PMA Investigation: The truth behind Innsatiable, an "unlicensed bar" in Farnham, Surrey

By Adam Pescod & Gurjit Degun

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Alcoholic beverage

Controversy: Innsatiable in Farnham is offering customers "free drinks" and has angered other licensees
Controversy: Innsatiable in Farnham is offering customers "free drinks" and has angered other licensees
Licensees were in uproar last week about a furniture shop called Innsatiable in Farnham, Surrey, which gives away “free” alcohol to customers from its unlicensed bar. Undercover reporters Adam Pescod and Gurjit Degun went to investigate.

Simon Atkins — who opened Innsatiable to the public last month — denied claims that he was promoting “irresponsible” drinking at
the premises and stressed the venue’s primary function was the sale of furniture.

Atkins also dismissed reports that alcohol could be claimed by customers only upon the purchase of a beermat, or piece of furniture from the store, and insisted that he did not need an alcohol licence.

With other licensees in Farnham — and the PMA’s forum users — up in arms that somebody was operating a bar in this way and not having to foot the costs of having a licence, undercover reporters Adam Pescod and Gurjit Degun paid a visit to Innsatiable to investigate. Here is what they found:

The experience

As we approached the furniture shop on a Monday (20 August) afternoon at 3.30pm, it looked very much like a bar with tables and chairs outside occupied by people having a few pints. We walked in and took a seat by the window.

There were about 15 other people in the venue at the time.

Around us, there were other chairs, stools and sofas arranged around tables, which made the site look more like a nice bar rather than a furniture shop. The music was also as loud as it might be in a pub or a bar, and it was being played through two flat-screen TVs attached to the walls. The screens were playing Heart FM radio on Sky digital TV.

A lady dressed in black approached us and asked if we had been to the venue before. As we hadn’t, she explained how the place operates. She stressed straight away that it was a “retail unit” because all the furniture is available to buy.

However, she added they also operate a “free bar” but ask customers to support the business by buying a beer mat for £2.75 — she added that this purchase was optional. When we asked her what time Innsatiable usually closes, she said 11.45pm.

She was able to list a vast variety of drinks Innsatiable serves including a range of draught lagers including Foster’s, bottled beers such as Budweiser and Beck’s, as well as wine, spirits and soft drinks.

The bar also stocked a lager called Innsatiable, described as “French-style lager”, of which there were 4% and 4.8% ABV options.

Beermat request

After we had been served our drinks, the woman’s colleague asked if we would like to purchase a beermat in support of the business, which Adam did. However, Gurjit refused to buy one. This prompted him to query the decision and he informed us that Gurjit was the first customer ever not to purchase a mat to support the business. Gurjit accepted a second free drink, but felt she should buy one beer mat. One man sat outside had more than six mats on his table.

We asked the waitress about the price of one of the stools, and she thought it was around £95. There were no price tags, and for the hour that we were there, no furniture was sold or even looked at with a view to being purchased.

PMA Opinion

To the naked eye, Innsatiable looks like a bar, not a furniture shop. While we were informed from the outset by the waitress that Innsatiable operates primarily as a furniture store, it is quite telling that the furniture is laid out as it would be in a bar.

The sofas, stools and chairs were arranged around tables upon which customers can place their drinks. The outside seating, added to the fact that the waitress could not confirm the price of one of the stools, or did not try to sell us the stool we were interested in, suggested that Innsatiable may not sell that much furniture on display in the premises.

Innsatiable’s income appears to depend heavily on the sale of beermats because the staff ask that you buy one “to help support the business”.

However, theoretically anybody could drink all day in Innsatiable, and not spend any money to do so.

Simon says...

Speaking to the Publican’s Morning Advertiser after Adam and Gurjit’s visit to Innsatiable, Simon Atkins reiterated that his business was being conducted legally, and successfully.

Atkins revealed that since opening in July, he had sold “probably in the region of about 11,500 to 12,000 beermats”. Asked how he had managed this, Atkins responded: “Because everyone loves our brand.”

He added: “We have got 40 different designs coming up over the next week and a half, so people can collect 40 to 60 beermat designs.

“It is all part of our brand, and we have got 140,000 branded polycarbonate glasses coming in that will replace all our glasses, and will have all the Department of Health’s warnings on.

“People can be free to buy the glasses as well. It is another string to our bow.”  

Defiant: Simon Atkins says he is acting within the law

Atkins went on to say that he was also making a decent profit from the other furniture he sells in Innsatiable.

“You will be amazed with what I have sold,” he maintained. “We get orders in and it (the furniture) gets delivered directly to the customer from the manufacturer.

“We had a local company that bought some furniture  for one of its shops. We are short of people who do that.  But we are attracting our target market with the beermats — the students. We are now bringing in a cheaper range of furniture for our next four stores.”

Atkins believes he is conducting his business lawfully and responsibly and explained that he offers a lower-ABV lager to his customers that have been banned from other pubs in Farnham as part of the local pubwatch scheme.

“I don’t make the law up — it is the police and the authorities who set the law,” said Atkins.

“The law states that you don’t have to buy a beermat when you come in and get a free drink. The law states that I am entitled to have a free bar and it is open to the public — that is it. How people perceive that is up to them, but if this was outside the law, we would have been shut down on our first day.”

The legal angle

Commenting on Innsatiable, Jonathan Smith, partner at licensing law firm Poppleston Allen, said: “If the alcohol is genuinely available to customers free of charge and anyone can come in and consume alcohol they do not have to pay for then the operation is legal.

“However, as soon as word gets round that this is the case, there will be queues forming all the way to Guildford with people waiting to get their free drinks, a business proposition that one would expect to be short-lived.”

Smith added that, were disorder to occur at Innsatiable, the police would have no power to close the premises or initiate a licence review, because the premises is not licensed.

“If the premises are not licensed the police cannot take any action to close it down under the Licensing Act 2003, nor could a review be triggered,” said Smith.

“If alcohol is being sold — and this is what the police should do if it is not genuinely free — a section 19 closure notice (under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001) should be served on those responsible for the operation.

“Those knowingly involved in the sale can also be prosecuted for providing a licensable activity without permission under section 136 of the Licensing Act 2003, but that does not close the premises.”

Related topics: Licensing law

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