Frazer Grimbleby, operations director at Craft Union Pub Company, said successful wet-led pubs are about understanding what the consumer wants.
He explained: “With everything [society] has been through in the past few years, people want to be back in pubs and bars, they don’t want to be at home or going to the off-licence, they want to be out in a social environment. If we can tap into that demand, the growth will come.
“What we see at Craft Union is that when we go into those communities [we’ve identified as a demand area] we’re offering them what they have been looking for. Then the growth comes because you’re delivering to that demand rather than going into a place where people don’t want that.”
Smoking ban ‘best thing to happen’
Grimbleby also said that “the smoking ban is the best thing that ever happened to the pub industry”, adding that, prior to the ban, there was a lack of quality in wet-led pubs.
“Now customers want quality drinks, in an environment that is clean and safe. The success of a pub, even on a wet-led basis, is to appeal to the community broadly, so young, old, middle aged. When everyone was smoking, it restricted the market for that pub.”
Innovate for wet-led success
Innovation in the drinks categories is another reason for wet-led growth. Andrew Stones, managing director at cocktail group Be At One, said: “There’s been a lot of innovation in the wet-led area, which has not been so true in casual dining. It’s led to investment in drinks development and has driven interest as well as more people into our bars.”
Stones said that sector concerns about young people not going out for drinking anymore were unfounded and “you just have to have a broad range of drinks”.
He added: “We’ve got a broad range of non-alcoholic drinks, with things like Seedlip coming out now.”
Quality of service
The panel agreed that service is just as important as quality, with Christian Townsley, director North Bar and North Brewing Company, saying: “Six of our sites are wet-led, we’ve focused heavily on quality of service and getting a really good drinks offer.
He also said that the chef recruitment crisis had created a challenge for their food operations.
“Recruitment in food has been a challenge. I think Brexit has had a big impact on recruitment in kitchen teams,” he said.
However, pointing to the rise in popularity of street food, he said: “We’re looking at having a food operation come in and run a food business in one of our sites and put the pains of running a food business on them.”
Commenting on the impact of the smoking ban, Townsley said: “People will blame it for demise of wet-led pubs. But as soon as people stopped smoking they realised how scruffy and dirty the pubs were. The range of drinks in wet-led operations now has become fantastic. As consumer choice improves, people can be a bit more fussy. We did notice a drop off in trade after the ban but it picked up again as soon as people become used to a different environment.”