That area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country has been in a feverish state of excitement in recently weeks with the opening
of a brand new Bathams pub, the King Arthur, in the village of Hagley (population 4,200).
Bathams first began brewing in 1877 and since the 1950s, its estate has fluctuated between eight and 11 pubs. Indeed the Bathams’ “Eight” or “Nine” has become probably one of the most famous pub crawls of the region.
While back down to 10 sites, in the past two months the estate has dramatically increased by 10% with the opening of the King Arthur.
The family, headed by brothers Tim and Matt Batham, acquired the site back in September 2016. It comprises two Victorian semi-detached houses, which had recently been used as offices, and the renovation project had little change from £1m. The brothers enlisted local designers and builders and got their name out into the community with some generous and well-received
sponsorship. Almost overnight, social media was inundated with people interested in the prospect of a new Bathams pub.
The pub design uses many pieces of equipment from the company’s 140-year brewing heritage, with copper vessels becoming lamp shades, a wood store that was once a large copper dissolving vessel and two copper vertical wort coolers that are now bespoke tables. The pub’s clock is mounted on mash tun plates as are the wall lights, while the bar has been handmade by local craftsmen in solid cherry.
While the outlet is called the King Arthur, rather bizarrely the pub’s external sign actually portrays an image of ‘Alfred the Great’.
The Bathams explain this away by claiming that the name Arthur is a homage to the brothers’ grandfather Arthur and their father, also named Arthur, or ‘little Arthur’ as he was known when the two were together.
Most of the company’s houses are directly managed, as is this one. The brothers pulled off a local coup by attracting Georgina Jackson who had been managing Marston’s pub the Station just two minutes away. After 22 mostly happy years with Marston’s (formally in Wolverhampton and Dudley) she agonised for months before applying for the manager’s position.
She says: “The buzz around the village was just of such a magnitude I knew this was going to be something special and decided I would like to be a part of it. It’s turned out to be a great decision.”
And the position is that of an old-school manager; decent salary, hours and holidays. None of this percentage of take or working for less than the minimum wage.
Matt Batham says there aren’t trade targets as such because that approach is inconsistent with the family’s philosophy. “We are just happy to have introduced a wonderful pub to the area. One that will there for generations to come. We would have been more than content with £10,000 net a week but it’s doing more like £18,000,” he says.
A simple banner to proclaim Bathams was coming was enough to ensure this was the most eagerly awaited pub opening in these parts as Twitter and other social media went into overdrive. The proximity of the railway station has also created a clientele who have discovered that cheap West Midlands train tickets combined with relatively low pub prices make for a great night out.
There are 16 full and part-timers, all recruited locally, employed at the pub. It’s a young but very enthusiastic team, some of whom are being trained to be able to stand in for the manager.
Bathams is all about beer. Any food is at the discretion of the manager who sources the offer and keeps the profits (like they used to circa 1980). It’s very simple fare: cobs, pork pies, Scotch eggs, crisps, nuts and pork scratchings.
The pub took just under a year to convert and open and has become a must-visit, especially for cask ale enthusiasts. It sells around 20 barrels (not kegs, but 36-gallon containers) of Bathams beers every week.
The offer contradicts all industry knowledge and trends. There are only two cask ales to enjoy, which are simply either the Mild (3.5% ABV) at £2.45 a pint or the flagship Bitter (4.3% ABV) at £2.75.
There are no keg market leader brands such as Guinness, Carling, Foster’s or Strongbow. There is, compared to its other outlets, an improved wine offer with an Italian fizz at £2.25 for 125ml, which is proving very popular. There is even a speciality gin section with brands sourced locally and premier mixers to boot but, of all the wet sales, 80% is beer and of that amount 80% is solely the Bitter. So in line with other Bathams outlets, just under two thirds of all wet sales are the one product – the award-winning Bathams Bitter.
Other local retailers are very happy with the increased footfall the pub has generated. Two nearby Asian restaurants are always fully booked at weekends, the chip shop has a semi permanent queue and the delicatessen regularly sells out of pies. Indeed the local taxi firm has never been as busy. Ironically, there is a view that, far from undermining the neighbouring Marston’s outlet, it has created extra trade, especially when the King Arthur is full to bursting point. The only negative views might be from residents who now find parking so difficult.
Supply and demand is an issue. The limited bar servery area creates a challenge in coping with the numbers when the pub is exceptionally busy. Some work around training staff in queue management would be useful. The pub might also consider outdoor table service for next summer.
Bathams drinkers are terrifically loyal, with one or two commenting that the pub was almost ‘too fresh’ in its ambience. Most Bathams pubs have that mixture of character and tradition that is almost impossible to replicate with a new site. So, there is definitely space for more displays of the brewery’s history and the addition of more information about the two Arthurs to create interest. Further sales opportunities could be created by maximising the function room and working on the outside space – there is a fairly large south-west-facing garden at the rear awaiting development.
An office at the back is still occupied but, once free, it will provide an opportunity to consider alternative use, for example, possibly relocating the ladies’ toilets that are currently on the first floor.
There is a famous story about another King; Cnut (Canute the Great) who could not stop the tide and visitors to the pub may sense a similar situation is being played out there in the area of credit and debit card payments. These currently are not accepted in any Bathams pub, but the new site is in middle-class Hagley where many have adopted the cashless approach. However, apart from the slight erosion of profit margins, the real issue that concerns Matt Batham, he says, is the prospect of four customers arriving on a Friday all wanting to order and pay separately by card for their drinks.
The majority opinion in the business is that they do need to provide facilities to take cards. The increased number of impulse purchases plastic will generate should more than compensate for the slight dip in profits, however, Matt appears far from convinced.
The first ATM machine was famously opened by Reg ‘On The Buses’ Varney on the 27 June 1967. Fifty years later, Bathams is going to have to accept card payments, for even they cannot turn back the tide of modernity.
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