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.

10 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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