There was an interesting debating point at last month's ALMR 20th anniversary conference – what's the future of the pub? The three luminaries on the panel - M&B's Bob Ivell, Wetherspoon's Tim Martin and Stonegate's Ian Payne – agreed that the pub will have retained its resonance as a particular type of offer in 20 years' time.
For sure, the physical environment of the average pub building, combined with the likelihood of the retention of an above-average wet element, will be enough to maintain a recognisable and distinct genre of eating and drinking out offer. But I also think that much will have evolved within two decades. Right now, there is a strong tide of hybridisation afoot – a lot of evolution aimed squarely at breaking into new day-parts.
There's the evolution of breakfast offers (and opening earlier), broadened and improved coffee offers, the introduction of afternoon offers focused on affordable treats, experiments with takeaway and up-skilling and a re-focus on high-quality street food such as pizza. They are all themes sure to be enlarged upon in the coming years.
There are some very impressive examples out there of all these things being done exceptionally well and I thought it's worth listing my Top Ten (in no particular order).
1. Orchid's Pizza Kitchen Bar: High-quality pizza meets pub environment with a fresh dough promise. Orchid's main expansion focus combines genre-busting pizzeria quality “pies” and a pubby environment.
2. Sports Bar & Grill: Former Sport Café executive David Evans provides “better burger” quality with a great drinks range and a well-delivered sports fix at transport hubs. (See also Restaurant Group's Coast to Coast in Brighton Marina for how a live sports offer can be integrated seamlessly into an eating environment).
3. Fuller's Tokenhouse: A radical reinvention of a former Bluu owned by Marston's delivers the offer back into recognisably pub territory but updates design with clever retro touches and sets up foodie cues with an open kitchen. A great example of accessible premiumisation.
4. Greene King's Hungry Horse: Proof positive that the pub can play an enormous part in the family dining market by combining great-value food and the right, up-dated environment. See also Greene King's Cloverleaf chain for evidence that super-sizing premises (and bountiful head-turning desserts) can capture enormous volumes.
5. SSP's Charing Cross Beer House: Beer, in all its glorious variety, is the hero. A tiny site given fresh appeal by an exciting global beer range and a bang-on but stripped back food offer.
6. Mitchells & Butlers' Harvester chain: Proof that a jaded offer can be completely re-invented and made modern by logical thinking and judicious evolution. As healthy eating becomes more of a consumer focus, lo and behold Harvester discovers it couldn't be more contemporary with grilled food and a salad cart. Also worth a mention is the first proper industry foray into takeaway, with the right packaging and marketing in place.
7. Stonegate Pub Company's Red Lion in Wednesfield: Folks will always need a local, right? But the local will need to offer more. Stonegate's Red Lion offers a personal computer for its customers to use – and much more besides.
8. Richard and Loren Pope's Bull's Head, Repton: Spirit Pub Company's chief executive Mike Tye has called the Popes single site a “brand”. What's he talking about? Well, visit and you'll see. From the high quality pizza to service done just right and points-of-difference galore, it's a template for what a supremely-well-rounded pub offer looks like.
9. Gary Downham's Hare at Roxwell: First time pub operator Gary Downham applies ideas from the US at his Punch Taverns pub to tap into the affordable treats market by creating a top-class cheesecake offer (borrowed and tweaked from The Cheesecake Factory) and creates an obvious point-of-difference by partnering a local brewer to create his own beer.
10. Dave Carr's Brandling Villa, Gosforth: From taking £275 on one Friday afternoon when he first arrived at his pub three years ago to taking £16,000 on the same calendar day this year, Carr shows the industry how it's done. Among the innovations - housing a micro-brewer in his basement producing short order one-off beers, to a sausage festival on a scale, movie showings and comedy nights. Carr proves the point that people like to gather – especially if you give them a reason (or six).
I'd very much like to hear your nominations for pubs and companies that are retailing exceptionally well.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info