooking Lager said...

Other than those people I know from beery enthusiasm, whether CAMRA members or not, regular pub going is now an unusual activity.

Among work colleagues and friends a trip to a pub is often an occasional event and usually the purpose is to get a meal. Going out just for a drink is not on their radar.

They are not smokers, they have not abandoned pubs. I think as one generation passes a new generation have a different idea of how they wish to spend their leisure time. Pub going and boozing will become ever more niche and marginalised. No amount of planning regulation can wish into existence a market.

The last time I told work colleagues I'd visited a pub one work evening, they were surprised. Comments like "on a school night? hungover?" That I'd just popped in to watch a footie game and drank 2 pints because I can't be arsed paying for sky. I thought better of mentioning such things lest I be marked down as a piss head, even if I am.

But even for a drunk like me on a wet cold night a visit to a pub has little appeal. I much prefer a summers evening visit.

Some places may have a young demographic of childless working professionals and buck the trend, but it is a trend regardless of whether a few trendy craft beer bars open in youthful trendy areas.

pyo said...

I would hardly call Cambridge a youthful trendy area Cookie. Its probably the most fuddy duddy white middle class town in the UK.

redpola said...

I live in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, where in the last year a local brewery (Chantry) has opened to some success. They took over a local "macro" pub and now sell there all their own beers plus any cask swaps they can get from other local breweries for £2 a pint. They also have a bottle fridge with plenty of interesting stuff. They're so successful they're about to take over another pub a few tens of metres from the first. If you'd said this would happen in Rotherham to me two years ago I still would have not stopped laughing at you.

At the same time, the vast majority of pubs round here are chains selling John Smiths and Carling and are all complaining that they're not doing enough business (whilst still paying peanuts and hiring staff who are not paid enough to care or be skilled). There's a beautiful pub in the centre of town - a Marston's pub - which above the door advertises "Cask Ales". I have never found any real ale "on" in there and it's empty every night bar the weekend.

Up the road in Sheffield I can name several wet-led pubs which are also doing very well (along with a few ones which do great food). The Pivovar pubs (Sheffield Tap etc) are well on the way to becoming a large chain yet they still draw crowds thanks to their incredible range of interesting and tasty beers.

So from my perspective, in both my crappy and unsophisticated town and a nearby large city, wet-led pubs have never had it so good. As another commenter remarked - the common factors in their success are really quite obvious.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, I think far too much effort and emotional capital is being expended by CAMRA on "saving pubs" which at the end of the day is largely an exercise in pissing in the wind.

To be fair, it is my understanding that Robinson's have not applied restrictive covenants to any of the pubs they have sold off recently. Some have been brought back to life as free houses, most haven't.

@Neil - it's always a moot point as to what extent "better" new venues just move trade around as opposed to growing the overall market. I reckon more of the former than the latter, but you can never really get a definitive answer.

Tandleman said...

I know your last para here is a hobby horse of yours Mudgie, but it is surely possible that people who basically do like pubs aren't just suffering in some shithole, but staying at home and then, when something better comes along local to them, resuming pub going activity?

Tandleman said...

Oh and I forgot. Since most campaigning is local, I think it likely that only viable pubs will be targeted by it.

Nobody that I know in CAMRA will want to spend time on a lost cause.

pyo said...

I don't know whether we're ever going to grow the pub market back to 1970s levels, but by trying to ensure that it is the genuinely unviable pubs that close and not the ones that are perfectly viable but just currently poorly run, we can at least stop the downward trend and stabilise the industry.

Here in Cambridge a lot of pubs had been previously labeled as unviable, but are now flourishing having been given a makeover, and a renewed focus on providing a service and atmosphere that the punters actually want.

Curmudgeon said...

Tandy, I don't doubt that phenomenon exists, but I'd be amazed if even 10% of the long-term decline of pubs could be accounted for by pubs no longer offering what people want.

Most closed pubs could never be brought back to life no matter what trading format was applied to them.

Cooking Lager said...

Not even if all pubs offered a wide range of craft cask, keg and wierd foreign muck and forced pulled pork ciabattas or £6 scotch eggs on the unsuspecting, Mudge?

