Spragg\'s to riches

By The Drum, Administrator

February 23, 2005 | 8 min read

Pub chains like Brewers Fayre tend to polarise public opinion. If you wear sandals, sport a beard and subscribe to CAMRA you probably lament their rise with the same sorrowful countenance you usually reserve for mobile phones, small children and trousers that aren’t corduroy. For the rest of the population they’re either convenient, when you can’t be bothered to slave over a microwave for a couple of minutes, or a godsend, when you fancy a pie and a pint, but there’re kids to consider. Regardless of whatever camp you throw your napkin into there’s one factor you can’t deny – these chains have spread and they’ve spread fast, locking the nation into the concept of affordable out-of-home dining. And of all the operators competing for our ‘five quid a main’ mentality, none have secured a tighter grip on us than the mighty Brewers Fayre.

Brewers Fayre and its soon to be defunct sub-brand Brewsters (that’s right, they’re killing off the bear – you read it here second, or possibly third) form the UK’s largest pub restaurant concern with well over 400 outlets. In a couple of weeks time, 15 March to be precise, the Whitbread owned chain will be looking to consolidate its position within the marketplace, and elevate its appeal to our palates, with the launch of a new look menu. Luton-based marketing director, James Spragg, is the man responsible for selling the concept to the general public and your generally faithful Adline hack. He seems hungry to rise to the challenge.

“One of the key objectives of the Brewers Fayre brand is to be associated with quality casual dining,” imparts the cheerful ex-sales and marketing director of Scottish and Newcastle (still a disgustingly sprightly 32 years of age). “We’re pushing to make eating out an affordable, everyday treat for the future. The new menu places the emphasis on that everyday treat aspect, with a better selection, better ingredients and overall improved quality, while ensuring that no extra cost has been passed on to the customer.”

So what can he tempt us with?

“Our strength is in providing good honest food at good honest prices, that’s what our customers want and that’s what we’ll provide. We’ll be championing Great British classics (everything from Highland Scottish pie, to liver and bacon dishes, to Stilton and peppercorn sirloin) while sticking to local ‘specials’ banks to stay faithful to the communities that we serve.

“It’s probably the biggest single menu change that we’ve experienced in the 25 years of Brewers Fayre, but it’s more about brand evolution rather than wholesale change.”

Meaning, we expect, that the chain won’t want to compromise the sales of its stalwart lines. We’re talking gammon steak (1.1million units sold a year), sirloin (1.5million steaks going greedily gullet-wards) and, get ready to wipe that chin of yours, lasagne (over £1million worth digested a year, probably with a fair few chips).

It’s the classics that sell. As confirmed by Spragg’s entreaty: “We’re not looking to be too fancy, we’re not gastro-pubs. Good honest food is what we’re all about.”

However, as I venture while thinking about my imminent lunchtime pie, aren’t we having quite enough good honest food already? With obesity at epidemic proportions isn’t there a call for developing a menu that’s perhaps slightly lighter on the stomach and on the NHS?

Spragg takes this on the chin. Before wiping it off with disdain.

“It’s all about providing choice. We do sell salads and we have a section on the menu for lighter dishes, also our daytime menu provides smaller portions, but not everyone wants that. We have developed the new menu responsibly though.”

How so?

“Well, we’ve been working closely in line with our suppliers to ensure that we cut sugar, fat and salt content. The children’s menu has been a key focus of ours. We’re currently signing-off the final version, which will launch in May, and for that we’ve trialled over 40 new dishes. It’s our objective to provide our customers with a better, healthier choice for their children.”

Aha! Choice and children. That brings us on to the slaying of the family orientated Brewsters. A move that threatens its cuddly bear brand mascot – the one that looks far too cute to ever contemplate doing anything nasty in the woods. What’s the story there then?

“The Brewsters brand always appealed very strongly to families, but we found that it could actually be somewhat alienating for the adult market. As a result of this in September last year we began trialling ten Brewsters sites under the Brewers Fayre branding. The results of this exceeded all expectations. I think that proved to us that there was a real opportunity to claw back a significant proportion of the adult market for a minimum expenditure. It was then a comparatively simple choice.”

“Of the 130 or so Brewsters we currently own, 80 to 90 will be re-branded between March and August of this year with the remainder revamped in 2006.”

Any eight year olds reading this needn’t be alarmed though. The Brewsters brand looks destined to live on through dedicated ‘play zones’, while the more successful ‘fun factories’ will continue to operate. However, whether the bear gets concrete paws or not remains to be seen. Well, to be honest, I forgot to ask.

Moving on to the subject that inflames the ferocious animal passions of most steam train-loving, sandal and sock wearers (including myself) we broach the issue of public house ‘character’. Are Brewers Fayre and the other big chains destroying Great British pubs as we know it? Have they created food and beverage factories, churning out product, rather than convivial and individual establishments perfect for a pie and a pint? Spragg’s answer would make any politician proud.

“Our vision is to be trusted nationally and loved locally. We retain pub names, involving local people where we need to chose new ones, and ensure that we always form strong links within the community. It’s very important to us that via the staff, via the management and via our standards of service we become the focal point for many of the communities where we’re based. None of our pubs are identical and we never underestimate the need to appeal to those different localities. Our pubs are predominately based in the suburbs and we seem to have a formula that works for that market.”

A decisive moment of realisation hits him and he slips into top gear: “Also, we’re inclusive not exclusive. A lot of village pubs and the new breed of gastro-pubs exclude families from their premises and charge 20 quid a head. We’re looking at five or six pounds for a main course and we’re open to all. I think that’s a very appealing proposition.”

And to be honest it is. He may have slightly skirted around the question of ‘character’, but if you still have an issue with that it’s probably fair to say that you’re not in the target market for the Brewers Fayre brand anyway. As Spragg previously commented, “We seem to have found a formula that works.” Not for everyone perhaps, but work it does and you can’t really argue with that.

The proof of this is in the steak and kidney pudding, or more precisely in the fact that the chain continues to grow, with the proposed expansion plans pointing to more than 500 outlets within the next couple of years. With this in mind Whitbread is perfectly placed to take advantage of the corpulent eating out market – worth a recorded value of £26.5billion in 2004 and set to expand in girth to a hefty £30billion by 2007 (Mintel).

Spragg possesses near bulletproof confidence that the good times are set to roll on for the ‘casual dining’ sector. “The market trend is with us and Brewers Fayre is in an excellent position to take advantage. I mean after a busy day who actually wants to wash up? Who wants to go down to the supermarket to queue for food and then trudge back to prepare it? It’s far easier, and a far more pleasurable experience, to stop off in one of our pubs and enjoy the new menu at an affordable price.” And I suppose you can’t say Fayrer than that.

The menu launches nationwide on 15 March, and will be supported by PR activity from Leedex.


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