Love ‘em or hate ‘em

by Steve Renshaw

Here’s a good way to start an argument amongst a group of CAMRA members. Ask them what they think of Wetherspoon’s pubs. Then sit back and watch the sparks fly.

JD Wetherspoon is known for cask ale, low prices, long opening hours, and no music. The chain is also famous for converting large premises such as cinemas, post offices and banks, into pubs. Tim Martin, founder and chairman, opened his first pub, Martin’s, in Muswell Hill in 1979. The company is now the UK’s largest managed pub chain, with over 860 pubs and bars.

Mr Martin is well known for his outspoken views on a wide range of topics. The JD Wetherspoon name comes from one of his teachers in New Zealand who said that Martin would never make it as a businessman.

The company plans to open 30 new pubs across the UK in 2013. In the early days, it was difficult to acquire ready-made, licensed premises. Hence, the classic ‘Spoons is a large pub in a converted bank or cinema. However, now that cash-strapped pubcos are looking to offload real estate, Wetherspoons are taking some of these sites on. One such is the New Angel Hotel on the harbour at Whitby, which is due to open at the end of March.

The price of a pint in a Wetherspoons is significantly less than that in most other pubs. This is the result of high-volume sales and tight margins. For most breweries, the company is a good customer. Whilst they do not pay the best prices, brewers’ invoices are paid on time. However, some breweries, for example Castle Rock in Nottingham, will not deal with Wetherspoons on principle.

So if they’re opening new pubs, serving cheap real ale and giving CAMRA members discount vouchers, why don’t we all love Wetherspoons? Well, some people are concerned about the market dominance of the company. They liken their impact on town centre pubs to that of supermarkets on local shops.

We have three Wetherspoons outlets in the city: the Forum, the Ritz and the Square Sail. Clearly, these impact on nearby pubs, but this need not be terminal. The competition has to work hard to provide the things that a Wetherspoons doesn’t, such as a homely atmosphere or live music. The Treaty of Commerce and the Jolly Brewer are examples of what can be done.

Of course, Wetherspoons are not just in competition with pubs. I’m guessing that some of the cafés in Whitby are very concerned about the cheap meals and coffee that the New Angel will be serving.

My personal view is that Wetherspoons has a very successful formula and a large and loyal customer base. Although their pubs inevitably impact on nearby businesses, good pubs can still prosper if they can offer an alternative. Having such a major chain supporting real ale and local microbreweries certainly keeps our traditional British tipple in the public eye.

So off I went to the Ritz for my beer tasting. This iconic city landmark is a good example of the company’s use of an unwanted building, with the interior celebrating its former glories.

And what about the beer? It was a cold day, so I chose Winter Warmth (4.6% ABV) from the Great Newsome Brewery in East Yorkshire. This ruby-coloured ale is a classic, seasonal brew with raisin and spice flavours and a bitter finish. Well, if my mum could drink a cup of tea in the summer to cool her down, I can have a beer to warm me up.

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