ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Wetherspoons: A life just beginning?

JD Wetherspoon is turning 40.

In pub industry years, where change now tends to happen at breakneck pace, that makes it something of an elder statesman. In 'real' time, the chain is only a couple of years younger than I am, and consequently Spoons has been around for my entire life; a constant presence since I started drinking, albeit one that has changed substantially over time. Not necessarily for the better.

Marked by their latest beerfest featuring 40 beers - most of them new and/or exclusive - this birthday is a milestone occasion for a staple of the British High Street that is as controversial as it is popular.

Having visited over 600 of their pubs (exactly 612 at the last count), I consider myself one of the chains biggest fans, but also one of its more vocal critics. There is a lot that Tim Martin has done right, and few would argue that, on balance, Wetherspoons haven't been an overall force for good. but there are a number of worrying issues and a hell of a lot of ways in which things could improve.


It was 40 years ago today...


Things used to be very different.

During the four decades since Tim opened his first pub in Muswell Hill, the beer and pub scene has changed and so too has the role that Spoons has played. To understand their humble beginnings we need to consider that North London in 1979 was something of - to use CAMRA's preferred phrase of the day - 'a real ale desert'.

And on to the next one we go...
Most pubs North of the River were either owned by the 'Big Seven' national breweries, with just a handful of outposts for South London breweries Young's and Fuller's and places a little more distant such as McMullen's in Hertfordshire and Ridley's in Essex. Real Ale still hadn't returned to a lot of pubs, and where it was available the chances of finding anything other than standard bitter were slim. Beers from the North, Midlands or West Country were really quite rare.

Also relevant to the story is the way in which pubs were focusing more on things that Tim Martin didn't particularly like to attract their clientele - background music, TV, fruit machines - all things that for many years were banned from his pubs where the emphasis was placed firmly on offering a choice of real ales that drinkers otherwise wouldn't be able to find in the local area.

Tim called a lot of his early pubs 'The Moon Under Water', taking its name from George Orwell's fantasy hostelry. Other popular early choices were 'JJ Moons', various other Moony type names or simply just 'Wetherspoons' - the J. D. Wetherspoon name coming from one of his teachers who said he wouldn't amount to much. And who is probably long dead. 

It didn't really become a 'chain' as such until the mid-1980s, and the first few outlets, all confined to North London, promoted themselves as 'a JD Wetherspoon Free House'. Again, at the time 'free house' typically meant 'interesting cask beers available here'.

Spoons didn't open a pub South of the River until 1990, and it was only really in the mid to late-1990s that they began to expand outside of London, tentatively at first, then with almost frightening aggression, opening new pubs every week and rapidly becoming a presence all over the country.

Spoonstracker
Some would argue that it was around this time that the rot began to set in, with Spoons becoming 'everyman' pubs rather than specialist real ale free houses. OAP lunches. Unlimited morning coffee. Dining out for low-income families with badly behaved children. Pre-club shots for enthusiastic young ravers. And, yes, a constant supply of cheap alcohol from dawn till dusk for those dependent on it in between trips to the bookies next door. I once saw five separate Hen nights taking place at the same Wetherspoons pub in Leeds. I'm guessing they weren't there for the interesting cask ales.

Wetherspoons client base was deliberately broadened to the extent that we probably wouldn't recognise the original Marler's Bar in Muswell Hill as one.

But, like the poor, they are, perhaps appropriately, always with us.


Seven good things about Wetherspoons in 2019:


  1. Support for local breweries. This isn't true for all Spoons, and it varies from one region to another, depending on their relationships with suppliers, but it's usually true that you'll be able to pick up vaguely interesting or unusual ales from a local brewery when visiting a branch in a different part of the country. Sometimes you'll find a choice of several - all in addition to the national Guest Ale list. Unfortunately this can turn into a downside when drinking in your local Spoons, particularly if you live in the South East.
  2. Affordability. Yes, they are cheap. So fucking what? For a lot of people a drink out at Spoons might be the only sane and realistic option. I wouldn't take that choice away from them - even if it means other, more expensive pubs close their doors. I've never really been convinced by the argument that good indie pubs are put out of business by JDW anyway - they seem to thrive in busy high streets where the competition are also doing well enough.
  3. Collectability. For those of us for whom brewery- and beer-ticking isn't enough, there's the challenge of trying to visit all the Spoons. It's tremendous fun. Some have visited over 1000 and to them I doff my Wethercap. (If you're even slightly interested in taking up this hobby, SpoonsTracker makes it easy!)
  4. Keeping cask alive. I feel it's a bit of a shame that they no longer hold the mantle they did in the first half of their life, but Spoons still have at least some level of commitment to real ale. Crucially, there are towns where there is almost no cask available, apart from in Spoons. It's a vital service. So long as you put up with the Fosters-drinking fuckwits standing at the bar, blocking your view of the pumpclips with a complete lack of self-awareness or consideration for others...
  5. Preservation of local history. While the earliest Wetherspoons were generally smallish converted high street shops, the second half of their lifespan has seen Spoons develop a reputation for tastefully renovating and keeping alive some interesting and historic buildings. Banks, theatres, churches, post offices and so on - stuff that the National Trust isn't going to touch with a shitty bargepole but which is nonetheless worth preserving. What is more, you can get a pint while exploring your surroundings. Even the most boring Spoons still tends to have old curios on the walls and mini biographies of local characters, many of whom lend their names to the pubs. This is a good thing and often overlooked.  
  6. The beer festivals. I know they're not 'proper' beerfests. But they are what they are and Spoons Bingo is, for the most part, an enjoyable activity involving some strategy and exercise as well as hardcore drinking. And who doesn't like getting a bunch of new beers at £1.49 a pop with your CAMRA vouchers?
  7. You won't be judged. At least, not while you're there. If you're seen leaving there are folks who will look down the entire length of their noses at you, obviously. But literally anyone can turn up at a Spoons and feel reasonably welcome and at home. No airs, no graces, some might argue no atmosphere. But that's a positive. You don't have to worry about what you're wearing, what you look like or how you smell. OK, maybe not a good thing then. No, actually it is. We need more places where any fucker can wander undaunted. More, I say.
 


