A positive force for our industry

Walking down my local high street mid-morning on Monday 12 April for the momentous day when outdoor drinking at pubs and visiting non-essential shops became possible again, it was noticeable the barbers shop had no queue outside whereas the JD Wetherspoon was a hive of activity on its modest concrete front garden.

For these drinkers, their hair could stay long for another day because it was more important to be back socialising with friends and loose nod-of-the-head acquaintances who they had probably not seen since the shutters came down on the pub some weeks before Christmas. This group will, invariably, be tarnished by many people because they, apparently, have little more to do than waste their time and their money drinking. Couldn’t they be doing something more productive you could ask?

One of 900 pubs run by Wetherspoon in the UK

It’s so often forgotten, or not even considered I suspect, that for these people this is the “community” thing that we all talk about. Their community is not about going down the chichi coffee shop or church but revolves around the pub. While they have been shut, many of these people will likely have been living pretty solitary existences. The pub is central to their engagement with society. Yes, they could be doing something more productive like charity work or volunteering but life’s not quite like that is it?

When I once suggested Wetherspoon’s cheap prices made it much more accessible for people to have this social element to their lives I was shot down by the counter argument that it merely supports problem drinkers. The fact they could buy much cheaper alcohol in the supermarket seemed to have been lost.

This neatly encapsulates the rather polarised view of JD Wetherspoon. Where I see it has having certain virtues, the very same points can be equally put forward as negative characteristics. Its cheap prices enable it to welcome all comers onto its premises – just like the pub is supposed to do – but, to others, this low pricing not only fuels alcoholics but must also be only possible through screwing suppliers and underpaying its employees.

According to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, these low prices are also a result of JD Wetherspoon taking advantage of liberalised planning rules to convert former cinemas and banks into large-scale pubs. This also killed off competition it suggests. Might I argue that this move did a great service by resurrecting crumbling old buildings that, in turn, helped regenerate town centres. It is just this sort of thinking that we need more than ever now as we look to revitalise high streets that have been devastated by covid-19 with multiple closures of retail and hospitality businesses.

It has also been oddly suggested that JD Wetherspoon has cunningly created grid-like seating patterns to reduce the frequency of chance interactions and thereby limit sociability. I’d prefer to think this is a rather sensible way to provide the preferred environments for a broad spread of demographics, which is exactly what the Victorians did with their pubs and I thought we still held them up as the exemplar of pubs. Well, maybe, but not if you are called JD Wetherspoon. 

Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon chain

The company has also been a victim of its founder Tim Martin being particularly vocal on multiple fronts. What began with Brexit, continued into covid-19 – going back to the video suggesting his employees take a temporary position at Tesco. But he’s also argued positively for the industry throughout the past year when leisure and hospitality has wanted its leaders to stand up and fight for their corner.

Martin has also recently profited from flogging some shares while the company takes furlough money. Even though the two are entirely separate, it doesn’t look great to the media. Less widely reported was the £145m that is being invested in new pubs and upgrades, creating 2,000 jobs. 
Love it or loathe it, JD Wetherspoon and Tim Martin make a difference. I’m on the side of it being a positive rather than a negative force for the industry and society. Right now, its reopening will be massively welcomed by way more people than some individuals will ever be willing to accept.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

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