Visit The Pub Curmudgeon site

Given that Wetherspoons still only run about two per cent of all the pubs in Britain, some people have been known to express surprise at the prominence given to the company in online discussions about beer and pubs. It sometimes seems that Spoons is the only subject that provokes much discussion on the CAMRA Forum.
However, given the large average size of their pubs, they’re probably in sales terms the biggest single pub operator in the country, and they’re certainly the biggest retailers of real ale. They’re also intimately bound up with CAMRA through the members’ discount scheme and, unlike other pub operators, they have a pretty standard offer across their whole estate and are often seen as a bellwether of industry trends. So it’s hardly surprising they get the attention they do.
While their overall success seems to continue unabated, they’re always churned their portfolio to some extent, in some cases because they’ve acquired a better pub nearby, in others because the location did not prove as profitable as they hoped. I’m not aware, though, that they’ve ever put on sale a batch of twenty pubs, as they have this week, mostly in London and the South-East. Although I’m familiar with the location of the one in Lichfield (pictured), I’ve never actually drunk in any of them, so I can’t really offer any personal perspective on the reasons for their lack of success.
From comments made by others on Twitter, they seem to fall into four broad categories:
  1. Towns that are fertile ground for Spoons, but where they have a better-located pub, such as Lichfield and Newport, IOW
  2. Places which are mainly dormitory towns and haven’t in the long run offered sufficient footfall to make a Spoons viable, such as Sevenoaks and Haslemere, both of which have been in Spoons’ hands since before 2000. Paul Bailey has written about the Sennockian here
  3. Greater London locations where there are other branches nearbyLocations in purpose-built shopping centres where the amount of evening trade may be limited

I don’t see this as signifying that Spoons are faltering in any way, just that they are doing the kind of assessment of their operations that any successful business should. Indeed, in the days before the Beer Orders, brewers of all sizes often hung on to pubs when they were no longer viable because they gained a degree of status from the size of their estate. Let’s hope as many of them as possible continue in business as pubs under new owners.
As I’ve written recently, in their quest for expansion Spoons have been opening branches in smaller market towns that previously they wouldn’t have looked at, and also opening second branches in towns such as Preston. Inevitably this will increase the risk of failure, although so far I’ve not seen much evidence of retrenchment from market towns. They seem to have burnt their fingers in Whitchurch (Shropshire) but as far as I can see are going strong in places like Market Drayton and Leominster which have a similar population.
It’s not simply a question of there being a set limit for the smallest town that can sustain a Wetherspoons – you also need to consider the strength of the nearby competition and the degree to which the town acts as a magnet for the surrounding area. The smallest towns to have a Spoons would appear to be Pwllheli in North Wales (pop. 4,000) and Perranporth in Cornwall (pop. 3,000), although both of these attract a lot of summer holidaymakers and the pubs will probably be pretty quiet in winter, even to the extent of shutting part off.
What makes one pub succeed and another fail is always something of a mystery, and if Wetherspoons sometimes make a mistake it’s not entirely surprising that others often get it wrong. It’s an elusive combination of location, offer, price and standard of service.