A potential own goal for M&B

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pub Public houses in the united kingdom Drinking establishments

The Engineer: loved by its local clientele and famed across London
The Engineer: loved by its local clientele and famed across London
Mitchells & Butlers' plan to turn the popular Engineer pub into a managed outlet could be disastrous for all, writes Pete Brown.

One of the many problems facing the beer and pub industry is that too often, we tend to think in binary — simple black and white, yes and no scenarios. Cask GOOD! Keg BAD! Macrobrewer BAD! Microbrewer GOOD! Pubco BAD! Independent GOOD!

But real life is rarely as simple as that, and this binary approach does everyone a disservice.

Your average Wetherspoon pub, for example, has many facets that make you run a mile from it, and just as many that compel you to celebrate it.

And look at Mitchells & Butlers (M&B). A focus on branded chains of managed houses prompts knee-jerk condemnation from some, but many of those chains seem to be doing rather well. I'd rather drink a warm can of Guinness sitting on a public toilet than re-enter an O'Neill's, but as I touched on in my last column, I believe the All Bar One concept has done more to democratise pubs, raise standards and open them up to women, than anything else in the past 25 years.

I believe the policy operated in some Nicholson's pubs whereby a drinker is not allowed to sit in a completely empty designated dining area when all the seats in the drinking area are full is moronic and insulting (look, if you get a sudden influx of diners at half three in the afternoon I'll happily move, OK?). But I would praise Nicholson's to the heavens for the brilliant fashion in which it curates its cask-ale range.

This is the company that hilariously insisted last year that City analysts refer to its pubs as 'licensed catering outlets' instead of, y'know, 'pubs'. But it's also the company that allows the White Horse in Parson's Green to continue to be, by any rational analysis, the best pub — sorry, licensed catering outlet — in the world.

Binary simply doesn't do justice. Praise and condemnation where each is due might take a bit more effort, but it's essential to any accurate reading of our industry.

Praise and condemnation. Can you guess which one is coming next?

Twenty years ago, the Engineer in Primrose Hill, north London, was one of those pubs that, in the market segmentation of the average punter, fell into that category designated complete dump. Tamsin Olivier and Abigail Osbourne took over in 1994 and transformed it into one of the very first gastropubs, sourcing ingredients from local suppliers and quickly becoming a landmark for locals, pub lovers from across London, and public figures including David Miliband, Harry Enfield, Lisa Snowdon, Dermot O'Leary, Robert Powell, Jon Snow and, er, Christopher Biggins. By any standards, the Engineer is one of the capital's most celebrated and successful pubs.

A few weeks ago, Olivier and Osbourne were told that their lease on the pub would not be renewed, and that M&B would be turning it into a managed outlet, as part of the company's focus on becoming a pure managed pub and restaurant company. Here we see a policy more guilty of binary, black and white thinking than even the harshest, most blinkered M&B critic.

M&B has proven that it's capable of flexible thinking by allowing the White Horse to flourish as a unique pub that doesn't play by many internal rules, and has promised not to turn the Engineer into a mere chain outlet, that it will preserve the pub as a "distinctive, individual and characterful London landmark".

But one feels the pubco has missed the point. The appeal of the Engineer, like any great pub, is that it feels like part of the community. It sources its produce locally, and its affluent customers love that, just as they know and love the people who have built the business.

By contrast, the whole point of a managed estate is to introduce standardisation and economies of scale, or as M&B puts it, "access to our wide supply base". Everyone knows the entire back office changes in a move from leased to managed, and the Engineer's back office is as much a part of its appeal as its front-of-house. Simply by ousting the lessees against their will, M&B has destroyed that.

When pubs are struggling, Osbourne and Olivier have increased the Engineer's annual turnover from £100,000 to £1m, by making it a much-loved local. It's simply bizarre to destroy something so phenomenally successful in the current climate, just for the sake of making everything nice and neat from an internal, head-office perspective.

And if M&B truly believes it can ride out the wave of local protest to 'save' the Engineer, which has now been picked up by the national press, it should refresh its memories of the incredible public humiliation and climb down Greene King was forced to perform over the Lewes Arms a few years ago.

Sneer at the luvvies being up in arms if you like, but the truth is that the local resistance to M&B's plans means that the move to a managed house will be a disaster for the pub and the community, and a spectacular PR own goal for the pubco.

Come on M&B, you can be cleverer than this.

Anybody can.

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