Blondes have more fun in bars

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The Independent Online
THE WORDS were blunt, but they described what many had long suspected about the state of that very traditional English establishment, the pub. "Quite simply," said Sir Christopher Hogg, "people are not going into our pubs in such great numbers and when they do they're spending less." The comment wiped pounds 850m from the stock market value of his own company, Allied, but with the City fully aware that he could have been referring to all brewers, shares in Bass, Whitbread and the Old English Pub Company dropped, too.

Firkin, Allied's traditionally styled, rough-and-ready take on the alehouse with its own tiny breweries on the premises, is struggling. The fake-Oirish pub, alias the "plastic paddy pub", has also had its day; Allied Domecq is calling time on Scruffy Murphy's and Bass is cutting back on its O'Neill's chain.

Rocketing rents, the difficulty of securing suitable sites, and the advent of the minimum wage are all likely to mean a tough year ahead for pubs and their landlords. And for many of them that means one thing: searching even harder for the formula which will attract the elusive customers.

The days when the quality of a pint was all the pub owner needed to think about are long gone.

For many of the biggest breweries, the most successful niche marketing experiment has been in the kind of bars which women enjoy visiting as much as men. The blond wood floors and plate-glass windows that are the trademark of the Girlie Haunts - Pitcher and Piano, All Bar One, Fine Line and a host of similar band-wagon jumpers, are a far cry from the old-fashioned boozer, but they are doing very nicely.

Pitcher and Piano started with just one outlet in South-west London in the mid-Eighties; owned by Marston's since 1996, it now has 25 branches trading or under development all over the country, with a further 10 planned for 1999. All Bar One, launched by Bass in 1994, now has 43 branches nationwide. Fine Line, Fuller's relative newcomer, started this summer with just two outlets in central London, opened two more in quick succession and plans further expansion this year; its newest branch opens in Bristol at the end of the month.

Universal appeal is a factor they all cite in their success. "When All Bar One started there was a massive gap in the market for something that wasn't a chrome-filled yuppie bar or a smoky, smelly, male-orientated pub," said a spokesman for the chain. "Design is absolutely key for All Bar One, we wanted to send out the right messages, and particularly to make All Bar One a place that isn't intimidating. There are big glass windows so you can see inside, long bars so there are no queues, good food and fresh flowers on the bar so that the first thing you smell is lilies, not stale beer and smoke."

Two rather more rugged examples are Wetherspoons and Yates's Wine Lodge, whose venues are large, modern but with a hint of tradition, and geared to appeal to New Old Lads. Unlike their counterpart, the Firkin chain, these are doing well. Yates's, large-scale but downmarket, already has close to 90 outlets and will be increasing these by 20 per cent this year and next.

Wetherspoons, which concentrates on converting existing old buildings into pubs, particularly in city centre locations, already has 306 branches, plans to invest pounds 100m in another 80 in 1999 and is aiming at 500 by the end of 2001.

Wetherspoons prides itself on its flexibility and avoidance of carbon- copying. "Lots of chains are themed and planned and all look the same, but we have different looks, different design, even different food in different regions," said Wetherspoons spokesman Eddie Gershon. "We don't aim at any particular market or age range - it depends on the individual pub."

The search for the perfect pub formula turned to pool bars last year, but they remain few in number and, in their modern incarnation at least, strictly the haunt of the young and trendy. One theme that is bubbling up is souk-style; the Po Na Na chain, decorated in the style of an Arab medina, floated on Ofex, the unregulated junior stock market, in February 1996 with just two branches, is doing well and plans to have 24 nationwide by the end of the year.

Could 1999 be the year of the supervenue? The aim of these is to pull in the punters and keep them all evening and into the early hours by combining pub with restaurant and nightclub. The first one, Tiger Tiger, opened in London a few weeks ago. Virgin also intends to move into supervenue territory. The company's newest project, simply called the Venue, is still at the planning stage, and will be housed in an old hotel in London's Soho.

Mike Bennett, industry editor of Licensee magazine, believes that the branded pubs such as All Bar One and the Pitcher and Piano will continue to thrive. "People are discovering retail brands in a way they haven't before in pubs," he said. "They feel secure when they are dealing with a well-known brand name - they know what they are getting." This, he said, is a "retailing revolution." "The barriers are breaking down between pubs, bars, cafes, brasseries and we will be seeing more experimentation, and more cross-over."