Is it a shop? Is it a cinema? No, it's superpub

Breweries are planning to flood the country with giant new bars
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THE Rovers Return will never be the same. Breweries and bar operators are targeting towns and city centres across Britain,seeking venues for their latest invention: the superpub.

The superpub is a giant, cavernous single bar in a striking converted building - a former bank, perhaps, or a car showroom - with huge windows enabling customers to look in from the street, and providing all-day drinking and eating in buildings anything from four to 20 times the size of a traditional local.

Gone are intimate, darkened saloon and public bars, hidden behind small engraved windows in a purpose-built pub, where operators assess profits according to barrels of beer sold. Superpub operators judge their margins according to cash sales per square foot; food, entertainment, wine and non-alcoholic drinks are as important as beer.

In some places the phenomenon is already well established. In the London suburb of Ealing, where five superpubs have opened within a few hundred yards of each other, there are mutterings of dismay about the huge influx of drinkers into the town centre. Ken Kettle, a Conservative councillor for the area, says the situation has become so bad that "the transformation of central Ealing from Queen of the Suburbs to the Las Vegas of drinking is only too apparent".

As well as Ealing and commuter centres in the South-east - Croydon, Sutton, Romford, Kingston upon Thames and Guildford - cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield are on the target list common to many of the superpub plans. According to one City analyst, the large operators are looking for "premium sites where they can open pubs with a large square footage. They've got to have a large population - either a commuter- belt location or a town centre within a large conurbation".

Behind the rise of the superpub lies a seismic shift in the British pub world. Five years ago the Monopolies and Mergers Commission ordered the large breweries to shed hundreds of locals. The brewers closed thousands of their smaller pubs and opted to run larger, more profitable venues. Figures collated by the Publican newspaper show there are 3,000 fewer pubs today than before the MMC report.

The MMC shake-up led to the formation of several new pub retailers who followed the brewers' trend towards bigger venues, and took advantage of the 1988 reintroduction - for the first time since the First World War - of all-day drinking.

Like the big brewers, the new operators spotted high street properties that could be converted. Some were car showrooms and supermarkets, vacated as businesses left for out-of-town malls. Others were bank and building society branches, closed as companies contracted. That, combined with fierce competition from cheap beer brought across the Channel for home consumption, convinced the pub operators that a new-style venue was the answer.

Last week J D Weatherspoon, which now runs 110 superpubs, opened its biggest yet, an 8,000sqft former cinema in Manchester, the Moon Under Water. Weatherspoon chairman Tim Martin said: "The big pub is a winning formula for us. So much work goes into every application for a licence and permission to open that the bigger the premises the bigger return for all that effort. And of course the other element about big pubs is pure ego!"

Like Weatherspoon, operators including Yates's Wine Lodge, Allied Domecq (now running Firkin houses) and Bass are developing superpubs for a target market: an affluent population of 18-40-year-old professionals and students. Town centres, complete with plenty of offices and shops, are ideal.

Yates's premises owe their origins to Peter Yates, who, 100 years ago, discovered a taste for port and sherry among mill girls in Lancashire. The chain now includes a former cinema in Warrington, a bank in Croydon, and shops in Watford and Reading.

Tim Meggitt, Yates's property director, said its ideal customers were "shoppers, office workers, people wanting food throughout the day".

He and added: "Nooks and crannies are intimidating. We always want large windows so that the customer outside can see what goes on."

Yates's bars are usually 3,000sqft of drinking space, but last week Bass announced a new chain of premises that will be more than 10 times as big. Its Dave & Buster's bars - 10 of them planned so far - will offer traditional pub games such as billiards alongside golf simulators and video games in 40,000-60,000sqft venues.

Bass has already planned 20 "All Bar One" venues offering wine and beers. "Simple, elegant food, good wine, very, very large bars, absolutely no smoked-glass windows, converted buildings," said Bass's Bob Cartwright. "Ummm, what we would call the bohemian alternative."

Not everyone thinks them so attractive. The Campaign for Real Ale has watched with horror the rise of the superpub and the demise of small, traditional pubs. Customers, according to CAMRA, are being alienated.

But some councils, alarmed by the move of businesses out of town, have welcomed the superpubs which encourage people to stay in the high street.

Richard Hunt, spokesman for Sutton borough council, said that the outer- London suburb used to be dead at night. It now has five superpubs around the high street.

"Once people would travel to the South Coast or to the West End," he said. "Now they can stay in Sutton to enjoy an evening out."

In Leeds, where the city council has coined the sobriquet "The 24-hour City" for the West Yorkshire metropolis, new bars, restaurants and pavement cafes are welcomed as a means of encouraging business. Several bars now open until 2am every morning in a city once famed for its grime and grit.

"We have tried to encourage people to see the city centre as a playground," said Eamonn McGee, chairman of Leeds' city centre committee. "It's been a slow process to convince licensing magistrates and police of its value, but Leeds is now a place for people to enjoy."

Last week, the brewers' superpub ambitions became a victim of their own success in Ealing, home of the film studios that made such famous comedies as Whisky Galore. Troubled by the superpubs' popularity, the borough council decided to do what it could to resist further attempts to launch new pubs and bars. It ordered planning officials to revise the council's policy with a view to refusing any future applications.