This week I want to kick off with one of my favourite brewers, Greene King, those purveyors of high quality unique beer who freely encourage a wide choice of guest beers in their tied pubs.  You may detect a large pinch of sarcasm in that last sentence.    The sight of a pub having three Greene King beers dominating the pumps ensures that my visit is curtailed before it even starts.  Whether you are talking about Abbot Ale, Greene King IPA, Old Speckled Hen or their Hardy and Hanson beers, they are universally bland and uninteresting.   I’ve even spoken to landlords in Midlands who run Greene King Inns who can’t stand the beer.  If you were to offer me the choice of being “dry” for the rest of my life or only being able to drink their products, temperance would be quickly embraced.

I’m also not the world biggest fan of Wetherspoons any more.  The prices charged for all but the core range of beers no longer have the differential over other nearby pubs to make you want to choose them over the competition, and although I’ve not eaten there myself recently others who do regularly are noticing slightly tighter portion control on the food side.  However if you want somewhere with a good chance of a nice pint and a full stomach for a decent price they are a “banker” when somewhere you don’t know the local pub scene.  Their guest list normally has at least one beer which you are happy to drink a few pints of.

One of the pub chains main crimes in my eyes is that two of Wetherspoons core products are Greene King IPA and Greene King Ruddles (known to most people as Ruddles County).  These beers you will find in every one of their pubs with it normally being sold at the lowest price point in the establishment.  The pub also features three other of their beers on the guest list.  The fact that every one of their pubs serves the two core beers shows that many people disagree with me on Greene King products.  From a purely business view, when you multiply this supply of beer to a chain of 800 pubs, it is of the size of that would be classed as a major client by even the likes of AB Inbev.

So when you object to a new pub in a town where one of your subsidiaries control 7 pubs in the town, it smacks of protectionism of a local monopoly.  When the people who want to open the pub just happen to already have 800 pubs taking multiple products from your parent company, it could be considered a very dangerous game of russian roulette.  This scenario is happening right now in Sterling, Scotland.  Wetherspoons have been trying to open a pub in a disused shop for several years now and last year, after numerous objections were overcome, permission was granted.   Greene King via their Belhaven subsidiary are reportedly a major partner in the consortia who have now forced a judicial review of the decision.

Belhaven (part of the Greene King group) is a large player in the Scottish beer market with 300 pubs across the country and is based in the town itself.  The company is not far short of half the size of the Wetherspoons in terms of pub estate.  Stirling town centre (according to Google Maps) has about 60 pubs depending on how big you define the town centre as.  The Belhaven group own 7 of them, a share of 12%.  The main thing that strikes you about this number is that Stirling has a lot of pubs, one more is not going to bring down an otherwise health pub in this town, even if it has offerings that a Wetherspoons bring along.

Given this, it seems that risking, even slightly, probably your biggest supply contract outside your tied group of pubs for a small loss of market share of the pub estate in the town is not a wise business choice.   Is the main concern that the new proposed Wetherspoons pub will sell the beer which is at the heart of the 7 Belhaven offerings in the town at a lower price and pull customers directly from them, my suspicion is that it is just this.  Belhaven and Greene King should realise that competition is part of commercial life, even in the pub trade where a relatively small number of companies control a large share of the pub estate.   Every other pub has to deal with this, they are only playing the same game as the rest of them.

  1. Curmudgeon says:

    A few years ago Spoons changed their core lager supplier from Molson Coors to Carlsberg – they could easily do the same with ales. Might Marston’s be interested in the business?

  2. Jolly Jock says:

    Whilst there were objections to the JDW planning and licensing applications for Spittal Street in Stirling, in September 2012 the licensing board changed their original refusal before they were forced to defend it legally.

    JDW had earlier put in an application for a second site less than 100 yards down the road in King Street. After their licensing victory on the first site, they were quoted as saying “We believe that the addition of two JD Wetherspoon outlets would prove a great asset to Stirling’s social scene as well creating jobs.” The second site’s application, which includes guest accommodation, is still “pending consideration”.

    Also within 100 yards of the JDW site are 4 of the Belhaven properties, and its main recruitment office. To be fair to GK, one of the locations (No.2 Baker Street) usually has guests on.

  3. Michael Adams says:

    The first thing to say is that stirling town centre has nowhere near 60 pubs. If you take out off licenses, and hotels (of which there aren’t many and few ‘locals’ drink in) there aren’t even 60 pubs in the entire local authority area.

    Greene King/ Belhaven’s dominance of the town centre is almost total. However, the factor not being pointed out is the influence of one of only two nightclubs in the town, the Fubar, the owners of whom have long had a curiously close relationship and overbearing influence on all things licensing in the town and have led on encouraging outrage and objection to Wetherspoons in their own interest.

    A look at Castle Leisure, owners of Fubar, would be quite interesting.

    • santobugtio says:

      Thanks for the feedback, always appreciated

      Not being a local I can only go on what I find from third party sources, I based the number of google maps, so this may well not be totally accurate.

      This update from you makes the situation event worse as the percentage controlled by GK/Belhaven even higher. The night club issue is interesting and their protection of the “late night business” is something I will look into if I do another follow up to this.

      Thanks Again.

      • Michael Adams says:

        I would be willing to bet that Green King / Belhaven own at least 70 percent of on sales in Stirling, and I have it on good authority that this has cost Stirling Council forty or fifty grand to defend. Totally outrageous.

  4. […] Michael Adams on Pubpaper 704 – Greene King, Wetherspoons and the Stirling situation […]

  5. Michael Adams says:

    Rumour has it that Greene King are desperately trying to buyout Wetherspoons in another twist to this sad and pathetic saga.

    • Jolly Jock says:

      Ironically, a lot of newer Greene King sites ape JDW with the “better value” food, but seem unable/unwilling to offer the sheer range of drinks that JDW manage. Real ale often doesn’t feature at all (or is not on tap when you visit).

      As an aside, I notice that the illustrated tourist maps at e.g. Stirling station now proudly feature The Belhaven Pub Trail; strangely the anyhing-but-Belhaven Pub Trail isn’t listed!

      • santobugtio says:

        Very true, the good thing about wetherspoons is that if you are in strange town you know they are a safe bet.

  6. Jolly Jock says:

    Whilst the window wraps have proclaimed “Coming soon” since before Christmas, asbestos removal(!) has now started on the JDW in Stirling. In nearby Alloa, a JDW opens in late March; the scaffolding is away from the first and second floors after 10 weeks and the old co-op is looking the best I’ve seen it.