The Caterer Interview: Tim Martin

17 November 2010 by
The Caterer Interview: Tim Martin

Tim Martin founded JD Wetherspoon in 1979 with just one pub. A little over 30 years later and he is now chairman of a company that manages about 1,000 sites. He tells Neil Gerrard what the future holds and how Government policy towards pubs, hotels and restaurants gets his goat…

You have a reputation for checking up on your pubs unannounced. How many do you visit in a year? I visited 18 in a week last month. Nine between Stoke and Manchester, four in central London and five in Cornwall. That's a little more than normal. It is probably 500-600 a year.

What do you look out for? What I aim to do is introduce myself to the staff. I just say: "I'm Tim, pleased to meet you." And I aim to make comments on the exterior of the building by standing across the road. Then I test the beer, so I have a sip of a real ale, order a cappuccino and make any observations about cleanliness, friendliness, temperature, atmosphere, the loos - you name it.

And do you feed that back to them there and then? I usually have a chat with the manager in charge then make a note of my observations. As a matter of fact I have my notes from Sunday and Monday right here. They go out to everyone at the head office.

And do you get recognised when you go in? Not if I am wearing my short skirt and high heels. Actually I often get recognised because we've got Wetherspoon News where I often have my photo, and also training videos where I do the introduction.

I once went into a Wetherspoons pub in Northern Ireland, in Derry, where my sister lives. She went to the bar after me to go and get something - we didn't go together. And the guy at the bar said: "See that guy over there, that's our chairman. And he looks exactly like Noddy Holder." He didn't realise he was talking to my sister. We were both fine about it and realised actually there's some truth in it!

How is the exercise bike going? Have you started riding it yet? Yes. It is quite disconcerting for some people. I stupidly rode it once while I was doing a radio interview and discovered that was a big mistake.

You recently made the decision to start opening at 7am. Why is the breakfast market so attractive? We started opening our pubs from 10am about 10 or 15 years ago. Then under the new licensing legislation we applied for our pubs to open from 9am and we started doing a cooked breakfast.

We noticed in a couple of McDonalds press releases that they were doing considerable breakfast trade and we also noticed that if you go to Australia or America there is quite a culture of going out for breakfast and it is a big percentage of some companies' trade, so we just decided to go for it and open at 7am.

You've said you want to invest £250m in 250 new pubs in the next five years. How is it progressing? We opened just under 50 last year in the year ending July. And we should do 50 this year. It will be a mixture of conversions or adaptations of existing pubs - more of those than normal. And conversions of unlicensed premises.

What makes a good site? A good Wetherspoons site is in or near the centre of town or a good location in a suburb. It is the old adage of plenty of chimney pots but also shoppers or workers or travellers or holiday makers, preferably with an outside area with a garden. And preferably over 2,000sq ft of customer area, so slightly above the average for a pub as a minimum. I would say at the moment there looks as if there is sufficient for the next five years.

You are aiming for about 1,500. How many is too many? 1,500 is roughly one per 40,000 of the population. So it doesn't sound too many.

What keeps you awake at night? My main concern is Government legislation. Pubs and restaurants in Britain pay about 40% of their sales in taxes of one type or another. Soon it will be 20% in VAT and rates and employment taxes will be another 10% at least.

I think that the catering and pub industry has let the Government think that the industry is a milch cow which you can tax ad infinitum. Oddly, a lot of operators believe that. They think if VAT goes up by 5% then it does for everyone, therefore we are all equal, therefore no problem. But in fact it is making pubs and restaurants very expensive to run compared to supermarkets where there is no VAT on food and the VAT per bottle of wine is vastly lower.

The only person who has made a decent argument about how absurd this is is a French guy of 84 called Jacques Borel. So it is France: 10 - the British catering industry: 0. Jacques Borel and his pals have reduced VAT in French restaurants and bars to 5%. So, I am afraid to say, like the car industry, the hotel and catering industry has got to watch out because it is run by people who haven't made any good arguments for keeping tax at reasonable levels.

What do you think of the Coalition Government so far? As regards the pubs and catering industry, they are dinner party-goers, not goer-outers. I am rather worried they look down on the masses like us who prefer to have a couple of pints of Abbott and eat at PizzaExpress on a Saturday, rather than going "rah rah" at dinner parties.

It matters because I think it makes them inclined to make sure there's no tax on dinner party food and there is high tax on pizza.

Do you have some friendly advice for other pub operators just starting out? Written on the wall of our office is a phrase from a Captain Beefheart song: "Keep on walking and don't look back". It is from a song called Yellow Brick Road. The subtext of it for me is that things go wrong all the time, so just keep on walking!

Your favourite drink?
Abbott Ale has been until recently but then the chief executive of Greene King, Rooney Anand, rather extraordinarily wrote an article in the Times against binge drinking and trying to persuade the Government to crack down on pubs. So my favourite pint of the moment is Leffe Blond and Doom Bar.

What do you drive?
I drive a six-year-old Volvo estate on the basis that I had a BMW for a while and people tried to break into it nine times. People only ever try to break out of Volvos. I would really love to say I drive a Skoda.

What do you do to relax? For my young and middle age years I played rugby and squash. Then I did my back in and I took up surfing again, which I did a lot when I was young.

JD Wetherspoon is named after one of Tim Martin's schoolteachers
â- Its 1,000 pubs serve 400,000 breakfasts a week and 600,000 coffees
â- Annual turnover stands at about £1b
â- Most pubs open at 7am for breakfast
â- Average turnover per pub is about £30,000 per week

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