How responsible are you and your staff when it comes down to serving alcohol to drivers? For Stuart Simpson, general manager of the Riverside in Saltford, Avon, ensuring the safety of his patrons once they leave the pub is high on his list of priorities.
It is mainly his responsibilities as a parent that have sparked his consciousness into action, the dad explains in the Wadworth Brewery-tied pub, restaurant and B&B he has managed for two years.
Although Simpson has always been an advocate of not drinking and driving, he believes it’s now more of a prominent issue for pubs to promote than ever. “We push it so much towards our customers because of the drink-driving clampdown in the past 10 years and changes in the law.
“The big operators are taking it seriously and the smaller ones are following suit,” he says. “That said, there is still a lot more work to do in pubs because you get a lot of drivers who have horrible attitudes towards drinking soft drinks – they think it’s too expensive or the variety is poor.”
When Simpson took over the pub he made a big effort to encourage drivers to choose soft drinks, he explains. The previous owners left behind a poor soft drinks offer that consisted of one brand for adults, a limited range of draft products and one type of children’s soft drink.
Simpson had to build the foundations of the drinks offer with his Coca-Cola European Partnerships representative, who has helped put in place a stronger soft drinks offer to the benefit of the site.
But how can pubs push softs on drivers without causing offence or creating an awkward atmosphere? Well, this landlord is very single-minded when it comes down to right and wrong.
‘Naturally becomes a conversation’
“The bar staff always get talked to about the benefits of not drinking and driving,” Simpson explains. “So it naturally becomes a conversation with the customers. They might see that a customer has already had a pint and then when they come to the bar they will be asked if they would prefer a soft drink because we know they are driving.”
It’s more of a welcome conversation at the Riverside because of where the pub is. Patrons have to drive to get there, as it’s situated down a country track next to Kelton Lock, which overlooks the River Avon.
“In all honesty,” Simpson continues. “Drink drivers aren’t really much of an issue until Christmas time, when we have lots of parties booked in. During the summer people tend to come to eat.” Food at the pub represents 50% of total sales, thanks to its £5.95 carvery. “It’s more families visiting here during the warmer months and a parent is less likely to drink if they’re driving the kids home,” he adds. “But at Christmas time, we have fewer children visiting and more adults.”
During his first Christmas at the pub Simpson implemented Coca-Cola’s Designated Driver Scheme to ensure more was done to prevent drivers from being tempted to drink, a promotion he is keen to continue this Christmas.
“This offer really helps to tempt drivers away from having alcohol,” Simpson explains. “It means we can offer designated drivers as many free soft drinks as they want – they just have to buy the first one and then they can drink for free all night.”
At the Riverside, the offer extends into the bottle range too, not just draught drinks like in many other pubs, which sees his turnover of Appletiser and Schweppes products rise, he adds.
Without promotions, the pub’s soft drinks turnover is in good health. The site goes through several cases of the Coca-Cola variants each week: Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar. Capri Suns are popular with children, which are heavily pushed by Simpson and the team.
Driving the high turnover of his soft drinks is variety, he claims. “I think to keep people happy you have to give them variety more than anything else. It’s the same as if you go to a restaurant for food; if you have too much of the same thing, you’re just going to get bored of going there.
“If you have a good variety of soft drinks, the people who don’t want to drink or can’t drink are going to stay because they haven’t tried something before, rather than saying ‘I won’t stay because they only sell this and that’.”
Trying new products
Part of building the offer is about trying new products and listening to your customers, he explains. It’s no good assuming the customers won’t like something, because you won’t know until you try it out.
For instance, the apple & pomegranate Appletiser isn’t a particular favourite among the Riverside’s customers, but the standard variant is popular and so are many of the flavoured Schweppes tonics, such as elderflower, he adds.
“As soon as you can see a wide selection of anything, you’re going to be interested and want to look at it,” says Simpson. “When I first came to this pub there was probably one shelf in the fridge devoted to the same soft drink, now our fridges are filled with soft drinks and we have seen a rise in sales as a result.
“We’ve got to the point with soft drinks where they run all of the way through the shelves in the fridges. Sales have increased tenfold and we have 10 different products on offer.
“It’s very visual and we have lots of point-of-sale around it to make it prominent – customers know what we stock and what brands we have.”
Branding has even extended to the pub’s garden, with the addition of Coca-Cola tables, chairs and parasols, which have added colour and interest to a bit of a dull area. It also emphasises the brands the pub has on offer, he adds.
So, what’s in store for Simpson and the Riverside in future? The landlord believes there will be a bigger customer focus on sugar-free soft drinks and has noted a rise in sales of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar. “Since its name change and reformulation it has become more popular here,” he adds.
Increasing visits from families to pubs is also something he believes is set to continue. “Not even 15 years ago you wouldn’t be bringing your kids out to the pub, but now you see kids eating in town centre pubs and it’s because they are being catered for with specific menus and offers on drinks. We sell kids’ meals for £5.50, but for an extra 45p you can add a Capri Sun to it, which helps increase our soft drinks sales and gets more families into the pub.”
Yet, it’s not all bright. Soft drinks makers and the on-trade need to educate customers about the price of the drinks. It’s too easy for consumers to think a pint of Coke in a pub should cost less than a £1, because that’s around what they will pay in the off-trade.
“Our bottles of Coke are £2.15 and nobody bats an eyelid, but when they have to pay more than £2.70 for a pint of Coke they think it’s outrageous,” Simpson points out. “We’re not greedy with our GP. I think you have to get to a point where you’re not making too much so the customer thinks it’s expensive, but are making enough to cover costs.”
As with educating customers on the price of soft drinks in the on-trade, Simpson would also like to see more action taken to ensure more designated drivers are taught to steer clear of alcohol and opt for a soft drink instead, not just at Christmas time but throughout the year.