When I visited Düsseldorf and Cologne, places I know very well in drinking terms, I was struck by how amazingly busy the pubs all were. Although my observations are from these two big cities, I have witnessed similar scenes throughout Germany. Germany was just entering recession and yet the pubs were going like a fair. I have been formulating some ideas to explain why they should be doing so well, in the kind of vague hope that suffering British pubs might adopt some of their ideas and start to thrive again. I have concluded though that while I reckon I know some of what makes German pubs tick, it isn't going to be repeated here.
Firstly it has to be said the pubs I am talking about here, mostly are the independently owned Alt and Koelsch houses and these are different in some ways to mainstream pubs, (though most pubs in Germany are independently owned) but perhaps serve to emphasise my point further. On a midweek night it was difficult to find a seat in any of them and when you factor in that really there is only one drink on sale in each - OK you can maybe get a wheat beer and various schnapps, but that's it- the popularity would have any pub operator here scratching their head in amazement. So why are they so busy?
I think there are a number of factors. The list is not exhaustive:
- the pubs serve all ages, but are predominantly populated by over 40's, an age group alienated from pubs in the UK by bad behaviour, market segmentation, loud music, open plan interiors and many other such "design" factors
- they may only sell one product but it is a quality one
- food is genuinely home cooked, not bought in frozen and is reasonably priced and plentiful in portion. No "chicken ding" here!
- service is warm and welcoming. Staff are smartly dressed and attentive
- though smoking was banned in most of the pubs, there was no nasty huddle outside, no gauntlet to run and no smoking shelters
- the atmosphere is friendly and non threatening
- the pubs are immaculately clean, cleverly divided to break up open space and the custom of shared tables means you have to learn to get on with other people
- anti social behaviour is absolutely frowned upon
- in the case of the independent house, they are seen as synonymous with their town (and this is repeated throughout Germany)
- Germans retain a strong sense of the traditional in so many ways, that the unchanging nature of certain long cherished establishments, is seen very much as a positive
- German pubs are more often than not, family run
Perhaps it is simpler than that. The over riding factor is that German pubs still deliver a product that people want. They don't need quizzes, karaoke, live "entertainment" or two for one inducements to enjoy a night out in the pub. Drinking at home in Germany is inordinately cheap - even for quality products - but it doesn't prevent people going to the much more expensive pub. Due to somewhat enlightened alcohol taxation, German pubs have always had to counteract cheap beer at home and have done so by giving customers a comfortable, value for money, traditional environment that encourages customers to want to come back. It puts the pub and pub going firmly in the mainstream of German social life. They can and do visit to socialise, eat and drink and just to enjoy an atmosphere that is usually buzzing with friendly conversation and laughter. The Germans even have a word for it - Gemütlichkeit - which can best be described as "socially cosy." Doesn't that sound the sort of place you'd like to drink?
So, are the Germans just like us? Yes and no. That is why I conclude that what works in Germany does not necessarily work here, though adopting most of my bullet points would improve most of our pubs 100%. (Of course it has to be said that adopting these points would also be good for some German pubs no doubt) There are of course bad'uns in Germany too, but in mainstream pubs standards are much higher. Germans expect and demand high standards.
It is different here in the UK and attitudinal, market, social and ownership issues muddy the water. But perhaps pubs here are failing to meet even our low expectations? I'll try and give a view on that next.
There is rather a good page on Wikipedia about Gemütlichkeit. It is not just environmentally warm, but promotes the notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend quality time.