Sunday, 27 January 2013

Plastic Spoons

JD Wetherspoons is a successful pub company that is expanding in a declining market, its policy is to provide real ale in all its sites, and many of its outlets have a good range of beers both from well-known breweries and interesting micros. It also provides good value food, tea and coffee, and in fact is the only pub chain that I’d go in just for a hot drink. It tends to open its outlets in buildings that for the most part weren’t pubs previously, in the process saving some interesting old buildings from demolition, such as a former theatre in Cardiff where you can sit in the circle with your pint and gaze down on the crowds below. It has also reintroduced real ale in areas where it wasn’t previously available. It actively supports and promotes CAMRA and gives members £20 of discount real ale vouchers. As someone who began drinking in the 1970s, I'm certain that real ale drinkers of that time would have welcomed Spoons with open arms.

What about today? There has been a series of letters in the CAMRA newspaper, What’s Brewing, complaining about Spoons pubs being in the Good Beer Guide (GBG), often coupled with demands that they should be automatically excluded because they are all alike; there have been accusations by members who should know better that the vouchers scheme has bought entries in the GBG, and snide suggestions that CAMRA should reward its “paymasters” by listing every Spoons pub in an appendix in the GBG. Having been involved in GBG selection for many years, I know that Spoons pubs are chosen on their merits alone; there is no directive from CAMRA HQ, nor any local policy, that we should lower our standards to let them in as a mark of gratitude. So while they get no favours, they shouldn’t be discriminated against because of some members’ prejudices. In short, they are treated fairly. I can only assume that these whingeing CAMRA members are not involved in the GBG selection process in their local branches, otherwise they’d realise what utter nonsense they’re writing.

In the blogosphere, it gets even worse. I can’t think of any beer bloggers who are automatically anti-Spoons, but some people who add comments to blogs have revealed themselves to be quite unpleasant human beings. Spoons pubs are sneeringly dismissed as being full of people on benefits, neglectful, boozy single parents letting their kids run riot, and dribbling pensioners with shaking hands – I’m quoting here; I get no pleasure typing this.

Here’s my response: firstly, people who talk and write this way are objectionable little snobs and I wouldn’t want them polluting any pub I choose to go to, Spoons or otherwise. Stripping away the disgraceful language, I’ll answer the substantive points. It is not surprising that people on limited incomes might choose to go to what is usually the cheapest pub in town. People on benefits and pensions are entitled to go for a drink to meet people, avoid isolation and have a little pleasure without being scorned by the financially fortunate. I’ve rarely seen kids running wild, and I’ve never seen shaking, dribbling pensioners. Even snobs will be pensioners one day - assuming that, with such bad manners, they live that long.

While Spoons pubs do have a corporate style, they’re not all identical: appearance and quality do vary, and there are some I’m quite happy to drink in and others I'm not, but isn't this true of all pub companies? For instance, there are two pubs in Southport that belong to the same, non-Spoons pub company: one is my favourite and the other I don’t set foot in. No one has to like Spoons pubs - it’s a question of personal preference - but if you choose to dismiss them in such offensive and snobbish terms, it says less about the pubs and more about what an obnoxious person you are.


  1. Interestingly, my column for February's "Opening Times" (not yet online) is on much the same theme - it looks at the for and against cases for Spoons but concludes that, on balance, they are far more good than bad. It concludes:

    "You can’t knock their success, and, at a time when closed and boarded pubs are a common sight, they are opening dozens of new ones every year in a variety of locations. They have hit upon a formula that obviously works and pulls the customers in. They started from a single pub thirty years ago, and the same business opportunities have been open to everyone, but nobody else has taken them to anything like the same extent. "

    I have to say though, that while I applaud their business success and am often a customer, I find even the best of their outlets rather lacking in the hard-to-define quality of "pubbiness".

  2. I'd also add that pubs have always been something of a home-from-home for old codgers, and it's hardly surprising much of that segment of the market has gravitated to Spoons.

  3. 'I find even the best of their outlets rather lacking in the hard-to-define quality of "pubbiness".' I tend to agree, and it's probably because the most pubby of pubs have built up their character over decades or more; it's unusual for a new pub to come into being fully formed. Plus some Spoons are sometimes too big to develop the intimate atmosphere required for that pub atmosphere we know but struggle to define.

  4. The Wetherspoons in Wirral are dreadful places with just a few beers in poor condition. Two of them have tried to force their way into the GBG by turning up at selection meetings mob-handed with new CAMRA members that we'd never seen before.

  5. A lot of sense spoken from all contributors here. A pub should be judged on it's own merits and plenty of 'Spoons have character and a good atmosphere. Beer quality is normally good and incredibly cheap in most, especially for CAMRA members. I have heard rumours that Wetherspoons dictate barrel prices to suppliers but this is standard practice in any business. There is a myth that they affect surrounding pubs trade but in my experience only bad pubs have suffered. The beer duty is the main cause of other pubs struggling.

  6. I think there is an element that dislike anything that smacks of corporate chain, even when that delivers something that is pretty good at a fair price. The most recent moans I hear are not so much snobbish comments about their clientele or even the myth of near its sell by date beer, it is more about them screwing brewers. But if they did, why would anyone supply them? They are not in a monopoly position and there are bigger pub co’s out there. There is an element that would prefer beer and pubs to be a small cottage industry that only supplies the refined discerning tastes of middle class guardian readers. You are right to dismiss them as snobs. The market provide a range of choices, people vote with their wallets and my experience of Spoons is of a good operation that provides better value than many. Many other struggling outfits think there is a market for charging more and offering less. If you want to charge more than the Wetherspoons, you need to be better.

    However any pub that offers discounts to CAMRA members will be doing so to attract CAMRA members into its premises. Why do that? Most beer drinkers or even real ale drinkers are not CAMRA members. Could it be that CAMRA members are consider opinion formers influencing consumers? The point of the campaign is to influence consumers in so far as encouraging real ale drinking. The active ones send in beer scores and nominate pubs for awards and write about them in magazines. It would be interesting to correlate pubs in the CAMRA beer guide & other CAMRA awards alongside pubs that give discounts to CAMRA members.

  7. The bad behaviour by two Spoons pubs on the Wirral, as described by Birkonian, wouldn't have happened if Spoons pubs were automatically favoured in GBG selections, so I think that myth is now discounted.

    Cooking Lager has a point: pubs that give CAMRA members discounts - and an increasing number of non-Spoons pubs do so - are more likely to get CAMRA members in. Such pubs will then receive more scores on the National Beer Scoring System, which is the basis of GBG entries. However, that doesn't guarantee that the pubs will be given high scores: only the beer quality can ensure that.

  8. The "Opening Times" column I was referring to is now online here.


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