Family values

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Is JD Wetherspoon's policy on kids a drastic move or a symptom of the current drive on social responsibility? Adrian Tierney-Jones finds out

Is JD Wetherspoon's policy on kids a drastic move or a symptom of the current drive on social responsibility? Adrian Tierney-Jones finds out

At the start of the year JD Wetherspoon (JDW) caused a stir and created news headlines after coming clean about its policy of only allowing two alcoholic drinks to adults accompanied by children. According to the company, this was to stop its pubs turning into crèches and nurseries while parents sat drinking.

Depending on where you stand on family pubs, this was either a liberation for the adult drinker fed up with unruly kids running around, or - in the wake of many pubs pitching for the family-friendly pound - a nanny-state-inspired step back to a time when kids stayed outside with a cola and bag of crisps.

Given JDW's often far-sighted policies, such as no-smoking areas, beer festivals, a big choice of international beers and affordable food, is this an example other big managed pub companies could follow?

Kids encouraged

In recent years, many pubs, especially those owned by managed pub companies, have gone that extra mile to encourage families with safe, secure play areas and children's menus, as well as more traditional board games, toy rooms and the odd clown or two. Even the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has published several editions of its Pubs for Families guide.

It has to be asked whether JDW's decision is a policy unique to that company, or a sign of something else. Given the current pub-bashing climate, might we believe the next big panic story from the media could be - gasp - "kids in pubs"?

Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) communications director Kathryn Holland makes the point that her company has a broad range of pub formats. This enables it to be flexible about children in its pubs.

"We have more than 2,000 pubs and operate 25 brands and formats," says Holland. "More than 75% of our estate is based in residential areas and we specialise in large-scale food-oriented pubs.

"We don't have to adopt the same policy across the range - our decisions depend on the location, the demographic mix of the area and the trading format.

"All Bar One is a predominantly city-centre establishment that has had a no under-21s policy since the 1990s, and Ember Inns doesn't allow anyone under 14, in recognition of the fact that some customers welcome an adult environment.

"But then we have Harvester, the Toby Carvery and the Sizzling Pub Company - most of them are very child-tolerant.

"In Harvester pubs there are colouring packs, balloons and activities, though we are not in the business of providing big playpens. If children come into a Harvester with their parents they are expected to sit at the table."

Location and branding influenced the thinking behind Spirit Group's Wacky Warehouses pubs, described by the group's managing director Andrew Knight as "family-friendly food-led pub restaurants, focusing on providing an enjoyable backdrop for family meals".

"These are mostly destination sites, which customers must drive to reach, compared to town-centre JDW pub concepts," says Knight.

"JDW has a specific target audience with adult-led discounted drinks offers and does not profess to be a 'family' pub. We do not dispense alcohol in Wacky Warehouses, which are run separately from the pubs. Responsible retailing is at the heart of everything we do and we train our staff fully on the importance of responsible drinking."

His words echo one of the current industry buzzwords: responsibility. In the current climate of media overkill, nobody wants to receive bad press.

Responsible drinking

According to Laurel managing director of pubs and bars Toby Smith: "The managers on all of our sites are highly trained and very experienced. They always ensure that licensed-premises rules are adhered to when families wish to dine with us.

"We do not foresee any issues arising if the presence of children is managed correctly at each site."

The train of thought behind getting families and their offspring into pubs was about opening up the pub, letting light into what was often seen as a dark corner of British life and also getting rid of the mystique of the pub.

If children could see adults behaving themselves with alcohol, they would be less likely to go mad at the bar as soon as they celebrate their 18th birthday.

Given the current perceived problems of

alcoholic excess among the young, it may be argued that something has gone wrong somewhere and perhaps JDW wanted to take action to correct that flaw.

However, reading the company's statement a bit more carefully, the underlying message could be aimed at some parents who might use the pub as a play-centre. "We don't want kids running around because they are bored and their parents are drinking," says JDW spokesman Eddie Gershon.

Parental control is something that is expected in Laurel's pubs, according to Toby Smith: "Our expectation is that parents or guardians who bring children to dine at one of our sites take full responsibility for them," Smith says.

"There are no current plans to introduce a new policy relating to parents or guardians drinking in the presence of children. However, the restrictions in place will always remain at the discretion of the management responsible for each site."

Talking to the various managed pub companies, it's clear that they all see the importance of encouraging family dining, given that all of them have introduced food as a major part of what they offer.

Let's be clear about the facts: JDW isn't banning children from its pubs. If anything, the company is showing a sense of social responsibility that all pubcos are keen to demonstrate in these uncertain times.

Pubcos' policies on children

"Many of our pubs cater for families and children and we have always worked hard with our licensees to support them and encourage them to operate responsibly. This has been top of the industry's agenda for some time now, but it has become even more of a focus recently."

Andrew Cooney, Marston's Pub Company marketing director

"While we have no company-wide policy regarding restrictions for children visiting our pubs, each site makes that decision based on the conditions within the premises' licence - and, of course, the suitability of that venue. Our expectation across all of our estate is that children are only visiting to dine with us and they are more than welcome to do so with their parent or guardian."

Toby Smith, Laurel pubs and bars

managing director

"We have a variety of pubs catering for

different audiences. For example, our

Hungry Horse pubs offer a warm and friendly atmosphere for families.

At every site we comply fully with individual licensing requirements, as agreed at a

local level. In addition, every one of our

pubs operates a common-sense policy

on whether to serve people: it is left to

a pub manager's discretion to judge,

who gets served on a case-by-case

basis."

Spokesperson, Greene King

"We leave it to the discretion of licensees. All our training addresses the issue of

social responsibility."

Spokesperson, Punch Taverns

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