...and six bad things:

Really horrible food that looks nothing like the picture!

  1. The food. It's cheap, but unlike the beer it really isn't acceptable and hasn't been for some time now. It wasn't always this way though. 20-25 years ago a Wethermeal was still something to look forward to and the release of a new Wethermenu caused ripples of excitement amongst my circle of friends - we'd be sure to be there on the day the new menu came out to check out the new dishes. Nowadays I tend to actively avoid eating there. When the chain was smaller, there was still a vaguely 'homemade' aspect to the food (you try telling that to people today!) Pubs would have their own daily specials board (as opposed to a 'managers special' reduced curry that failed to shift on the previous Thursday!) Sandwiches were once particularly delicious and they always used to come with freshly-fried homemade crisps. They were delicious. Can you imagine a Spoons pub frying crisps to order now?!?
  2. The 'standard' ales'. Spare me your arguments. I know that these ordinary mainstream beers are popular. And I get that some Spoons have the turnover to serve 15 cask beers while others only have three or four. I'm fine with all that. My issue is that in the pubs where Spoons only have a few real ales on at any time, it's always the same nationally available ones that I have no interest in drinking, not even at £1.99. Doom Bar. Ruddles. Abbot. No thank you.
  3. Pub closures. A great way to mark the 40th birthday would be a big bash at the Tim Martin's first pub, going strong for all those years... Yeah, good fucking luck with that. He disposed of it in the 80s. Virtually all of the early Wetherspoons pubs are now gone. And a tonne of others too. Over 100 that I've been to are now ex-Spoons, some of which I remember fondly. Timbo is notoriously unsympathetic and unsentimental when it comes to getting rid of his outlets, even if it leaves a community without anything approaching a decent pub. South London has been particularly hard-hit in recent years, with Norwood, West Croydon, Thornton Heath, Balham, Putney, Southfields, Morden, Mitcham, Streatham Hill, Surbiton, Hook, Sydenham, Bellingham and God knows how many other places all losing their Spoons. They used to boast about the number of new pub openings - nowadays they are outnumbered by closures. It's particularly painful where an area sports two Wetherspoon pubs, one good and one not so good, and head office chooses to close the good one.
  4. The frustrating of chasing beers. Spoons festivals, like the one on right now, are a lot of fun. Who doesn't like ticking off 30 or 40 beers in a couple of weeks. But towards the end of the process, the fun of the Treasure Hunt swiftly turns to an exercise in frustration as you trudge from pub to pub, going swiftly in and out over and over again as you attempt to track down the last few elusive ales. The proportion of Wetherdrinkers using Untappd is annoyingly low, so that's only of very limited use. Learning that a pub in Glasgow had the beer you want on 48 hours ago is unhelpful when you're on the Kent coast. The Spoons app is permanently out of date, with incomplete information. Surely the tech is there for the Spoons website or App to show exactly what beers are on in real time?
  5. Staff, quality and treatment of. It may be the price we pay for cheap beer (OK, that makes it the price we don't pay!) but Wetherstaff can at times be poorly-paid, poorly-trained, uninterested, unhelpful and a lot of it may not really be their fault. I'm pretty sure that if one went to a Spoons in the 1980s they'd be welcomed by enthusiastic people with specialist beer knowledge as happens these days at dedicated craft beer establishments. It may be inevitable with a chain the size of Spoons, but I'd be comfortable paying slightly higher prices for happier, more clued-up and better-paid bar and kitchen staff. Really. Even having a few more of them on duty so one doesn't have to sit at a sticky table with a plate of leftover gammon rind and peas on it would be a start.
  6. The incessant politics. Look, I'm not particularly anti-Brexit, but for fucks sake Tim, just give it a rest will you!? Wetherspoon News has become almost unreadable.


But for all the failings and frustrations, it's a far better world with Wetherspoons than one without. (Note that I strived to come up with more good things than bad!) So happy 40th birthday, guys and thank you Tim Martin for hours and hours of happy Wethermemories!

And with that, I'm off to Spoons for several well-earned pints!

3 comments:

  1. You're quite right about not being judged - anyone can go in Spoons without anyone questioning what they're doing there.

    Another downside is their (in general) lack of "pubbiness" - huge expanses of carpeting, loose chairs and tables dotted around, little or no fixed seating, rarely a hint of cosiness. They're not places you really want to linger.

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  2. Convenience is the only positive I can give to modern day Spoons along with price if you're lucky enough to get a well conditioned pint.

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  3. Expensive? Wetherspoons isnt cheap. Everywhere else is expensive.

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Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.