Tandleman said...

I think there is a logical disconnect between your first and second sentences Mudgie.

I agree with your second sentence though in the vast majority of cases.

Curmudgeon said...

This blogpost may help explain the apparent logical disconnect.

Whatever pubs may do to attract more customers, at the end of the day there's only so much demand for pubs as such, and that demand has fallen over the past 30 years.

pyo said...

Mudgie, surely "falling demand for pubs" and "pubs no longer offering what the public want" are just two ways of saying exactly the same thing?

Unknown said...

Although I agree largely with Mudge here, I also see Tandy's point about people staying away due to quality issues. Personally my own pub visits is very effected by what I find when I'm out.

"Shall we go to the pub?" one of us will enquire

"Well, it's a nice idea, but I can't think of any in the locale I fancy/has decent beer/isn't full of knob-heads" is the likely reply

"Aye, right enough, and I guess we'l only argue about who'll drive if we go to xxxxxxx"

"Yup, best open a bottle of Azimuth, then, it'll be cheaper"

Tandleman said...

I think we both have a point. I don't really diagree with that much of what Mudgie is saying.

Phil said...

There's a beautiful pub in the centre of town - a Marston's pub - which above the door advertises "Cask Ales". I have never found any real ale "on" in there

That's false advertising. Some CAMRA members in my/Tandleman's area have recently been visiting pubs of this type and asking politely but persistently where the real ale is. By all accounts it's got a bit 'cheeseshop' in some cases - "Oh, the real ale I told you we were going to put on when you were in last week? That real ale? It went off last night - very busy we were last night. There's a new barrel settling at the moment, can't put it on too soon can you?" I think it's starting to have an effect, though; one pub has taken the 'real ale' sign down, at any rate.

Cooking Lager said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cooking Lager said...

I read on the internet recently that people are having less sex.

If I apply the 2 basic arguments here to that rather than the decline of pubs what I come up with is...

Either people have more interesting things to do than "it", ipads, on demand telly, t'internet porn. Sex is just less appealing in the 21st century.

Or women are not as attractive as they were and they need to up their game by losing a few pounds or dressing better. Us blokes are not willing to put up with anything less booby than a Holly Willobooby these days.

Somehow neither appears the whole answer.

But then I thought, are the 2 related? Could the decline of sex be related to the decline of pubs? Correlation or causality, and if causality which way would that go?

Is the decline of sex related to a lack of beer goggles, say?

I declined to extrapolate my theories vocally as the squeeze was watching Last Tango in Halifax and I know not to talk through that.

I never got as far as using "wet led" for some weak sex related puns.

pyo said...

The distinction between

"pubs are losing custom because there are other more interesting things to do, such as buying booze from the supermarket and watching the telly"


"pubs are losing custom because they haven't done enough to adapt to the changing tastes and interests of the british public"

is entirely spurious. Its the same argument. Tastes have changed, pubs have failed to adapt, and as a result the demand for them has shrunk.

Unknown said...

Cookie, people are having less sex eh? Speak for yourself.

"Shall we go to the pub tonight?"

"Nah, let's stay in, open some bottles, snuggle up on the sofa, watch a BluRay and then go to bed for a bit of you-know-what"


Rob said...

I suggest people read this comment on mumsnet:


The whole thread is somewhat instructive, but that post stuck out as being an explanation of why people go to Starbucks rather than a pub.

One thing I hadn't thought about is that it is the responsibility of the whole industry, not just an individual pub. If going to a pub is a lottery then lots of people aren't going to bother at all. Even if you make your pub the best it can be, it can be pulled down by the rest of the industry.

I think this is one reason why modern "community bars" (for want of a better phrase) have started popping up, and are seemingly successful too. In my experience they have better service than pubs and in particular are more welcoming to women. People might disparage this phenomenon as urban hipsterism but maybe we should examine why they are successful.

Curmudgeon said...

Surely if you look at the whole industry, going in any kind of business will be something of a lottery. Try going in "restaurants" at random, for example.

