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A Wetherspoons in Dunfermline? But surely the sky will fall in! April 12, 2007

Posted by cobaltmale in fife, food and drink.

Now I know this is going to be of direct interest to only a minority of you out there, though I’m sure the general principles involved are more broad.

In the past week it was at last confirmed that the JD Wetherspoon chain have been granted permission to open a “superpub” in a derelict Dunfermline church premises in the town centre. Work starts in June and a November opening is expected. The present publicans are squealing like little piggies once more.

Once more you ask? But surely Wetherspoons have only just been granted permission? Strangely (or not) this goes back years to when the firm first considered having a presence here.

I was relieved that my favourite flavour of pub was finally going to be in my home town – I’ve been a keen patron since 1993 when I was gobsmacked to learn you could actually have non-smoking areas in pubs, appealing decor, no piped music, decent choice of food and room to swing a cat. In a very few years they were also the only sanctuary of the non-footy fan. And that was when I lived in London, with a lot more pubs on offer (in fact Wetherspoons replaced smokey gay hostelries as my default). When I was on detached duty I always checked if and where there was a Wetherspoons.

Come my moving back to Scotland in 1999 – where the brand had only a handful of pubs, usually in city centres – I was plunged back into the dark ages I remembered from my youth when I rarely bothered to visit any of the holes that Dunfermline offered. So the prospect of a JD Wetherspoon meant I wouldn’t have to do my drinking at home or on visits to the cities. Alas the local licencees united in opposition to proper competition and somehow had the ear of local moribund councillors who blocked plans to move into a derelict cinema. I don’t remember the councillors asking the general populace, but maybe we had nothing to offer them outside of re-election times.

Another year or so passed and another opportunity came around, in an even more ideal corner spot opposite the Glen Gates, where a large shop was selling up. This one looked a sure thing with all the contracts and permissions seemingly passed, albeit none too quickly. But at the last minute the eccentric seller decided he’d had a better offer from …. Marks & Spencer (who already have a prime site in town, but that was his story). Needless to say this was just guff and the site remained derelict for a little longer. I wonder how much … erm …sorry, what actually changed his mind ?

Ironically, by last year both these sites were filled by new pubs, just not Wetherspoon ones. Both were apparently ‘superpubs’.

The one that took the cinema, “All Stars” which called itself a ‘sports bar’ (despite being no more sport-centric than any of the rest) with club attached behind. This appears not to have been a chain, as far as I can see. However it soon got a bad name due to the behaviour of its clientele upon leaving and was also not getting enough custom. I think it really didn’t know where it was at, and who it was trying to attract – among its ‘sports memorabila’ was a full size Dalek! First the club shut down and then the pub. In the meantime the pukka restaurant next door (“The Townhouse” – one which actually cooked on the premises) had given up due to the disruption of body fluids literally on it’s doorstep and so had its Oz-themed successor.

So opening a ‘superpub’ per se does not a success make.

But to the other ‘lost’ site. It took months upon months to renovate, and obviously had a lot of money spent doing it. This though was a chain – Belhaven – who already owned another Dunfermline ‘superpub’ in the shape of “The Foundry”. Initially when I heard this was the case, I was dismayed that Wetherspoons had lost out to just a less innovative chain, and wondered why no backlash here. I’d actually been a fairly frequent visitor to “The Foundry” as the best of a mediocre bunch but with a permanently installed DJ and a barrage of screens showing Sky Sports or their own drinks promotions I knew it didn’t have my sort at heart. Plus, ironicaly, it frequently seemed empty even on Friday nights after work. As I usually go out for the company that was getting a frustration.

Anyway, this became “The Seven Kings” as of early last November (the name derives from the seven kings who were crowned in Dunfermline I think). I missed the opening night but visited the following Monday afternoon around 3-ish. It was busy! Not packed but there must have been about 20 or so people drinking and/or eating in total, and a fair mix of ages. I immediately spotted that this was no “Foundry II” despite the piped but muted Sky Sports again. What was so obvious was that their blueprint was Wetherspoons! I’ve actually had a review of the place in the pipeline since then so I won’t gab on about it now. Importantly THIS brought a revolution to the town – not only was this place packed most days after 6, but many of the other pubs were taking the overflow and were no longer so barren. Basically I think people who would either have gone to Edinburgh (or even Kirkcaldy/Perth) or just stayed home with a Tesco vintage now ventured into Dunfermline. Interestingly the prices came down too to match “The Seven Kings” tariff.

Surely this is not armageddon and surely an near equal match for “The Seven Kings” with an actual Wetherspoons opening will sharpen this influx and healthy competition even more.

What pisses me off most about the standing licencees is their complacency, their pleading for special treatment and basically their running little fiefdoms for the indulging of themselves and like minded mates. Are they running a business or not? Or are they just not very good at it and can’t acknowledge when that’s shown up? “We can’t have them – they’re a real business not someone who just fancied having his own pub”. Are they not capable of adapting with the ‘market’ they so frequently and selectively cite ?

Prior to the smoking ban it’s this same breed of pub landlord that said ‘the market should decide’ to propose smoking and non-smoking pubs with the unsaid presumption that any non-smoking pub would fail and that it wouldn’t be any of them. Of course the point of a blanket ban for all pubs is to ensure a level playing field to start with. Now they want protecting from that same free market. Just as the dinosaur publicans hadn’t noticed that the majority of their potential customers didn’t smoke they don’t notice that other tastes move on in less than 10 or 20 years. While decrying the monster that is Wetherspoon (est. 1979) they don’t address why such alternatives are a success. And in the years the Dunfermline publicans have been playing Canute have they tried to adapt and diversify to pre-empt the changing profile of the population? Have many of them even redecorated this decade? Simply put, no. They are risk-averse in the extreme and continue to superserve a narrow section of the public, the male, 40+, beer/lager drinking, football-obsessed section. Fine, but why attack businesses that want to spread their net wider and succeed at it?

Some of the landlords have even desperately tried to wrap themselves in the flag:

“Norrie MacDonald, licensee of the Creepy Wee pub, believes some pubs won’t survive the opening of Wetherspoon’s while some, he said, were already resigned to giving up their lease.

“The smaller pubs sponsor football teams, have pool teams, let local bands rehearse in their lounges but all the big companies do is take money out of Fife and send it to their bosses in England.

And who exactly are your suppliers Norrie? And is a Scottish based chain OK to wipe you out? Also I frankly don’t care whether my pub sponsors a football team (free advertising anyone?) or has a pool team. And what’s a ‘lounge’? I’m not sure the Creepy Wee Pub has one (or the room for a band).

Another madcap claim they make is that the local pubs have had a double whammy of the smoking ban and the opening of “The Seven Kings”, conveniently forgetting the latter opened up 8 months after the ban so surely only a single whammy from anyone in particular? No customer who goes to “The Seven Kings” is one who’s banished themselves after the smoking ban.



1. PJ - April 15, 2007

Re the pub name – I think it derives from the fact that they were all buried in Dunfermline. Coronations always took place up at Scone.

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