When you think of a traditional British pub, certain images and associations come to mind. In bygone years we think of them as the lifeblood of the community and full of character, as the musky fumes of ale pervade the air and quick-witted old timers come armed with stories to tell. As time has gone on, however, this has come to be quite a nostalgic view with the hegemonic popularity of the titan JD Wetherspoon (known colloquially as Wetherspoons).
Driving around today, it is a common sight to see a run-down pub that is boarded up and forced out of business for good. As independent pubs continue to close at an alarmingly high rate, ‘Spoons’ continues to thrive and is showing no signs of slowing down. This comes despite protests from movements such as ‘Neverspoons’, which directs people towards local alternatives and believes in the power of the local.
For many, the dominance of chains like Wetherspoons represents something more profound and vital, namely the death of community spirit and customer loyalty in Britain. Perhaps this is true in part, though such a view does not always factor in the practical realities of why people are flocking to Wetherspoons, nor its fundamental appeal. Here are the key reasons why it generates such success and popularity.
“It’s the economy, stupid!”
Whilst it is lamentable that Wetherspoons’ aggressive pricing strategy has meant that local pubs can’t keep pace, you cannot deny its appeal.
The food and drink options are widely sneered at by the culinary purists, though the chain’s popularity stretches across all social classes and backgrounds. This, fundamentally, can be explained by a universal appreciation of good value.
Where the average cost of a pint in London is £4.44, ‘Spoons’ patrons can expect there to be enticing options that are £2 or less wherever you are in the country.
If beer or cider isn’t your bag, then you can also find an array of deals on spirits, cocktails, and liquor. This is also true of non-alcoholic or low alcohol alternatives, with the cost of soft drinks seamlessly integrated into the overall cost of meals.
That special something
Many will argue that the chain is depressingly monotonous, standardised, and commercial. However, it is short-sighted to claim that it universally lacks atmosphere and that all 925 branches in the UK are a carbon copy of one another.
The eccentricities can in fact be very high: not blandly conformist but boasting unique designs like in Tunbridge Wells (an opera house), or the stunning Royal Victoria Pavilion in Ramsgate. Since 1979, the chain has come to occupy some of Britain’s most magnificent communal spaces such as music halls and cinemas, each with their own unique, often unexplainable charm.
Another argument is that Wetherspoons lacks a communal atmosphere, but it has actually emerged as a national community in various ways. It has captured the cultural imagination on social media, for example, with a thriving Facebook page that is dedicated to comparing people’s varying chip counts (complete with angles, shapes, and textures). Others like to critically judge interior design features such as carpets or ceilings, with Kit Caless even writing a book on the subject. It is this cult appeal which makes Wetherspoons the weird and wonderful success it is.
What you see is what you get
Ed Cumming believes that the appeal of Wetherspoons is encapsulated by the owner Tim Martin himself, and a sign of the populist times we live in: ‘no nonsense, unfussy and democratic’.
Put simply, you know what you’re going to get, and people respond to that. Now, there exists a super abundance of outlets in most major towns and its prolonged opening hours mean that food and drink can be sold from breakfast time to close.
The company are also becoming increasingly health conscious and expanding their range to appeal to a wide customer base, as demonstrated by calorie ratings, appetising salads, and meat-free alternatives.
The naysayers will argue that there are concerns over the quality of products, with claims that stock is bought close to its sell by date, though this is strongly refuted by the company. Indeed, why would respected global brands and retailers risk their reputation in that way?
The beer has been independently assessed by Cask Masque since 1999, with the chain scoring consistently highly on food hygiene.
Decide for yourself
Like with anything that we indulge in, there are positives and negatives to consider. Ultimately, Wetherspoons isn’t all bad, with some arguing that it engenders a so-called ‘halo effect’ and helps local businesses by bringing general growth to derelict areas. Moreover, in divided times it is good for cultural stability to have a household name that we can all identify with.
Conversely, you are also within your rights to boycott the chain altogether. You may view their standardised mass-produced goods as depressingly predictable; churned out monotonously to benefit a corporate machine just for the sake of convenience and novelty. You may, indeed, just hate their onion rings.
Either way, it is your choice how you support local businesses and how you get merry with friends. Whilst considering convenience, it is also advised to keep in mind the honest local pub that may be struggling for custom down the road. The simple truth is that Wetherspoons is here to stay, it’s just up to you what you make of it.