Friday, 14 November 2008

The Wetherspoons love affair

I have long worried about the effect Wetherspoons has on the small, local, independent, community pub. I worry that Wetherspoons is to the small pub as Tesco's is to the corner shop.

I've just called in this afternoon to The Prince of Wales, a pub that should make the owners money, but doesn't because they think they have to compete with Tim Martin's prices. I don't think they have to as their beer is great.

I was going to write some more about this pub owing to it being one of the pubs I love best, but then I saw a piece on Wetherspoons and their relationship with CAMRA, it got me thinking a few things.

Initially I thought that I agreed with many of it's points. I certainly question Wetherspoons friendship with CAMRA. It is certain that many pubs just cannot compete with Wetherspoons prices. There is a finite beer market out there and Tim Martin's empire has very successfully captured a proportion of that at the expense of other pubs. This is a truth that will cause some pubs to close.

I found myself at odds with the piece when it started to question what it calls "petty rules". I am a big fan of licensees being permitted, in fact being encouraged, to define their style of business. A dress code for instance is a sure way of defining the ambiance in a subtle way. Although banning tracksuit bottoms might eliminate some desirable customers, if a premises makes the link between a certain style of dress and a certain style of behaviour then it is a useful way of defining the customer base.

Tim Martin gained points with me by his rules on children. Family orientated pubs are fine. Some pubs though do not need to be so accommodating to families, indeed I believe we still need some child free zones if we are to avoid posh restaurants taking over from the pub. I was so pleased when he made his rules about children not staying in the pub under certain situations. I believe if the pub industry is to regain some credibility in the responsibility stakes then we all need a little of this.

Criticisms of CCTV and the EU are also things that question the author's understanding. CCTV can be a realistic necessity to ensure compliance with licensing conditions suggested by local authorities, especially where cut price alcohol is involved. The EU is no friend of small business be assured of that, and the small pubs that Wetherpoons threaten are all small businesses.

At my local CAMRA branch meeting there were mixed thoughts about Wetherspoons. Spurning free handouts of discount vouchers conflicted with the fact that the branch passed an important membership milestone as a direct result of Wetherspoons involvement in recruitment.

I have met Mike Benner, the chief executive of CAMRA. There could be a suspicion that he is getting too cosy with Tim Martin. It is very difficult not to think that CAMRA and Mike are being bought out by Wetherspoons. But Mike does not strike me as that type of guy. He believes in CAMRA, he is trying to make it work, he convinces me that the Campaign is more important than just numbers, be it people or pounds sterling.

It is not unusual in history for there to be an unpleasant, but necessary alliance between the friend and foe to fight an even bigger foe. I find myself questioning my whole hatred of Wetherspoons. I doubt I will ever like the concept, but might learn to live with it as perhaps it is a necessary evil.

Perhaps Wetherspoons, CAMRA, Mike Benner and Tim Martin, the closing pub that is not viable and the opening of disused bus depots as pubs are all part of a moving vibrant industry that brings us Real Ale.


Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Dave and Ann will be introduced to the McMenamins kingdom when they arrive in Oregon in mid-December. Much philosophical ramblings will undoubtedly ensue.

My thinking is that there is a personal/impersonal factor at work. Don't touch that dial.

Tyson said...

A thoughtful piece on a difficult subject-Camra's relationship with JDW. I also read the original article and came away with the same thoughts. I've no problem with CCTV or banning tracksuit bottoms in a pub either.

As for Tim Martin, I find his forthright comments refreshing and at least you can put a face to the man at the top. His policy shift re children in pubs was heavily criticised but very bold I thought. I'm not even convinced that they are such a threat to local pubs. All the ones I know are in town centres where the competition is all owned by much bigger pubcos.

Having said that I can't say I'm actually a fan of theirs. Probably because I never seem to come across a really good one. Which is why I worry about the Camra link-JDW always play on it, but (JDW vouchers for new memebers, apart) what exactly does Camra get out of it?

The Woolpack Inn said...

Well I might just ask Mike that very question when I see him in Brussels. As Ted says. Don't touch that dial - there's Dave's world beer tour coming to this blog soon......