Dictatorial approach not helping Sam Smith’s

On arrival at the bar in the Princess Louise pub on London’s High Holborn recently, I was informed it was cash only. This struck me as pretty odd when most hospitality businesses seem to be going in the complete opposite direction and becoming cash-free. It was even odder when the barman would not take my old paper £20 note, suggesting the pub was now only accepting the polymer versions – even though they were legal tender for another couple of weeks. It seemed it was cash-only, but only certain cash!

The beautiful Princess Louise in Holborn

I’ve long been a fan of Sam Smith’s pubs in the capital because it has some real gems and has, over recent years, committed serious amounts of investment to return some of its properties to their original Victorian splendour. These include the Princess Louise, Duke of Argyll, Fitzroy Tavern and The Windsor Castle. Each of these beautiful pubs have had their multiple rooms which face onto central bars reinstated, and they sparkle with their cut glass windows, chandeliers and shiny decorative tiles.

I’ve often recommended these pubs, along with other great sites like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Cittie of York, to visitors to the capital, but I might have reached the end of the road following my £20 incident. It follows on from my shock at finding the bottled beers – I’m particularly a fan of Sam Smith’s Nut Brown Ale – had been reduced in size during covid-19 from 550ml to 330ml, but the price remained the same, which was already quite punchy. And this comes on the back of a reduction in beer choice in certain Sam Smith’s pubs (what happened to the India Ale on draught?), and I’m still reeling from the change the company made some years ago to the recipe of its wheat beer. 

These are arguably minor quibbles from a single customer, but it might be the thin end of the wedge because elsewhere, there are more serious problems for the company. It has arguably been able to get away with its eccentric ways of operating for many years, but the current climate of chronic staff shortages and cost-of-living crisis is making it increasingly difficult for it to continue having everything its own way. The rules involving no mobile phones, music and televisions as well as a ban on customers swearing and no admittance to children – combined with modest salary levels – is making it ever harder for the business to attract management to its pubs.

Sam Smith’s had been rationalising its estate as a result of the pandemic, with around 25% of its properties being boarded up, but adding to its woes is the inability to find managers for many viable pubs. They now sit closed with ‘staff wanted’ signs pinned up in the windows. The Sir Gawain & The Green Knight in North Wales is one such pub that has been seeking management for some time, with locals suggesting the issue deterring applicants is the odd rules Sam Smith’s imposes.

In the company’s home town of Tadcaster, five of its seven pubs are closed, awaiting new management. It is a similar story in other towns and even in major cities and busy areas, with enforced closures in York, Whitby, and Scarborough as well as London, where I’ve been informed the Red Lion, near Carnaby Street, has suffered from these management shortages.

This sad situation highlights just how tough it is to find people right now, and how businesses maybe need to make life easier for themselves by taking a less dictatorial approach with their personnel – and in Sam Smith’s case, their customers too. In these times of great choice for employees and customers, there is significantly more attraction to those businesses that empower their teams rather than operating a command-and-rule type operation. Should times get even tougher for Sam Smith’s, it could always sell off some of its prized London properties. We might be in a period of great economic uncertainty, but I’d bet you £20 (polymer, of course) that the company would have a queue of takers around the block for its crown jewels if they ever came to market.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer 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.