The dawn of a new era for the pub industry means a punishing start for Tim Martin. It is pitch black and drizzling outside as he wakes up in his hotel room in Paddington. Home is Exeter, but the chairman of JD Wetherspoon had to catch the train to London the night before so he would be in situ for the start of an unusually hectic day.
The outspoken founder of the infamously cheap pub chain is used to being in the media eye. But the introduction of potential round-the-clock drinking, a watershed for the trade, has surprised even his PA, Tina, in terms of demands on Tim's time.
It's a short cab ride to White City, where his first interview is with Radio Five Live at 5.30am. By now, the new regime has been under way for five-and-a-half hours - even if barely a handful of the nation's 190,000 licensed premises opted to reopen their doors at 00.01am. Then it's Today at 6.15am, before he whizzes over to Sky for some live telly with Eamon Holmes. The Sky News presenter asked Mr Martin who he hoped to lure by opening the doors of his 650-strong pub estate an hour early at 9am, looking bemused to be told: "Our main target market is early-morning broadcasters!"
The media frenzy has finished, giving Mr Martin a window for the first of his can't-miss attempts to limit the damage from the inevitable calls on his liver. "Being in the booze trade I try to do an hour of exercise in the morning and the same in the evening." He prefers his local Cornish coastline - with the sea on one side and a fence on the other he can't get lost - but today settles for an hour's trudge up to the North Circular, where he catches a cab to his company's Watford headquarters: the "Wethercentre".
He cuts an unmissable sight for any early-morning dog walkers. At 6ft 6in, the broad-chested Mr Martin is dressed in his trademark dress-down togs. Black all-weather jacket, black trousers and black workman-esque boots. The neck-length hair is still there, but these days it's a more mature mullet, a grey-flecked, 50-year-old's mullet.
Thursday isn't only an unusual day for the industry; it's also an unusual day for the Wetherspoon chairman because it's the one day a week he spends at head office. He missed breakfast so takes his ritual tea and toast two hours later than normal. Had he headed to one of his own pubs at their new opening time he could have braved the fug of last night's smoke thickening the air and washed a £1.99 fry-up down with a pint.
Meeting number one is with the group's most senior managers. It's dubbed "Bops", which stands for Big Operations. There should be 40-odd people in the Wethercentre ground floor training centre, but some managers have cried off to be on hand locally. Talk quickly turns to the new order, although there isn't much left to say as all the hard work has been done.
Everyone has seen the Daily Mail's front page "Cheers, Tessa," illustrated with various scenes of drunken debauchery. Mr Martin has a "grudging respect" for the tabloid, which has led the campaign against binge drinking, for identifying a real issue. Where he's at loggerheads with the paper is over its failure to understand what he sees as a "cultural issue", best illustrated by the failure to castigate the English cricket team for their monumental "bender" after winning the Ashes.
"It's the attitude behind that bender and the appreciation by the public and the media in saying it was justified and what they would have liked to have done in the same circumstances that is behind the excessive hen and stag behaviour that is at the root of binge drinking. We need to look at our attitude as a country." It's a familiar refrain to the men in the room but still illustrative of the hypocrisy tainting the furore over the new licensing laws.
But it is that week's tips from the "Tell Tim" scheme that dominate the agenda. Employees get £5 for every idea they propose. "An easy way to earn a fiver at Wetherspoon's is to suggest a new cocktail." Today's span jettisoning colour printers in the pubs' back offices, to save £1m, to ordering new pens. This week's "Bops" lasts four hours.
Lunch, as per normal, is a tuna sandwich. It's eaten quickly, in Mr Martin's spartan office.
Wetherspoon's opened its Watford HQ about 12 years ago, shortly before its stock market float. The boss's office shrank as the company quickly expanded. At 600 pubs three years ago, he saw scope to triple the chain started from a single pub in Muswell Hill 26 years ago. (He named the chain after his primary school teacher who couldn't control his class). But others in the industry had the same idea. Pub chains saturated the high street, prompting a shake-up. Wetherspoon's put the brakes on its expansion - and much to the consternation of investors Mr Martin took a sudden six-month sabbatical.
These days, as chairman, he's supposed to work three days a week, "but probably does five-and-a-half, as opposed to seven". Thursday is unusual because he doesn't visit a single Wetherspoon's outlet, although he was in six the day before and 28 the previous week. Typically he spends two days "on call", turning up unannounced to a clutch of pubs to check they are up to scratch. Last weekend he spent a family trip to Scotland, where his daughter (one of four kids) is at university, on an extended pub crawl.
Next on Thursday's schedule is a finance meeting. Then it's catering, licensing and design. Now it's the turn of smoking to dominate. "Licensing is a sideshow. The big test will be non smoking when it comes." Wetherspoon's is testing the water by making 10 per cent of its estate smoke-free ahead of the curve. But it's not going too well. Food sales have soared, but these are lower margin than booze so profits have fallen. The finance director wants to know what Mr Martin plans to do about it. Plus it costs money to expurgate all that fug. Pubs need redecorating, new kitchens and more outdoor seating for the desperately addicted.
The meetings over, Mr Martin pauses to reflect on the final hours of George Best. "It's a great tragedy. To see someone who is that serious an addict is sad."
The irony of the legendary alcoholic not living to see the introduction of 24-hour drinking is not lost on the publican. "George is a good example of someone who didn't need longer licensing hours." Mr Martin gets a lift back to the North Circular, getting the car to drop him off so he can complete the second of his daily constitutionals.
By now, his pubs have been open for 10 hours, one more than normal. They have another six or seven to go but already the sales figures look surprising. It's as if pub-goers are on strike, refusing to conform by going on a bender. The day's sales will in fact end up lower than the previous Thursday, despite the extra hours.
And Mr Martin doesn't help. He chooses to slip into his regular Paddington haunt, a boozer owned by his rival Spirit, to sink a couple of Abbot Ales. Then to cap an exceptional day, he does not take the train back to his wife in Exeter. Instead, he joins three friends for a dinner party. Normally he abhors such middle-class frivolities, but the mix of company: an Irishman, a Swiss, a Pole, and Mr Martin, who grew up in New Zealand and Northern Ireland, makes it OK. Turkey is on the menu. It's a Thanksgiving dinner, his first. He stays later than intended, not getting to bed until 1am.
So much for round-the-clock drinking dominating the country: the nation's sensational new regime didn't even get a look in during the evening's conversations.Reuse content