Wednesday, 30 November 2022

A Quick Thought on Sam's

There has been a lot written recently, and in the near past, about Sam Smiths, or more particularly Humphrey Smith.  Most of this stuff is speculative, as of course Humph, like the royal family, never apologises and never explains.  That doesn't help his case at all, though, as apart from being nearly as rich as the Windsors - the Smiths own a lot of land in Yorkshire and elsewhere - as well as an empire of up to 350 pubs throughout the UK, almost all being freehold. In fact, the number may be more, as I don't believe that anyone in the public domain actually knows the total

But all is not well. I was told, recently, that no fewer than 120 Sam Smith's pubs are closed through lack of people to run them. (You can often find them listed in trade adverts for managers) This is an astonishing number given that all of them are managed houses, and while they attract a smallish salary, not much above minimum wage, but they do have heating, lighting and rent thrown in on top.  This is not an entirely unattractive package in these dodgy times, so why is there a problem in finding the right people to run them? More of that soon.

Let's take a look at what else we know.  Sams' pubs - themselves largely unbranded - sell nothing that isn't made or commissioned by them. All beers, wines and spirits, crisps, nuts and pork scratchings, as well as soft drinks are Smith brand, even if the names are made up by them, or, as in the case of Walker and Scott spirits, owned by them. These and Scintilla Soft drinks are high quality products. Quality of product is rarely an issue with the brewery, and the lack of brands is something that could actually be admired from one point of view.  Make, not buy, still has some adherents.

Sams also brew an astonishing range of mostly keg beers - the sole cask beer being Old Brewery Bitter - and to continue with the idiosyncrasy - this is sold only in wooden casks, with strict turnover criteria deciding whether it can be obtained by a particular pub. Until recently the draught beers were sold at a very cheap price, but this has changed, though price increases elsewhere may well return Sams to its previous pole position.  As an aside, its range of bottled beers has always commanded a premium in the pubs. There is a long-standing and large export trade in bottles, mainly to the US.

The Smith empire is essentially split in two, with the Southern part - maybe it is just London - who knows where the line might be drawn? -  being run by Humphrey's son Sam, and the Northern and bigger chunk being run by Humphrey himself on a somewhat idiosyncratic basis, where his word is law and some would allege, employment law is regarded as advisory (Smiths lose a lot of tribunal and legal cases).

In the North, pubs appear to be run by diktat. When you enter one, prominent notices on the wall advise you not to use electronic devices. Mobile phones are banned and swearing is not permitted. There are no televisions, fruit machines or jukeboxes. No piped music is present and conversation is, again, by notices on the bar,  "encouraged".  Until very recently you could only pay by cash, but this rule has been rescinded and even the use of phones is allowed briefly for this sole purpose.  In London, particularly, use of contactless card payment has been allowed for years. Given the nature of the client base there, it would have been suicidal for the business to do otherwise, but technically at least, the other rules pertain, though perhaps there they apply more in the breach than the observance.

Both in the North and South, Sams run clean and comfortable pubs. They often spend a lot of money reinstating pubs to their former designed layout. They are warm, have a great range of things to drink and all you have to do is observe a few reasonable rules about not effing and jeffing and not make phone conversations inside.

So, what's not to like? Well, there seems to be a downside. Humphrey has been known to descend from Tadcaster and close pubs, immediately with customers still inside, and sack managers on the spot for allowing any minor breach of the rules.  These cases have been documented in the press and include alleged shortfall in stock among other things.  I also believe from web sources that he himself has been the victim of irregular behaviour from his managers and with his low tolerance of misdemeanour, this may go some way to explaining vacancies, as does a culture of fear.  As a former professional manager, I know that is a nil sum game. If you want to succeed, you really do need buy-in from those that make it all work for you. That means being fair and collaborative.

In summary, in aiming to turn the clock back to the non-existent halcyon days of pub going, there is a balance to be struck. Very few pubs back in the day would meet Humphrey's somewhat rose-tinted vision. Most were pretty rum places indeed, and conversations were peppered with epithets and worse. Back in those days, the managers and tenants who ran your pubs for you were also valued in a very different way to nowadays. As my good friend the Pub Curmudgeon remarks here, there is much to admire in Sam Smith's pubs. The trick, surely, would be to keep high standards, without unreasonably blaming those who are forced to apply them if customers transgress against them.

It would also help to be more accommodating to silent use of electronic devices, as would more than a nod to changing times. In this respect, as in other areas, any reasonable person would likely agree that a tweak here and there would benefit everyone without throwing Humph's baby out with the bathwater.