That's the point of branding - if you want a consistent pub experience, go in Wetherspoon's.

And these "community bars" will surely by definition be more appealing to some sections of the community but less to others. It's quite common for people to regard venues as being "inclusive" because they are welcoming to them and people like them, even though they may be much less welcoming to other people.

Rob said...

Yes restaurants are a lottery as well, but you are unlikely to go into a restaurant and feel physically intimidated or (if you're a woman) that men seem free to comment on your appearance and make lewd comments.

You are unlikely to stop going to coffee shops full stop because you had a bad coffee in one place, just as you are unlikely to stop going to pubs just because you had a bad pint in one of them. You might however think it's not worth it going to pubs at all if you've been felt up or punched in one of the,. I haven't heard of that sort of behaviour in coffee shops or restaurants - have you?

Customer service across the whole pub industry is very much more hit and miss than the leisure industry in general. (In my experience of course).

People talk about the expense of going out, well coffee shops seem to be doing OK and they're not exactly cheap are they? You can't smoke in them either! People still want to go out and spend their money, but pubs are losing out compared to other experiences.

I've not seen threatening or sexist behaviour in "community bars" (still not sure what to call them). If that's something people want in their pub going experience then yes they might not feel welcome. (Yes, I'm being facetious). For a lot of people, going to a pub is not on the radar any more, whereas they would be happy going to a bar.

Curmudgeon said...

So we need to make pubs safe for Guardian readers? That's really going to save the working-class estate boozer.

Rob said...

I'm giving reasons for the decline not necessarily suggesting solutions. It hadn't really occurred to me before that people have given up on going to pubs altogether because of the experience in some of them. As you've said numerous times, pubs are competing in a falling market. Even if every pub was to make themselves better there will still be pub closures.

I think there is potential in the market for bars which are competing for the coffee shop market as well as the pub market. Might not be good for the traditional pub trade, but it may be good for the beer industry as a whole.

Rob said...

Yvan's recent blog post is interesting on this subject


pyo said...

For all the many pubs I've been in, and I've been in some stereotypically rough ones, I've never actually seen anyone get punched or any women get verbally intimidated (well student bars don't count). I think its more myth than fact. But its certainly a very unhelpful myth.

Rob said...

A quote from my first link:

"But for the rest of us it's all rather a lost age... So you end up in Cafe Rough Rouge instead, and the pub trade continues to blame almost anything - the smoking ban, drink-driving legislation, VAT, duty, planning laws - for the fact that people no longer want to go into their premises."

There may be a certain amount of myth. But it does happen. I was in my local a couple of weeks ago. Nice, suburban, pretty well off area. A couple of guys come into the pool room, off their heads on something other than booze I suspect, and rip a radiator off the wall fixings, knock their pints over the pool table etc. Another place a couple of months ago as I'm walking past someone he says very loudly "Oh he's not a girl after all". (Not quite sure why he thought that in the first place, I've got a grade 1 buzzcut and stubble but hey ho. I can only assume he was wanting to start a fight.) Ask some of your female friends how they feel about it - I'm pretty sure they'll have been on the receiving end of unwanted attention. I certainly know people who have been.

I haven't had anything similar happen in restaurants, cafes or bars. I like pubs, and am willing to put up with a certain amount of crap. But for people who are more ambivalent I can see why they wouldn't bother.

pyo said...

I think you might have stumbled upon something there that I had not considered with regards to the pub trade, but may well be applicable.

As a nation, we have become more and more unadventurous and conservative over the past 30 years. A large proportion of the population would rather spend theur lives having a series of predictable but mediocre experiences in chain shops/ restaurants/ cafes rather than take a risk on something new and unknown.

For this reason, corporate chain stores and cafes have taken over our high streets, and Pizza express is packed, when the far superior independent Italian resturant next door is completely deserted.

Recognisable chain pubs such as Wetherspoons have by and large bucked the trend of pubs shutting. Its not because they're better, its not even because they're cheaper, its because they satisfy the rather deplorable insistence of the British for knowing exactly what they're going to get before they even go through the door.

I blame Henry Ford