'Branded' bars are drinking in the last-chance saloon

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The Independent Online

They are as ubiquitous a high-street presence as Boots and Woolworth but, after years of infiltrating town centres across the UK, hundreds of "branded" pubs and bars are about to call last orders for the final time.

They are as ubiquitous a high-street presence as Boots and Woolworth but, after years of infiltrating town centres across the UK, hundreds of "branded" pubs and bars are about to call last orders for the final time.

Bars and restaurants are still suffering in the aftermath of the US terrorist attacks, with customers staying away. But, some of the best known names of the high street were already heading for the exit.

Believing the public has fallen out of love with bland, uniform outlets, marketing strategists have decided that their latest brand concept is to have no brand at all.

Pitcher and Piano and Dome are up for sale while other outlets, including Café Rouge, face an uncertain future. The familiar Firkin pubs will soon be drastically reduced in number, and the Hogshead chain is to lose its trademark logo.

In their place, the British hospitality industry is poised to return to the time-worn charms of the "traditional" local with hundreds of new White Swans, Red Lions and King's Heads.

Industry analysts Colliers CRE warned in their midsummer report that the take-up of high street space by bar operators had slackened to such an extent that the sector could be said to have reached "saturation point".

The Laurel Pub Group, which bought 3,000 inns from Whitbread, including the 120 Hogsheads, for £1.63bn this spring, is currently spending £50m stripping them of their old brand signs and refurbishing them as "authentic traditional pubs". The first of these, The Chequers, opened in Houghton Regis, near Luton, on Friday.

Chief executive Ian Payne dismissed nationwide brands as passé, saying: "There's a lot of evidence out there to suggest these things have a finite shelf-life."

Confirming that Laurel was selling off 14 branches of Dome, the ersatz French café-bar once beloved of upwardly mobile would-be continentals, he said: "Mock French café-bars aren't the in-thing any more." The remaining four central London branches will be turned into Spanish-flavoured Casa bars.

While admitting his new-look inns will have a "core" food menu wherever they are in the country, Mr Payne insists there will be some variation from place to place, adding: "We will have everything from a 'pizza in the pub' menu, which will be at the cheap end of the scale, to a more expensive gastro-type one, but the pubs themselves will all be individual. The signal to the consumer is going to be the Red Lion or the White Horse, and when you walk into the pub to all intents and purposes you will be walking into a local."

Wolverhampton and Dudley, which recently bought the Marston's and Mansfield breweries, plans to convert its 1,600 inns into "traditional" suburban family pubs at a rate of 40 a year. Even so, the company, which last week sold the 21-strong Varsity chain and is looking for a buyer for its 48 Pitcher and Pianos, has given its new "anti-brand brand" an internal brand name, "Bostin Local" (based on the Black Country expression meaning "great").

"They will be located where people live, rather than where they work or shop, and we will make them clean, open and bright, rather than dark," said a spokesman. "But there won't be any stripped pine. These will feel like real pubs."

Nomura, the Japanese investment group which earlier this year added 900 former Bass pubs to its 4,000-plus portfolio, is committed to allowing local landlords to run them, rather than managing them centrally. A spokesman says the company views individual pubs with their own distinctive personalities as far safer long-term investments than ephemeral brands.

There is a widespread feeling in the industry that branded chains have reached their sell-by date. Kerry Rogan, spokeswoman for trade magazine The Publican, said: "The branded bar has outlived itself. There seems to be a growing feeling that people are getting bored with seeing the same names on every high street. Everything has its day and theirs seems to have passed."

Iain Roe, spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale, added: "People have put far too much money on the value of the brand name. Consumers might like some of the concepts that come with the brand, but they won't use them to the exclusion of other kinds of places."

Some high street bar giants, however, are sticking with the formula. Six Continents, formerly Bass, is due to open its first ever non-UK branch of All Bar One in Cologne, Germany, tomorrow. Its biggest ever O'Neill's will be launched three days later on the site of former celebrity hang-out The Wag club in Wardour Street, London.

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