Happiness in hospitality

Apparently drinking alcohol is very unfashionable. Try telling that to the people increasingly packing out the recently opened Devonshire pub in London’s Soho between 11am and noon, before most pubs in the area now choose to open.

The reason for this is because renowned landlord Oisin Rogers, co-owner of The Devonshire, reckons the particular guests who frequent pubs at these most traditional of opening hours are the most important contributors to the success of any pub business.

Oisin Rogers: In The Devonshire

Meeting him in his pub at 11:30am he tells me: “There is a certain guest at 11am. They are a mix of fabulous drinkers with the best stories and the craic. They will be entertaining and you should always look after them. They are proper pub people and should be treated as the most important [customers].”

The present unfashionability of drinking also did not deter the outpouring of affection for Shane MacGowan following his recent death. This not only celebrated his craftsmanship with a pen – there were an equal amount of tales told by a wide cross-section of people about his heavy drinking over many years that was arguably integral to his art.

The underlying move away from drinking alcohol also did not put off the people – including myself – who packed out the (albeit bijou) Coach & Horses pub in Soho for the recent run of the Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell play starring Robert Bathurst. We enjoyed the stories and anecdotes of a journalist whose output increasingly revolved around his drinking at alcoholic levels.

Clearly there is a dark aspect to these stories but for the vast majority of people a trip to the pub for a “drink” is incredibly positive. Rogers suggests the underlying principle behind his new pub is simply to make people happy and that this will drive the profits that creates a sustainable business. His customers’ thirst for his much-lauded Guinness has been integral to the out-the-traps high footfall he enjoys from the 11am opening time onwards.

Although the pub serves critics-approved food in the upstairs dining room, it is largely a wet-led pub on the ground floor and Rogers has been meticulous in the fixtures (many from eBay), the layout, high-end dispense equipment, and recruiting skilled staff to cosset the drinkers that now flock across the threshold. He has a love for drinking pubs and reckons part of the problem with many wet-led ventures right now is that they are surrounded by doom and gloom rather than happiness.

“Everyone tells you the end is nigh. All the talk [in the industry] is about people drinking [cheap] alcohol from supermarkets, about needing increasing help from the government, VAT, and electricity going up. This does not make anyone happy. We’d never say any of that. You’ll not hear from us about VAT,” he says.

Exterior of The Devonshire

The end is certainly not nigh for a batch of 50 pubs that were highlighted in The Standard recently as London’s best pubs. They are predominantly wet-led and include The Devonshire and Coach & Horses alongside lesser known pubs such as The Palm, The Chesham Arms and The Ivy House. I’ve been to many of these pubs over the years and each one fills me with the happiness that the best operators manage to successfully imbue in their venues.

It’s the same feeling I get from visiting the pubs of some of the better independent wet-led operators in the capital such as Grace Land, Bloomsbury Leisure Group and Barley Pop whose venues tend to have a smattering of food available but it’s more about the drinks and where customers’ faces are more likely to be smiling than being filled.

This happiness thing is also proving a key differentiator in the restaurant industry. It is fundamental to one of Europe’s most successful, fast growing food companies, Big Mamma Group. Two Frenchmen wanted to open Italian restaurants around Europe and were told they were mad but they ignored this advice because they knew they had the secret ingredient. Tigrane Seydoux, co-founder of Big Mamma Group, says: “Most people said ‘don’t do it’ but our vision was to put happiness in it. It was not about revolutionising Italian restaurants but just about putting some fun in them.”

It’s the same philosophy for Gareth Ward, owner of renowned Ynyshir restaurant in Wales who justifies his £380 per head set menu on being memorable for more than just the hefty cost. He has stated: “I want people to say they had some tasty food and we let their hair down. That they forgot about all the stuff that is going on outside the door and had a great night…I want people to remember Ynyshir and smile.”

A couple of pints of Guinness at opening time at The Devonshire will do the very same thing for me for a tad less money. It might not be fashionable but that potent combination of alcohol and happiness served in a proper pub can be life-affirming.

Glynn Davis, editor 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.