Pubs on the march
21 February, 2011
by Peter Martin
The schizophrenia of the pub trade was on full view before Christmas at the annual lunch of the Association of the Licensed Multiple Operators. Over in one corner the team from Geronimo Inns were rightly celebrating the £60m sale deal they had completed only the night before, while on the big screen the organisers had decided to show a video on the cost of pub closures.
The same industry? It’s hard to think so. But that’s the point - generalising about pubs is dangerous territory. While national media headlines have long concentrated on the boarding-up of often unloved and unwanted locals, good operators, big and small, have been busy giving their customers a reason to keep coming out to their establishments.
It’s about understanding and meeting changing public tastes. All the research shows that people like pubs, just not old-fashioned boozers. Better food and better wine have been at the top of their wish lists.
Companies like Geronimo understand that, and they have been at the forefront of a real revival in pub culture in London in particular. In the latest Peach Report magazine we look behind that capital revival and the emergence of vibrant new entrepreneurial businesses like Realpubs, Grand Union, Draft House and the aptly named Rennaissance – not to forget of course the subjects of our cover shot, Tom and Ed Martin (see Peach Report Feb/Mar, p18)
But re-emerging pub popularity is not just a southern, or middle class, phenomenon. Why else would Greene King kick off 2011 with the £55m purchase of the 12-strong Cloverleaf chain based in the North West and Midlands?
Cloverleaf may not be as fashionable as some of its London cousins – our own feature on the company back in December 2009 was actually headlined ‘In praise of the unfashionable’ - but it hits the mark with its customer base, championing unfussy generosity.
It’s the same sort of approach that has paid dividends for big company brands like Toby Carvery from M&B, and indeed Greene King’s own Hungry Horse chain.
Food is the factor that cements these pub success stories. Going into catering is no panacea on its own, but making it part of the overall package is key. It’s what the public wants. Geronimo Inns boss Rupert Clevely has always been adamant that he runs pubs not gastro-pubs. He’s right. He and the rest of the new wave of operators have found the knack of delivering the essential uniqueness of the pub experience for a new more demanding clientele. At the heart of that are the strengths of informality, flexibility and control of the experience by the customer.
Pubs are back on the map – and as the recent financial results from the likes of Fullers, Greene King, Marstons and M&B show, they are making money too. They are even being promoted on our TV screens thanks to M&B’s push behind the likes of Toby, Harvester, Sizzling and Crown Carvery. Making pubs relevant to the modern world has also seen the same company develop an iPhone, iPad and Android phone app for its Vintage Inn chain. Who would have predicted that even a few months ago?
The march of brands like Harvester on the high street hasn’t gone unnoticed by casual dining operators either. It was perhaps telling that at 6pm on a chilly February Wednesday at that mecca of casual and fast casual dining brands that is the Westfield shopping centre in west London, it was Geronimo’s pub, The Bull, that was the busiest. Yes, pubs in retail too. Whatever next?
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