Think of a Wetherspoon pub and your mind might default to images of cut-price shots and Curry Clubs served from behind gigantic beer bars. But today these stereotypes do something of a disservice to ‘Spoons’ as the chain is affectionately known in many quarters.
Despite already having 930 pubs across the UK, it is thirsty for more and has a target of reaching 1,500 within the next five years. However, so huge is the UK’s pub market, that Wetherspoon’s current representation still only gives it a market share of 1.4%.
In addition to an ambitious expansion strategy, the company has also adopted a sophisticated approach for introducing new pubs and products which stretches far beyond cheap Jaeger bombs and chicken korma. One example of this is its increasing ‘real ale’ offer. To reflect the rise in microbreweries in the UK, it now dispenses craft beer at all its pubs from Aberdeen to Hoxton.
Wetherspoon’s Eddie Gershon, reports: “We’re seen as the pub company that’s really brought craft beers into pubs, and you wouldn’t necessarily expect that.
“When Wetherspoon does something it happens across all 930 pubs. But it’s not so much driven by leading the way, it’s about doing what makes commercial sense.”
It is a clear sign of Wetherspoon’s brand strength and self-confidence that it does not tailor its offerings to specific geographies. Instead, it rolls out its strategies including those all-important beer selections and lets the customer decide.
“I don’t think Wetherspoon patronises people by saying: ‘you live in the Black Country, so you drink lager or you live in London you drink craft beer’,” says Gershon.
Last year, it also ventured overseas for the first time opening a series of pubs in Ireland with more tipped to follow. Its Irish expansion has caused some waves in the business with Wetherspoons value pricing creating the ‘three-euro pint’. It has refused to deal with brewers who cannot match its value aspirations and is showing that customers are perhaps less attached to the big name beers than might be imagined.
Plans are in place to open another 30-40 Irish pubs in the next five years, and the company is clearly confident about its prospects. It has already completed on a further three sites in Swords, Cork and Dublin.
It is not just Ireland’s recovering economy where Wetherspoon sees further growth opportunities though. There is room for expansion throughout the UK, according to Gershon, with many lesser-known towns likely to get the ‘Spoons’ treatment before long.
This tends to involve taking on large and distinctive disused sites in town centres and turning them into thriving pubs. As Gershon explains: “Only around 30-40 of the 930-strong Wetherspoon chain are former pubs. Wetherspoon don’t go out looking for existing pubs, and if an old pub is bought then it will be shut and redeveloped into an entirely new environment.”
The reasons for this policy are several. The most obvious is that if a brewery or owner is choosing to shut down an existing pub then there is probably something wrong with the pitch, not least the pub itself.
The company has also made something of a trademark out of converting old buildings that need bringing back into uses, from banks and post offices to theatres and cinemas.
“The vast majority are housed in buildings with former uses that no one wants to invest in, but Wetherspoon does.
“It wasn’t actually designed to bring distinctiveness to the brand, but it helps. Wetherspoon like to start with a great canvas.”
The company tends to buy large freehold sites ‘smack bang’ in a town centre. It will do selective leasehold deals, but only if the building is right.
The large scale of the buildings allow it to operate at a size that provides further economies of scale, but it is determined to show that size does not mean lack of quality and service.
“We’ve been pioneering in some of the services we’ve offered, from all-day food to teas and craft beer. And I don’t think we’re fussed at all that it’s seen as good value.
“If you see a pub that’s cheap but it’s also filthy and you think you might get your head kicked in if you go in then cheap means nothing.
“Good value means good value and that’s about more than just price, and that’s what a very well run group of pubs like Wetherspoon can deliver.”