The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.

(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)

The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.

‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.

Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.

It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.

And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.

If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.

The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.

9 thoughts on “The Young Ones”

  1. Interesting pondering, I think you’ve got most of the reasons why JDW is popular there, and it’s great to hear a balanced assessment rather than just the opinion that Spoons is a race to the bottom, undercutting all competition on cost alone. I don’t think it’s a choice of “Spoons vs. Pub”, but where many traditional pubs fail to deliver, Spoons often competently fills the gaps.

    Why I sometimes choose Spoons over a real pub:

    – Affordable, ok quality, choice of meals – On holiday last week I ate in five different traditional country pubs and while all were OK, they were at least 30% more expensive, often for similarly dubious quality meals with choice limited to the same old “classics” – lasagne soup, wilted salad garnishes, meatless meat “pie” soup with pastry lids. Wished I could have had a burrito a few times – it is 2017 after all and meals don’t have to stick to Meat & Two Veg anymore.
    – Anonymity – Tonight I’m away on business. I could venture solo into a local pub for my dinner, but chances are it would be a naff chain anyway (thanks Greene King) and I’d risk the usual odd locals. Instead I’m probably going to go to Spoons where the mixed crowd will probably ignore me, I can even sit right down the far end of the cavernous venue if I really want to avoid socialising.
    – Consistency – We all know what a minefield ale drinking can be. Rather than risk a traditional pub where I might be forced to drink vinegary GK IPA, or Carling (since there are no real Ale Destination pubs where I am today), at least I can go to Spoons and at absolute worst I can get a Lavazza coffee or bottle of end-of-life Punk. I know im not likely to get anything mind blowingly interesting, but Spoons offers choice that many pubs simply do not understand.

    Spoons isn’t that good most of the time, but many many pubs are much worse.

  2. One thing about JDW is that they deliberately set out to take the “mystique” out of pubgoing, which makes them more accessible, even if it leads people like me to complain that they’re not very “pubby”.

    Also in many of their locations they offer the only even halfway decent pub food available.

    1. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but if we’re tying it specifically to “young” people then I think you’ve hit a nail on the head.

      If you’re a yoof with only got £10 in your pocket, would you spend it in JDW where there are signs that clearly tell you how many pints you can buy for that amount, or would you risk a mystical pub where you have no way of knowing how much a round will cost until the barman asks for you to hand over the money? Sounds pathetic maybe, but nonetheless it might be a Barrier to Entry, and rightly so when pints can cost anywhere from £1.50 to £10…

  3. Went in the local ‘spoons last Christmas. I was old enough to be the parent of at least 90% of the clientele. I was 37 at the time.

    1. I went to a small town Spoons last night. It was almost full. Clientele very mixed, though generally in the 18-24ish and 50+ brackets as you might expect, most people eating, pub quiz happening. Food was just about edible (but I know it’s worse in the GK pub round the corner), cask beer was just about drinkable (but I know its worse elsewhere). Interestingly the barman gave me a pint glass with ice in which to pour my can of Sixpoint Resin… bless.

      The other five or so pubs in the town that were open were almost completely dead – and probably deserve to be.

  4. Students/young people are certainly price sensitive. We would walk an extra mile to go to a pub where the beer was 10p cheaper.

    However this disguises the fact that 90% of the time, we chose our pubs for other reasons: a pooltable or dartsboard we thought would be available, the music selection (loud heavy metal preferred), televised sport on a big screen, or the probability of seeing other students (girls, preferably). Beer choice and price was secondary. We never ate in pubs, ever. It was too expensive. The only time I remember eating in a pub as a student was when my parents visited.

    We went to the pub probably 5 nights a week. tv was shit and internet access was still slow and patchy. What else was there to do?

    1. Pool tables don’t seem to be as common as they used to be; JDWs don’t have them, food-led pubs don’t have them …

  5. I’m not sure how this plays out across the country but in our small town, the JDW appears to have ignored the four other pubs and taken aim at the several cafes nearby (mostly independent and one Costa franchise). For coffee and soft drinks, JDW is certainly cheaper on comparable products, although their food is different to the cafes, who are less main meal-oriented. Because of this, it attracts families with young children (mine included) who want the option of alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, or food etc, who wouldn’t ordinarily think to go in a “proper” pub.

    I don’t mind it, really, but there are at least two pubs nearby I prefer based on the quality of their beer and food. However, my son does not, so for now I’m stuck with JDW whenever we’re out and need to feed him.

  6. Our town doesn’t have a ‘Spoons. If my daughter drinks here, it’s either the newish bar, which in fairness has some decent beers, but primarily does cheap cocktails; or else it’s one of the oldest and least-spoiled pubs in town that somehow manages to appeal to all ages, despite being an Everards pub. If she goes anywhere else, it’ll be the town next door and it’s ‘Spoons. All three are welcoming to all comers – they’re that shared public space that welcomes youngsters, and none of them look down on someone drinking something non-alcoholic. Yet they’re visibly about as different as it’s possible to be – a real old pub, with lots of little rooms; a modern eatery/bar, and a ‘Spoons. I feel the welcome has more to do with it than anything else

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