Wet-led pubs ‘are no longer viable’ claims book author

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Dry versus wet: author Christel Lane believes wet-led pubs face an uncertain future
Dry versus wet: author Christel Lane believes wet-led pubs face an uncertain future
Drink-focused venues are “not viable” and operators should expand their food offer, according to a professor and author.

Christel Lane has released From Taverns to Gastropubs​ in a bid to contextualise the rise of the gastropub through an exploration of food, drink and society over the past 500 years.

Lane made the decision to write the book after previously publishing one about Michelin-starred restaurants.

She said: “It made me aware of other types of outlets offering good food and that they are also endangered in many ways.

“They are also under pressure from all directions and that made it an interesting case for me to follow on from the previous book.”

She outlined how food-led pubs that serve a high calibre of offerings can ensure the venues stand out from the rest.

Lane said: “Drinks-only pubs are not really viable except from a few exceptional locations in city centres.

“But on the whole, all the publicans I spoke to said just drinks were no longer viable and that means automatically expanding the food side of your offering.

“If you expand the food side then you may as well do it to a high standard so that you have a real competitive advantage.”

Catering for all

However, pubs are more relaxed and can cater for all different types of customers and their needs, according to Lane.

She added: “Pubs, unlike restaurants, are much more flexible in that you can move between drinking and eating much more easily than you can in a restaurant. 

“Secondly, these gastropubs usually offer two types of food – bar food for those who still just want the old English classics, plus there is very complex and high-end food that is more gastronomic in nature.

“[Pubs] offer something for a whole range of people.”

Lane also predicted the future for gastropubs, saying there wouldn’t be much growth for the sector due to the chef recruitment crisis.

She said: “The future is going to be very much like the present because I see no evidence that there will be more good chefs available.

“It could be worse in future even because the training is just not adequate and I don’t know what Brexit will do to the whole situation.

“However, a good gastropub will always be attractive [to consumers], particularly for their locations because a lot are in nice villages and in nice buildings, and it is a total experience to go there.”

Opposite opinion

This is in direct contrast to what operators said during a panel debate at a recent MA500 business club meeting.

Craft Union Pub Company operations director Frazer Grimbleby 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 have 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.”

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."

The panel agreed that service is just as important as quality, with Christian Townsley, director North Bar and North Brewing Company, said: “Six of our sites are wet-led, we’ve focused heavily on quality of service and getting a really good drinks offer.”

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