I commend to you other pieces written by the Pub Curmudgeon and Glynn Davis. These will help round off the picture for you. 

This article was prompted by the news that one of the many closed Sam Smith's pubs in our area was said to be re-opening. I'll check it out by way of resuming my pieces on Sam Smiths pubs soon. Here's a favourite example.


Rob Sterowski said...

I had wondered whether there was an Aldi-style split in the business between the Humph side and young Sam. I heard Samuel jr. interviewed on a German podcast a few months ago, speaking creditable German. The reputation of Smith’s is much higher abroad, as the Germans and Americans have no idea about Humph’s antics.

I suppose the package for prospective managers becomes much less attractive if you consider the not insignificant risk of Humph turning up and turfing you out of your home as well as your job.

Curmudgeon said...

Thanks for the mention :-)

I also wrote this blog last month about the relaxation of the card ban, which also referred to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

retiredmartin said...

That's a great and balanced analysis. It's disappointing so many of their pubs are closed. Their beer is seriously underrated.

Anonymous said...

The bottled stout we get in the US is outstanding.

John's Thick Socks said...

He's a nice bloke actually. He once helped my fix a puncture on my bicycle when I was supping beer in one of his pubs. He did though disagree with my choice of modern pushbike and said I should get a more traditional model. He told me his favourite crisps are cheese and onion and he likes Nokia phones.

Cask Socialist said...

I think what this gentleman is doing is disgusting. He is running his fine pubs into the ground and depriving communities of a meeting place for their fine sons of the toil. When these one hundred and twenty pubs reopen, they will be full of damp and smells, and they will not be genuinely nice for you and me. I think an action group needs to be formed and I would be happy for The Tandleman to lead it. I think there should be a demonstration at Harold’s office in Knaresborough at Christmas. We should give this chap a jolly good march and show him that his customers are not a happy bunch of Larrys.

Cooking Lager said...

The pubs used to be full when the bitter was 2 quid.
Empty now the bitter is 3 quid. Makes you wonder whether they shift enough of it.

Humpf kicked the value drinkers into spoons without making the case to middle class customers why they should come into his trad pub with daft rules. Nor has Humpf made the case as to why his formerly cheap beer is now worth more.

The big price hike was a mistake, he could of got there is 6 month stages rather that shock his punters after lockdown.

Tandleman said...

I think though it likely that he will hold back, unlike other operators, in this changing climate. He might well regain some advantages, but your Spoons point is so valid.

Tandleman said...

You are welcome. As I said - rich seam to mine.

Tandleman said...

My role is commentator.

Curmudgeon said...

Obviously a normal business would have drip-fed the price increase in several stages.

However, the effect varies depending on the pub. Some Sam's pubs that are either in prosperous areas or don't have a nearby Spoons haven't really noticed much difference.

And, with other operators raising prices, they're now generally cheaper than anywhere else apart from Spoons. A full pound a pint cheaper than Robinson's pubs in central Stockport.

Sat In A Pub said...

I don't think they have that many pubs. 350 would put them way ahead of Robinsons who are always quoted as having a larger pub estate than Sams. SS themselves claim to have around 200.

Paul Bailey said...

The problem Humph has in recruiting staff to run his pubs, says it all, and as you rightly point out TM, instilling a culture of fear is definitively not the way to attract, or retain employees. The threat to licensees of having your business closed, and your home taken away from you, just because Mr Smith heard one of your customers use a swear word, is ludicrous in this day and age, especially if the culprit was not one of your regulars, but just someone who happened to be passing by.

From what you say TM, and from my own observations, the London estate operates under a far more lenient (and sensible) regime, so with Humphrey now in his mid to late 70's, perhaps it's time he let go of the reins and allowed young Sam to run all the pubs.

AdeBrewBeer, formerly known as ElectricPics said...

I’m pretty sure that 120 is an exaggeration. The estate has 305 pubs so it would be very noticeable if that many were closed. I’d put it at half that, which is still ridiculous but a better estimation, based on active job ads. Re Samuel, people should be careful what they wish for. Aside from the more modern way the London pubs are run, he’s very much a chip off the old block as far as employment laws go.

Curmudgeon said...

No, it's entirely credible that 100-120 are closed. 4 of the 9 in the GBG county of Cheshire are closed, plus 3 that I'm aware of in Trafford and South Manchester and one in North Wales. Several in and around Rochdale, as Tandleman will know, and from what I've heard huge swathes in Yorkshire.

retiredmartin said...

Yes, loads round Sheffield closed, including the one where Humphrey allegedly sacked the management for not having his favourite pudding.