When The Eagle in Farringdon Road opened its doors exactly 30 years ago, it confused many people with its ramshackle fit-out of mismatched chairs and tables, exposed wooden flooring, random mix of tableware, and a less-than-fine paint job, combined with its value-for-money, one-plate-dining proposition.
The trend at the time for theme pubs was going full throttle and visitors to The Eagle would ask: what is the theme? If there was one it was accessible Mediterranean cuisine. The snooty Harpers & Queen dubbed it “Pleb Med”. However, it was given its very own theme, gastro-pub, by the late Charles Campion. With this moniker, it went on to massively influence the pub sector.
This sat very uneasily with The Eagle co-founders Michael Belben and David Eyre who knew their creation was very much down to limited resources and constrained circumstances rather than a result of some finely executed master plan they had devised to redefine the pub landscape.
The reality is they did not even want to run a pub.
The plan had been to open a restaurant in Covent Garden but the rentals were simply too high. It so happened, at the time, the Beer Orders legislation was pushing the large brewers to offload many of their pubs. Among those recognising a good deal could be done were Belben and Eyre who took an unloved outlet on the edge of the City of London and created something new and bold. It certainly cut completely against the trends of the day.
Fast forward to today and there might well be some loose similarities with the time of The Eagle’s founding. We have certainly reached a stage where covid-19 has brought us to a position where there are deals to be done.
Only this week, there have been major announcements within the pub sector with JD Wetherspoon raising £93.7m to fund the acquisition of new properties and former Greene King chief executive Rooney Anand raising about £200m for his Redcat Pub Company that will undertake a series of purchases. They both see an opportunity in the market to pick up outlets at favourable prices as assets become available from distressed operators and stretched landlords.
There is also a climate for change creeping in now that people have had the best part of a year to assess their financial circumstances, work situation, general lifestyles and family dynamics. In this state of flux, there are clearly opportunities for newcomers with ideas and also others who spot openings. Among them are Hawthorne Leisure co-founders Gerry Carroll and Mark McGinty who are fundraising for their newly launched Valiant Pub Company, which will focus on suburban and community pubs. They haven’t been the cool part of the market for years but times have changed.
Certainly the community aspect resonates very strongly right now. We’ve seen the owners of the Michelin-starred Pony & Trap announce the gastro-pub will be relaunched as a community interest company. This will open it up to a greater number of people – beyond just the affluent. Among other things, it will involve turning it into a school for chefs and giving free food boxes for people who help in its gardens.
This reassessment of the model is very much reflective of how pubs have been adapting during the past year and much of what we have seen will undoubtedly form part of the mix in the future when it comes to things like home delivery services, click and collect, cook-at-home kits, subscription boxes, retail elements, table service and other initiatives.
This backdrop of property becoming available and the great state of change taking place among consumers is presenting an opportunity for the creation of the potentially era-defining pub models of the future. This might sound a little like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack but who knows it could well be the next Eagle that is found in that haystack.
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.