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Wetherspoon, Lavazza and I - a Love Story

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

I used to love my Wetherspoon moments. Doesn't everybody have memories of Wetherspoon moments ?


Mine are ordering my refillable Lavazza Flat White and a Sunday Club (which always included a pint of Abbott Ale in the price as a bonus)... I was busy thinking today, that I can't wait to do it again post COVID. Although the Sunday Club is a gonner, I should think a Thursday Curry Club or a Tuesday Grill Club would suffice - or even go mad with something from the main menu !

JD Wetherspoon, in my opinion, you deserve far more credit for your contribution to the licensed trade, and to society, than you are generally given.

One of my Favourite Wetherspoon

The Picture House, Stafford

 

For some reason, people love to sneer at JD Wetherspoon. You hear the pretentions of the high street gentry saying how morons go there just to drink cheap, out of date beer. The same simpletons scoff that the Wetherspoon pubs are full of plebs eating burgers that don't taste as good as the ones we got at Five Guys for treble the price. You will hear the foodie snobs assure you that it is all microwaved crap... And yet, despite these prejudices (no, downright lies) - over time, the local Wetherspoon has built a reputation as the ultimate meeting place - the early door - the start of the run... and then as the licensing law changed drinking habits in 2005, it became the end of the run for the none-club goer as well. Depending what location you were in, would depend on your visit frequency.


The high street pub version of Steve McClaren

So the point of this blog is to express my thoughts. JD Wetherspoon (JDW) has to be the most maligned pub chain in the UK - often described with venom as a 2nd division business, a pretender - the high street pub version of what Steve McClaren was to English football. Flattering to deceive.... Whoever these critics are, would probably assert that it's a place that a lot of people tend to associate with a kind of impulsive sadness. Describing the ambient mutterings of the lonely, old and ill - interrupted only by the announcement of a gourmet burger or the occasional bar fight perpetuated by those 2 wild animals 'Stella' and 'Artois'. These same people conflating cheaper prices with 'rough' and 'poor quality', as well as assuming no music must also mean boring.


Wetherspoon pubs are inexplicably on the receiving end of far more shit than other major chain pub companies combined. The majority of it untrue.

I urge everybody to have a rethink. For the past decade, our great British pub culture, as my generation (GenX) knew it, has been eroded at a worrying pace. According to CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), prior to COVID19, so before the devastating effect that has had on the trade, ​around 30 pubs were closing every week.


Clearly, it's tricky situation for any pubco. COVID has forced the whole hospitality industry into retreat. Living on furlough, no guests and the approaching task, of trying to convince the nation that a £4 pint is something worth coming out for - when the same guest can pick up four cans for 50p less at their nearest Tesco Metro, and stay sheltered from harm at home. However, in the midst of all this chaos, is Wetherspoon territory. If this is a back to the wall fight, they have been in this trench before. Post the last recession, a classic example of resilience, as they continued to grow against the industry trend. JDW operated 872 pubs in the UK and Ireland in 2020. Although this followed a declining trend in the last few years, the number of Wetherspoon outlets is still higher than ten years ago; In 2005 the number of pubs was 626, in 2010 this was at 731 and climbing. Not only are they propping up the presence of pubs on our high streets, but - and this is based entirely on their own merits - they are a legitimate destination in their own right. They are not just a building to gather in before heading to a gig, or a rugby match, or anywhere else. They have successfully become the 'Third Place' to many. This is great news by the way, not just to me as a fan, but for all pub goers - all of us - Nationwide.


The Story

Walking into a Wetherspoon pub feels like greeting an old friend. No matter which corner of the country you find yourself in, you know exactly what you’re getting when you walk in. You’ll have the same cocktail pitchers, the same blue floral plates, and the same great night.


I have held real affection, bordering on a love affair with JDW and how they operate, since I worked for the business as an Area Manager in the North West. What a time to be alive that was. What I saw very quickly was that the company had a totally fresh approach to retailing, the formulation of best practice, the processes that make great pubs, the absolute understanding of the basics of Cleanliness, Quality, Service, Maintenance and Atmosphere - and then of course their secret weapon - what Tim Martin doesn't know about pubs, simply isn't worth knowing. His passion for his business knows no boundary, and is, I believe beyond compare in the trade.

 

Chapter One: Liverpool

My team of pub managers and staff up there in Merseyside were so motivated as well - we achieved so much in 3 short but awesome years together. Blowing our trumpet here, but we raised the largest amount of money for ClicSargent in a single year; I think I am correct remembering that The Welkin, was the first none smoking pub in Liverpool; we were among the first pubs to embrace the change in licensing law and start serving Breakfast with a pint at 7am if you wanted it; and we grew our food business to be the 5th largest total in the JDW estate - not bad for 12 pubs in the North West, where the average daily nutritional intake at the time was 8 pints of John Smiths and a Pasta Alfredo. By the way in 2015, the Guardian named JDW the nation’s fifth favourite breakfast destination. Maybe all of us involved at the time should feel a little pride in that ?


