JD Wetherspoon is definitely not up to the “gastropub” section of my dining reviews, so into “chains” it goes, and ordinary pub chain food is precisely what JDW offers. However, that comes later.
Its website proudly proclaims the history of the Wetherspoon chain, with an explanation for its name, namely that its founder in 1979, a newly-qualified barrister called Tim Martin, was once taught by a Mr Wetherspoon, and the initials JD were from Sheriff JD Hogg in The Dukes Of Hazzard. Prosaic but adding homely charm and character, no doubt. Martin remains the chairman of the group, and retains a 25% stake, unusual in an industry dominated by brewing and hotel conglomerates, though JDW pubs are as branded and mainstream as any of their competitors. Ah, but he also has his view on why many of these new chains made a whacking great loss – see here.
Mr Martin’s aim might well have been to establish friendly reasonably-priced locals that serve a decent pint and affordable food, of the type that are sadly on the decline in the UK. These are not generally your traditional or atmospheric pubs, unless you believe that atmosphere can be painted on by the yard. Many are beautiful buildings turned into are vast warehouses, temples to the commercial art of relaxation and imbibing. They are often located in town centres to hoover up people out for the day or night, though to be fair to JDW part of the attraction of the brand is that they have gone out of their way to restoring these old buildings in a fair number of towns and cities, however few patrons actually appreciate that.
One such is the Picture Palace in Braintree, built in what was the old Embassy cinema. While it’s a great shame the old deco cinema is not there, the conversion is sympathetic, retaining most of the original features and a huge screen on which to show football matches. Somebody in a review pointed out that the interior is quite dark, though in a sense that seems appropriate given the heritage of the building. I just wish they would show movies too!
Battesford Court in Witham, Essex, is another fine example. Previously a delightful hotel and in the past an elegant private house, the chain has retained the period features and opened out the floor into a bustling pub and restaurant. It was here I went with a companion to share a lunch on a busy Wednesday lunchtime, of which more anon.
JDWs have two particular USPs, to use the corporate marketing vernacular: cleverly, the chain opens its doors very early and captures trade from breakfasters through to coffee mornings, lunch, afternoon snacks and onwards towards the main drinking sessions and beyond to closing time. Hardly a revelation, since French brasseries and Spanish tapas bars have been doing it since way back when, but it works for JDW in a land where people rarely sit and relax for very long – or we didn’t before American coffee shops came along, at any rate. However, the cost of opening early may have led to a recent management bust-up and the departure of two senior executives.
The other thing JDW does competently well is keep traditional ales, constantly cycle a range of little-known beers and ales from smaller breweries, plus scrumpy ciders for the connoisseur. But the bulk market is undoubtedly catering for the youth market with the sort of drinks ordered by lads and lasses out for a night of binge drinking, encouraged by offers at various times – 2-4-1 or sometimes meal-and-a-pint deals (see the offers in the photographs above.)
So, a pub chain and a decent place to drink, but what’s the food like? The website includes their menu and a “commitment to quality” which includes use of free-range eggs, sustainable (ie. farmed) salmon, tuna, cod and haddock, and lack of trans-fat oils. All very laudable but that in itself does not tell you how good the ingredients might be, though to be fair the provenance is included in a few “supplier stories,” giving a clear impression that they care about the raw materials.
But evidence to the contrary comes when you look at the menu, which is absolutely vast. This tells me that a very substantial number of dishes have been prepared in a food processing factory somewhere and shipped out to all JDWs in a form ready to sling in the microwave, deep-fat fryer or grill, which makes them little better than warmed-up supermarket ready meals.
Regular readers of my blog will know is a particular bugbear of mine – no discretion for local variation or cooking dishes freshly from scratch in the kitchen. A shame that pride in cooking properly has been sacrificed on the altar of low prices, being all things to all people, and homogeneity across the chain. Doubtless JDW will tell you that is what customers want, but it sounds to me like the lowest common denominator rather than trying to raise standards.
Our lunch in Witham proved a case in point: the menu offers way too much choice, a subject on which I have blogged very recently. Many many options, but no real choice, to put it another way. How do you explain to restaurant chains that less is sometimes more? A few carefully crafted options offering genuine excellence might be a better choice than thousands of mediocre options? JDW may crow about its commitment to quality but it feels more like “never mind the quality, feel the width.”
The menu also includes detailed nutritional information and calorie counts for every item too, which guarantees that everything has been weighed, costed and analysed down to the last shred of lettuce and the final chip.
For these purposes, we chose from the cheapest options: two meals for £6.49, a chilli with rice, sour cream and a few perfunctory tortilla chips for her, a steak & kidney pudding, chips and peas with gravy for me (which reminds me strongly of my Cheshire childhood and my mother’s legendary steak and kidney puddings – comfort food is obviously big here.)
Many would say you can’t complain about two meals for £6.49, though I would say you can easily be ripped off for a fiver but get a total bargain for £100: value for money is not necessarily measured by the price paid. In this case, I got a frozen suet pudding, frozen chips, frozen peas and a gravy that tasted of precisely nothing. In fact, none of it had any flavour, which meant that after several mouthfuls I took what was for me the almost unique precaution of applying salt, pepper and a range of condiments. The chilli was little better, lacking in lip-tingling spices and tasting microwave hot. Do JDW customers really want food devoid of flavour? Even at £6.49 the pair, they did not strike me as good value dishes.
In short, JDW food is not for people who appreciate good food but for those who want a cheap refuelling stop while drinking. This is a mass catering canteen, not a true restaurant; it offers no benefit, nothing you can’t do better at home, and certainly no food to savour. It marks time, like Eliot’s Prufrock measuring out his life in coffee spoons (rather than Wetherspoons.) Would it attract me to buy a meal or visit a JDW again? No, absolutely not!
No doubt the executive management and Mr Martin would disagree with me, but it would be far better to pay a bit more money to get something made with pride and feeling. But then, maybe the PLC board is rather more concerned about it’s turnover, costs and thereby profit than in making food worth a trip to eat, or in surprising and delighting customers, and to my mind it would not cost much more to do the job significantly better. Perhaps breakfast is the best choice?
But how did it perform as a pub? That is probably where JDW does best, but here there are some more notes for management attention: staff were pretty thin on the ground, given the size of the establishment, and looked none too happy about the workload. The fact that they were stretched was quite evident from several tables having glasses and plates which sat long after their previous users had departed, and indeed that the table we employed (no 63) was sticky and had clearly not been wiped down for some while, despite it being only 12:30. A bit sloppy – could do better.
As for me, I will always pick an independent country pub which makes an effort with food, keeps a decent pint and charms with its personal service, the Chequers at Goldhanger being one such choice. Perhaps JDW should take notes too?
PS. Since this was written, I’ve eaten two more meals at Wetherspoons. One consisted of so-so ribs and the other was breakfast, which was generous and good value though once again proving that many restaurants simply can’t do roast decent tomatoes. I’d be more likely to return if they cut down on the quantity and aim instead for quality, but then what do I know?