EXCLUSIVE Q&A with... Tim Martin, Chairman of Wetherspoon

Foodservice News Editor, Becky Martin asks the founder and chairman of the Wetherspoon pub chain, Tim Martin, the major business questions of the moment, and then gets a little more personal.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. From becoming the founder of JD Wetherspoon in 1979 to heading up a company operating over 900 pubs, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen over these years in the industry?

The main changes for Wetherspoon are: opening hours are longer; expectations have risen; and food is served all day, not just lunch.

Pubs were traditionally run by couples living above the pub, working split shifts. Now it’s mostly single-person contracts, 40 hour weeks and 'straight' shifts.

There is far more competition from restaurants, coffee shops, cinemas and gyms. As Bob Dylan sang, 'things have changed'.

2. What are the main challenges currently facing your company and the pub industry as a whole?
One challenge is that the establishment has got a taste for lockdowns, which were never envisaged in their pre-Covid plans. It’s doubtful, as the Swedish example indicates, that there have been overall health benefits. Lockdowns and restrictions are kryptonite for entire sectors of the economy, including pubs.

The second challenge is the tax system. Pubs should not pay VAT on food sales, when supermarkets don’t. Tax inequality is unsustainable and undesirable.

3. Are you seeing any side effects yet from Putin’s war on Ukraine in terms of supply or costs, and can these issues be mitigated in some way?
There is horrendous pressure on costs, as we all know. You can mitigate costs a bit - but deeply embedded inflation, which we seem to have today, is impossible to mitigate.

4. You’re known for voicing strong opinions when it comes to political issues and how they affect your business and the pub sector. What are your current bugbears?
The anti-hospitality tax system and the tendency of the current government to shoot from the hip during the pandemic - moonshots, no standing, substantial meals, curfews and many other absurd initiatives which had no basis in science, did not improve health outcomes, but which devastated the economy.

The cost of the 'wrong moves' is being repaid in high inflation and higher taxes. We need more business experience and common sense in government. Dream on, as they say.

5. With such a wealth of knowledge, what is your advice to anyone thinking of going into the pub industry?
Start on the shop floor. The experience is invaluable. You’ll quickly get a good idea if it’s your scene.

6. What plans do you have for Wetherspoon in the coming year and beyond – more focus on restaurants or/and hotels expansion or revamps – where do you think the main area for growth will be?
We’ve always proceeded on the basis of trying to make small weekly improvements to the business. Glass racks over the bar, better T-bars, improved kitchen equipment, better terms for employees - the aggregation of small gains over the years is the key to success.

[I couldn't help but put an extra question to Tim - so much to ask!]
7. What are your hopes for the pub industry by the end of this year and in the next 5 years?
Tax equality, low rents and interest rates - and common sense in government. Asking a lot, I know.


THE GET-TO-KNOW-YOU QUESTIONS

1. What do you do to wind down after a busy day?

I try and walk for at least half an hour to chill out. Then two or three pints in a groovy pub, reading the paper.

2. What is your favourite on-the-go snack, lunch, and beverage in the week?
Today, on day three of a tour of Wetherspoon pubs, for example, an all-day brunch at midday, two pints of Abbot after work - and a glass or two of Merlot. Pure bliss.

3. What’s your most loved restaurant or café and pub or bar (not a Wetherspoons!)?
Comparisons are unfair, since I love all pubs but: I’ve had some excellent pints in Young’s Leather Bottle in Earlsfield, London, recently. I often drink a pint of Tribute in St Austell pubs down south, for example at the Oyster Catcher in Polzeath. Last night I went to MemSaab in Nottingham, after work, possibly the UK’s best Indian restaurant.

4. Beyond your laptop and phone, what items are you never without during the week?
My notebook for writing down ideas or critiques from staff or customers.

5. What book or/and TV/Netflix etc programme currently has you gripped?
The Last Dance - a fabulous Michael Jordan epic. [Editor Becky couldn't agree more! You don't even have to be a basketball fan to love this.]

6. What have you learnt most about yourself and what do you see as your greatest achievements in the last year?
Above all, in life, you need luck. In the pub industry you’ve needed luck, plus some resilience, to survive in the last year.

Thank you, Tim! Terrific to get these insights from one of hospitality's most influencial bosses.