What a time to be alive

Shout out to this fabulous team

 

Business Happens: Since then, my affair with JDW has never faltered, taking all my learning and formulating them into something of my own, using the teachings they gave me into and throughout my future career. The grounding JDW give - is eminently transferable.


Life Happens: Then, on a much more emotional, personal level. I fondly remember that it was over a Wetherspoon Sunday lunch in the Bolebridge, Tamworth that my young kids first met my adorable other half; it was over a curry club dinner that a lot of my professional business was done; and it was during post-Saturday shopping in The Silk Kite, when Elaine and I would go for a £5 Burger and a Drink, or an an all day breakfast. It was also in those special moments together, that I realised that she was pretty much my best friend in the whole World.


You see 'Spoons' touches people, in ways only the individual can explain.


But away from all the personal sentimentality, there is genuinely something in the Wetherspoon pub for everyone, and that's because as previously mentioned, JDW has spent the past 42 years perfecting a formula that's made their pubs everything you could ever really ask for in a boozer. They may not be the best quality option in every given post code - and it's true, there is a formula which has some decrying that there is a certain pub-in-a-box feel to a number of their pubs. This doesn't matter to me - they still deserve far more credit than they are given because of the things they do better than anybody else on the high street. The absolute basics, that they do so so well.

 

Pricewatch

First - crucially - is the price. Money makes the world go round.


This is a little inconvenient for the 22 percent of the population earning under the living wage who still want to have some remote possibility of a social life. A social life that might include competitive drinking or moaning about your eight-pint hangover from last week, as you frantically work on this weeks nine pinter. Yet, no matter where you are at in your hierarchy of need, when you seek out those promotional chalkboards on the bar, you will know you're getting the best value for your money. That is another thing I love about JDW - their ongoing commitment to quality brands, at great prices. I would describe this as best in class. I built a whole formulaic approach to pricing based around this - I called it Qualitative Pricing, and helped numerous businesses grow their profitability and their brand influence off the back of it.


Great prices can be handy for all manner of things, but let's use an adult life cycle as a case in point:

An actually pretty decent roast (so quite a good first date) is about £7 a plate including a drink; Valentine's for two was £20 including a bottle of wine last year; you can hold a wedding reception for 100 people at the Knights Templar in London for £3,000, or £30 a head; a christening in any of their pubs for about £10 a head and a wake the same price. So that's every stage of your adult life, sorted on a budget you might actually be able to afford. The whole shebang - Hatch, match and dispatch. Good luck persuading your other half that a Wetherspoon wedding is a good idea mind you.


“It’s okay, you can afford to get another one”

There's arguably no time when this value is needed more - post COVID. A time when minimum wage jobs are difficult to come by. In places like London, this is even more significant, when your part time wages won't cover your rent and bills, let alone a Thursday evening drink. The average cost of a pint in the UK has risen by 6% to £3.94 from £3.70 in 2019, according to whichever boring bastard decided that was relevant to tell us that in a lockdown situation.... What is relevant however, is that when the shackles are released, you’re not gonna find better priced pub booze anywhere. Whether an after worker, or a student social - Wetherspoon deals and prices are the best excuse to drink and forget about how much we aren’t doing. Here, you can always justify telling yourself “It’s okay, you can afford to get another one”.


 

Tell Tim

JD Wetherspoon was, in fact, established by a man called Tim Martin, not Mr. Wetherspoon. Tim had a teacher called Mr. Wetherspoon who told him he'd never amount to anything. Now he's a millionaire businessman, who owns close to 900 pubs across the UK. So I think we can all see who the joke is on now. If you're interested - the JD bit came from JD Hogg from 'The Dukes of Hazard'


Tim is somewhat of an eccentric as well. I had the pleasure of his company twice in my stay with the business. As was his custom he would arrive on foot to meet me. Tim describes himself as anti-fashion in interviews, and so he would turn up wearing jeans and a polo shirt, his grey hair swept back on top of his head. He is quite a giant, and the staff would recognise him immediately, as would the majority of the customers. It was a bit like having a royal visit. He would carry what looked like the corporate P&L around in a plastic bag, and sometimes give away his Volvo to the highest seller of draught Coldwater Creek. Tim also had a thing about personal tics so you have to watch your movements. Yes, a visit from Tim Martin was something almost all JDW staff had learned to be wary of but also excited by. Since he founded the company he has made a point of visiting as many pubs he can, as often as he can. I believe the rumours that say he knows more than 1,000 staff by name, because he definitely prided himself on taking ideas from all levels of the business via his 'Tell Tim' mechanism, and BOPS (an acronym for Big Operations Meeting). I'd love to believe those things were still happening - the pace injected into change through BOPs, for a 630 strong chain - was simply astounding.


