Is wet-led the way ahead?

Having walked across muddy fields for the previous hour from Foxton train station, it was very welcoming to push open the shiny red door of the Queen’s Head within the village of Newton in Cambridgeshire at 5pm – official evening opening time. Unlike many pubs, it chooses to stick with the old opening times – dating from before The Licensing Act 1988 ushered in the ability to trade all day – which involves a mid-afternoon closure.

The Queen’s Head, Newton

This is one of many things that have been retained at the pub, along with its landlords. They have all held incredibly long tenures, with the result being it has had only 18 such leaders since 1729. From 1962, it has been in the very capable hands of the Short family, which not only saved it from demolition but have also delivered beer of such quality (as well as a warm welcome) that it has kept the pub in the Good Beer Guide for every one of its 50 editions.

This is no mean feat as this exclusive club has only four other members – London’s The Star Tavern and Buckingham Arms; the Roscoe Head in Liverpool; and the Square & Compass in Dorset. The decline in membership numbers over recent years has been marked. The 25th anniversary edition in 1998 contained 22 pubs that had been in every issue, while in the 2008 version, this had fallen to ten pubs. Today, we have half this number.

As well as having consistency of ownership, these five pubs also have another common factor – they are still very much drink-focused. Food plays a role, but it remains a secondary factor. It is interesting to consider that if the Queen’s Head had succumbed to the ongoing pressures of offering a comprehensive food menu, then maybe it would have fallen out of the Good Beer Guide or suffered a fate equal to death. I certainly question whether it would have served me pints as good as those I enjoyed on my visit. The pale ale from nearby XT Brewing Co, drawn straight from the barrel (there are no pumps and pipes complicating things here), was good enough to stop me in my tracks and had me almost immediately ordering another pint.

Current landlord Rob Short described how costly and complicated it would be for him to install a fully-fledged kitchen and the headache of hiring (and retaining) chefs. Instead of a complicated cooked menu, he has a concise evening offering of toast and dripping, sausage rolls, roast potatoes, cheeseboard, ploughman’s, brown soup, pies and veg and ice cream. Cleverly, he uses some of the same ingredients across these dishes. The big food draw at lunchtime is a simple choice of five sandwiches, using quality local ingredients, which he says are incredibly popular.

The current economic landscape of the rising price of ingredients, wage costs and utility bills confirms the sensible strategic thinking of Short, and his family members before him, in choosing to keep the food offer incredibly straightforward and not be tempted to venture into gastropub territory. Far from being the savior of the pub, food has, in some cases, been the downfall when the economics haven’t stacked up in the current climate. The food-focused Five Bells in Devon and The Curlew in Bodiam are among the victims of the tough post-covid-19 inflationary environment.

Bar at the Queen’s Head

Against this backdrop, various pub operators are considering their food stance and recognising that we might be embarking on a period when the wet-led pub, with a supportive food proposition, might have the upper hand in certain locations, and for smaller properties without the space for a kitchen and enough covers to justify the investment or aggravation involved in hitching their wagon to a full-on food offer.

The likes of the Ypres Castle Inn in Rye have adapted to the circumstances, and it now focuses on easy-to-prep scotch eggs and cheeseboards, whereas pre-covid-19, it was very much onboard with the mindset that a food menu packed with full-cooked meals was a necessity for the survival and success of the pub. It was a similar realisation at The Three Cups in Bedford, which now allows customers to order in takeaway meals from local restaurants to enjoy with their draught beer from the bar.

Despite the reluctance of its owners to radically change the model at the Queen’s Head, this is certainly not a pub that is stuck in the past. Each Wednesday evening between 5pm and 8pm, it has a rolling programme of street food operators who pitch up with their unique offerings which encompass a varied range of cuisines from around the world. Working out a food model that works well for the characteristics of the individual pub within its specific location has never been more important for ensuring the longevity of these much-valued businesses.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

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