Spirit Pub Company will ensure its entire managed estate of 750 pubs – bar the odd City pub – is open for Christmas day lunch, demonstrating the lengths to which pub groups will go to drum up business.
The traditional Christmas morning “swift half” at the local now looks old-fashioned. Spirit said nearly all its managed pubs were booked for two lunch sittings, and some for dinner as well.
Spirit’s all-out push for the Christmas day market is one of many initiatives taken by pub groups and landlords to woo the public in what Numis analyst Douglas Jack described as a “golden age” of innovation for the sector.
The smoking ban of 2008 and damaging beer duty rises triggered the industry’s quest for new products to sell and new gimmicks to get customers through the saloon doors.
Coffee, breakfast and craft beers are some of the older innovations but fresh ideas keep coming.
Bookings on Twitter, mystery visitors, takeaway food, delicatessens, X Factor competitions, an outdoor ice rink, patisseries and “speed-plating” (chat-up opportunities across a multi-course dinner) are now part of the UK pub industry’s repertoire.
Pubs have historically been adaptable, Mr Jack said: “They keep surviving and they reinvent themselves. They’ve moved to food and they are doing it better than restaurants and at better value for money.”
Peach Factory, which measures trends in eating and drinking, said budget-conscious pub brands such as Crown Carvery, Toby, Wetherspoon and Hungry Horse scored highly in its surveys for value for money.
However, most of the sector’s innovation has been concentrated in venues directly managed by pub companies themselves. Many leased and tenanted pubs – which tend to be “locals” run by quasi-independent licensees who are obliged to buy beer from the property’s owner – have less room for manoeuvre.
At the King’s Arms near London Bridge, for instance, landlord Bill Sharp complains that lessees like himself simply do not have enough spare cash to innovate amid declining beer sales and rising costs.
“There is no innovation because there’s nothing left to reinvest,” said Mr Sharp, who leases the pub from Enterprise Inns, the heavily indebted pub owner.
He actually argues that the most important innovation arrived long ago: credit cards. “Years ago, you couldn’t give beer on tick [credit],” he said. “Without credit cards pubs would have gone under, people don’t carry the cash.”
Continued innovation remains integral to managed pubs’ efforts to differentiate themselves, however.
Marston’s, an integrated brewer and pub operator, refers to a “sense of theatre” in its managed pubs – designing them to include designated areas for families, rotisseries, open kitchens, real fires and deli counters enabling customers to take home sauces, pickles and glassware.
Not all ideas work. Spirit, which was demerged from Punch Taverns in 2011, includes a Flaming Grill chain that was begun from scratch after the company converted drink-led boozers into pubs whose centrepiece was grilled meat delivered on a sizzling platter. The concept grew to nearly a hundred pubs.
But a non-branded gastropub chain of 10 was closed. “The organisation wasn’t set up well enough to deliver it perfectly,” said Mike Tye, Spirit’s chief executive. “To be innovative you have to fail several times, try to learn, then modify.”
New food ideas are only a part of innovation in pubs. Marston’s, for instance, attributed a 2 per cent rise in beer volumes since 2010 in part to Fastcask, a technological cask innovation that cuts out the need to store ale for up to two days before serving.
It was able to roll out Hobgoblin and other ales it brews to music festivals and cricket grounds, events previously dominated by fizzy lager. Fastcask ales now account for nearly a third of Marston’s total cask ale volumes.
Mr Tye said pub operators shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. “Innovation can be groundbreaking but more often it’s a continuous reinvention which keeps things appropriate for consumers as their habits and needs evolve,” he said.
Still, this adaptability is altering the make-up of people running pubs. Paul Charity of leisure consultancy Propel said the retail skills now being deployed in pubs are many and varied.
“The bigger tenanted operators weren’t really involved in retail, they were landlords,” he said. “They are really having to roll their sleeves up and intervene to create a retail focus.”
Fuller Smith & Turner, another integrated brewing and pub company, sent 250 retail staff for wine qualifications last year. “On the back of that our wine sales are up,” said Simon Emeny, chief executive.
“We wouldn’t have been doing this five years ago . . . it’s symptomatic of the need to push boundaries and not just do good food and beer.”
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