What he has achieved, and carries on achieving, is nothing short of miraculous. It's the pub of the underdog; a big 'fuck you' to Mr. Wetherspoon. In this pub of the underdog, there's no pretence. No one is too good, old, young, rich, or poor to take a seat. As a blogger, it's also the panacea of working space solutions - the only place with WiFi that lets you hang around all day, nursing refillable flat whites. The very best of all, there's no music, only a sweet silence, and subtitled News channel, peppered with chatter of customers and maybe the hacking cough of a tobacco infused regular on his way outside for a fag. Theres no Ed Sheeran, no Calvin Harris and no Sam Smith invading your ear canals at four in the afternoon... in traditional pubs anyway - in a Lloyds or a hybrid 'Wetherlloyds' this might be different....

 

Beauty in the Eye


The simple beauty they bring to their pub architecture! Aside from the branding, and with it the fact that you just know that you are in a Wetherspoon pub - we shouldn't detract from the fact that a great number of pubs have been created inside some beautiful old buildings.

In London, the Crosse Keys, is a pub built inside a spectacular former bank lobby. Parping with pomp and circumstance, The Crosse Keys is all marbled columns, coffered ceilings, Victorian Baroque façade and a boozing arena large enough to house a fleet of Routemaster buses. It's the kind of place you can lord it up with an genuinely affordable glass of fizz. As well as that beauty - the aforementioned Knights Templar inside the former Union Bank, which boasts the poshest of posh toilets. Many many others are repurposed cinemas, churches and pubs that would have otherwise been redeveloped for other uses - or worse still demolished. One of mine was a beautiful old cinema in Kensington... (Liverpool) - which although architecturally gorgeous, was still in 'Kenny', and could never ever be confused with the other Kensington in London. Yes, JDW buys these historic buildings and redevelops them, giving them new purpose whilst always making the effort to be sympathetic to the original style - and they then use the history of the building and geographical area to name the pubs. Even if you're one of the biggest planning purist, wouldn't you rather all that effort, than all of these buildings being converted into yet more luxury flats, or flattened to make a car park ?


Inside The Palladium, Llandudno

Can you guess what it was yet?

 

Spend a Penny


Lets not get started on the loos - my word. The memes all over social media will tell you, that you may have to walk a bloody long way in most JDW pubs to reach the loo. Boy when you get there though, you have the best loo experience of any pub business - fact.

Independent inspectors visit pubs’ toilets anonymously and judge them on a range of criteria, including décor and maintenance, cleanliness, accessibility, hand-washing and hand drying equipment and overall management.

According to their website, a total of 836 JDW pubs were judged by inspectors, with 58 awarded gold, 771 gaining platinum and seven achieving the highest-possible diamond rating, which focuses on the highest standards of cleaning and the provision of clean and well-maintained facilities to meet all users’ needs.


Clearly, the other 36 pubs toilets, were so far away from the bar, the inspectors didn't have time to visit, or were fearing for their lungs from the climb ahead...


 

Look No Further


It may feel like an unsavoury idea, but JDW has the formula right; The champions of value. The keepers of traditional pub values - 242 Wetherspoon pubs listed in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2021. This is a guide which is regarded as the leading authority on real ale served in pubs. I believe that this is more pubs than any other pub company in the UK by the way. We could add 50 Hotels into their mix, which are far from budget feel, but fit neatly into the budget price bracket. We have to talk about Lavazza coffee, one of the Worlds best quality coffee brands, available in Wetherspoon from 99p a cup. JDW now sell more cups of coffee than anybody else outside Costa or Starbucks. Finally for this part, We can't leave without a mention of food - menus that change regularly, developed with a large proportion of fresh produce, by a superb team of food professionals, and then with the sole intention of giving superb value for money to the guest. We can see just why the JDW business model is so strong.


And so...


As pub culture continues to slide into a new World, as the fallout of 2020 and Coronavirus comes home to roost, we should appreciate - not lament - the fact that we have a public house behemoth we can trust to stand the test of time. The pub industry is going to be awash with acquisition and merger, as pubco after pubco, new money after equity release, attempt to find their place in the market recovery.


Our high streets will change and evolve and decay, the trade will continue to soul search and manipulate itself - but these distinctly 'average' yet impressively efficient pubs have the grounding to survive. In the years post COVID, just as in the years post the last recession, I am absolutely convinced that JDW will continue giving us more incredible pubs, in which we can experience more of life's most seminal moments, we can recover our social balance, and I can continue my love in.


In a JD Wetherspoon pub - we can all afford to drink to that.


Cheers!







 


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