Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why I like JD Wetherspoon's

I like Wetherspoons. There. I’ve said it!  For many years my attitude to this pubco has ranged between one of sneering superiority to downright hostility, but the time has come to say I was wrong.

Let’s begin by acknowledging there’s good reason to be wary of this behemoth.  I used to say that JD Wetherspoon was to the pub trade what Tesco was to retailing.  At the last count there were over 800 branches and new ones open all the time. Wetherspoon’s pubs tend to be huge, typically carved out of old banks or industrial premises.  Inside they are formulaic, somewhere between of a sort of stylised London bar and a gentlemen’s club, but unquestionably faux. They use their scale to get cheap prices from their suppliers and this allows them to undercut small independent retailers. And it seems there is no segment of the hospitality market they won’t attempt to tap.  In the morning the Wetherspoon is  a greasy spoon , selling fried breakfasts; by day it’s a coffee bar.  Hot meals are served all day and by night they offer a range of drinks from real ales to cocktails in jugs.

I grew up in a little market town with over thirty pubs.  Many were small traditional drinking dens, and several of them struggled to survive.  When Wetherspoon’s first applied for a licence in the town I lined up with the local landlords to oppose the application.

However, that very breadth is a weakness. Wetherspoons are a jack of all trades and predictably much of what they offer is somewhat second rate.  To be honest breakfast is probably better in your high street café. Wetherspoon’s boast that on Thursday night they are the nation’s biggest curry house, but the food isn’t a patch on the local tandoori.  Their marketing literature calls them “The posh pub company”.  They are not!
Judged by the guiding principals of this blog, the company does not appear to score very highly.  Their food is not seasonal or local.  The same menu is available from Penzance to Peterhead with only a couple of regional variations listed as “Scottish Classics”*, and most of it is not even cooked locally! Apart from steaks and items that go in the deep fat fryer, all the food is precooked and delivered ready chilled.  A delivery truck brings everything for the following week in one drop straight from the central depot.  The system of regular ‘clubs’, Steak Club on Tuesday, Fish Friday and so on, is really a series of cleverly presented price promotions which gives them a high degree of certainty about future sales for the week ahead.

OK,  so what’s to like?

Well for a start I like their opening hours.  The doors open daily at 8.30 and they are open until midnight five days a week, one a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.  And they serve food (and coffee), until 11.00 p.m.  Having lived in the Far East where business is conducted 24x7, it drives me mad to find so many British pubs close their kitchens at 9.00p.m. or even 8.30.

Wetherspoon’s is family friendly by design. At 5.00 o’clock each evening my local Wetherspoon’s, The Joseph Morton, resembles nothing more than a giant children’s tea party.  To be honest, I give the place a wide berth, but better that than feed children’s addiction for McDonalds.  My own kids are adults these days but I well remember being turned away from pubs, or crammed in to dingy ‘family rooms’  when looking for somewhere to eat.  Back then a local Wetherspoon’s would have been a godsend.

Plus a side affect of this is that they are places that women of all ages are comfortable to go into for a coffee or a glass of wine.  That’s not true of all bars in the UK.

And I like the company’s ethical stance.

For many firms Corporate Social Responsibility is little more than a few well chosen platitudes on the company’s web site. But Wetherspoon’s  delivers. CSR is not about eye catching acts of heroism.  It’s about doing the right thing in small ways consistently throughout your business.

Wetherspoon’s build long term relationships with their suppliers and set ethical standards for them to achieve. They buy British when possible. All their beef and pork is sourced from Britain and Ireland.  Their chicken and eggs are all British and free-range.  Their fish comes from sustainable fisheries in Britain and Iceland.  their Lavazza coffee is certified by the Rainforest Alliance

They recycle.  In a ground -breaking innovation, the same trucks that deliver the food from the national distribution centre in Daventry, handle the reverse logistics of aluminium cans and packaging materials which are taken back to the company’s own recycling centre co-located there.  Last year, according to the website, the centre processed 5,000 tonnes of cardboard and paper, 2500 tonnes of cooking oil, 400 tonnes of plastic, and 177 tonnes of steel.  Glass bottles are recycled in partnership with suppliers.  Last year over 12,800 tonnes of glass was recycled.

