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31-08-2015, 17:11
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In recent years, we have seen a huge expansion of the German discount supermarket chains ALDI and Lidl. Before acquiring any new site, I’m sure they study very carefully the demographics of the local area, the prominence of the location and the ease of access to it. No doubt Greene King and Marstons do the same when looking at building new dining pubs, and likewise BrewDog and Wetherspoons. Spoons sometimes get it wrong, but they generally don’t, and their failures generally result from going a little outside their comfort zone.
But pub operators in general don’t have that luxury, and are in effect saddled with the estate they’ve already got, which will generally have been established in times when the pattern of demand was very different. Most of our pubs are still on sites that were pubs before 1914, and something that is often forgotten is that, in the days before buses and electric trams, many men would regularly walk two, three or four miles to and from work, and thus had plenty of opportunity to call in for a pint or six on their way home. This helps to account for the way pubs are (or were) strung out along all the main radial routes from cities and large towns, but clearly it is something that no longer applies.
The distinctive trade of many pubs has developed over the years in a kind of hit-and-miss fashion – this one a music pub, this one a sports pub, this one a codgers’ pub, this one a young folks’ pub. But any pub operator investing substantial money in a refurbishment scheme needs to consider the potential market very carefully. It’s no longer a matter of “if you build it, they will come”, if it ever was. In the past, pub operators have been guilty of many ludicrous flights of fancy that might have seemed a good idea after a long lunch but were based on no market research whatsoever – who ever imagined that doing a pub up as a smugglers’ cave would boost trade in the long term?
I still get the impression, though, that many modern-day refurbishments are done on a kind of seat-of-the-pants basis without any in-depth research. Pub operators really need to consider:

Who is going to come here?
Will they be people already in the area, or will they make a special journey?
How are they going to get here, and back again?
At what times of the day will they come?
What beers and other drinks will they want to buy?
Will they want food and, if so, of what kind?What is the key factor that will make them visit this pub as opposed to another?

But I’m not sure whether they really think this through, or just take the view that, if it’s a bit smarter than it was before, the customers will flock in. Recently, Robinsons have carried out quite an expensive refurb on a pub in one of Stockpiort’s satellite towns. It’s quite sympathetic, but it’s all a bit pastel, the beer offering verges towards the “crafty”, and the lunchtime snacks are a touch “gastro” and a long way from basic butties. I can’t help wondering who they think they are targeting, and that any idea this will become the trendy go-to meeting place in the locality is surely misguided.
Going back a couple of decades, there was a trend for the major brewers to convert pubs to the then-trendy “alehouse” theme regardless of any consideration whether there would be a demand for it in that location – the Chapel House in Heaton Chapel being a prime example. Over the years, I’ve seen several examples of pub operators trying to introduce an up-market food format in obviously unsuitable locations, and indeed a smaller number of cheap’n’cheerful food operations in prosperous middle-class areas. There are obvious examples of thriving pubs of various kinds, but it shouldn’t be assumed that a winning formula will translate to another location, especially if done in a half-hearted, by-numbers way.
Locally, Holts’ attempts to turn the Griffin in Heaton Mersey into a smart dining pub particularly stand out. They carried out a thorough refurbishment to make it look posher and introduced an ambitious, expensive menu, promoted by prominent on-street A-boards. But it clearly didn’t work, and the food offer has been repeatedly reduced and made more affordable. Unlike some other Holts’ pubs, it’s not really a good location for a dining pub, and its general appearance and layout still shout “boozer”. It seems they have lost the lunchtime clientele who used to have a couple of pints and a bacon roll without attracting any replacements who fancy a pan-fried lamb shank.

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