Wetherspoon works with Carbon Statement to obtain an independently audited weekly report for each of their pubs.  This allows them to work toward their Carbon Reduction Commitment as part of the UK government scheme.

They are also good to their staff.  Unlike other pubcos such as Punch Taverns, which seem to serve no purpose but to cream profit off the top and drive hard working publicans to penury, Wetherspoon runs a national training scheme for both kitchen and front of house staff. The company prefers to promote from within its own ranks.  For the past two years this has been recognised by the CRF Institute which has voted the company one of Britain’s Best Employers.  That’s quite an accolade in an industry which is known for paying minimum wage and hiring and firing low skilled workers.

As an ale drinker, I love the fact that Wetherspoon’s supports Britain’s independent brewers.  In addition to resident ales such as Adnam’s Broadside or Fuller’s London Pride, they all feature regular guest ales. One of the establishments that I know best personally is the Towan Blystra in Newquay.  They normally have eight beers on hand pump, in addition to Guinness, eight lagers and three draft ciders.  And they are all well kept and well served.  The company regularly partners with craft brewers to produce special edition ales exclusively available in Wetherspoon’s pubs.  This wins them accreditation both from from CAMRA and Cask Marque.

Of course the one word which is always attached to Wetherspoon’s is ‘cheap’.  There’s no getting around it, whether you want to take the family out for dinner or enjoy a couple of drinks, this place is a cheap option.

Now I am not a fan of cheap food per se.  Cheap food often comes at a high cost to the environment, to animals and to humans working in production or distribution.  But the way JD does it, with long term relationships with identifiable partners, seems okay.  If the web site is to be believed, many of these partners are small, family run businesses, and as mentioned previously Wetherspoon’s use their influence to ensure minimum standards of ethical practice across the supply chain.

The result is hundreds of frankly unbeatable prices: a pint of beer for under £2; double up any gin, vodka or whisky for an extra £1; a burger and chips for £4.39; curry, served with rice, naan bread, poppadum and chutney for £6.49, and that includes a free pint of beer! And so on and on.  The food snob in me says you get what you pay for, and it’s true the food is not fancy.  But its main sin is to be mass produced and ‘cooked’ by advanced microwave technicians, nothing worse.  Frankly in the current economic climate, when nearly a million Britons regularly depend on food banks, there is a place for JD Wetherspoon and his cheap meals.

And what of poor local businesses struggling to compete?  Well as I have alluded to repeatedly, Wetherspoon’s is not perfect. Local firms have many advantages if they stop and think about it, and they really should not be competing solely on price anyway.

One thousand pubs close and disappear annually in Britain. Drinking habits change and the licensed trade needs to move with the times.  I was wrong to oppose Wetherspoon’s licence back in my old market town.  Dingy, smoke filled  little tap rooms selling pints of mild to old men playing shove ha’penny might sound picturesque but my friends and I never went there.  The truth is those pubs were dead already and frankly good riddance!  They were part of an old disappearing Britain. Wetherspoon’s may not be the future but they very much chime with the present.  They have hit upon a formula which works.  The business is successful, their pubs fulfill a market need and the evidence is that people seem to like them.  Alright so Wetherspoon’s  bars aren’t your traditional old British pubs with jugs of foaming ale, inglenook fireplace and home cooked meals.  They aren’t gastro pubs either, but they are alright.  Is there a place in our town centres for a basic, well run bar offering cheap food and cheap drinks? A place where you can order a cappuccino at 11.00 p.m. or a caipirinha without being laughed at?  Absolutely there is.

See you in ‘Spoon’s!

*Welsh and Northern Irish Classics also exist.

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