Gemma Rowbotham visits the Wellington in Birmingham; an award-winning pub that's renowned for stocking traditional ales but makes use of the latest technology to inform customers of its regularly updated range
Need to know When publican Nigel Barker moved to Birmingham in 1995 he couldn't understand why there were no real ale pubs in the centre of the city. Ten years later, when the managing director of Black Country Traditional Inns found the Wellington's premises empty, he was finally able to rectify the problem.
Barker and business partner David Moorhouse concentrated on the refurbishment by making it look more like a pub and giving it back its old name. "We opened up on day one with 10 hand-pulls, which nobody had ever seen in Birmingham," says Barker.
Growth Within three months of opening, the bar was extended and another five hand-pulls put in to meet the demand. Now there are 17 different ales and 80% of the entire trade is traditional beer. There is on average eight new varieties of real ale each day.
Barker and Moorhouse did not need to concentrate on promotion because the Wellington was branded from day one as a specialist real ale pub and word of mouth spread all over the country. "We don't really do a lot of marketing because what we do is not something the big boys have been very successful at," explains Barker. His plans for the future are simple: "For the time being, we simply want to maintain the high standards, quality and choice of beer."
Target audience At first, Barker and Moorhouse had no idea how successful the Wellington would be and even considered closing it on a Sunday. The pub is located right in the middle of the business district and they thought it would only be busy during the week.
Instead, it has become a popular local in the middle of a big city. "We get pensioners in the morning relaxing over the crossword, the business trade at lunchtime and the real ale aficionados from all over the West Midlands. It's a real mixture, which always makes for a good pub," Barker says.
In addition to this, the pub is only five minutes' walk from New Street Station, a major interchange on the railways. Most real ale drinkers with half-an-hour to spare will stop by for a quick pint.
How we stand out One of the reasons the Wellington is so popular is the "bring your own" food policy it operates. Barker explains: "On Saturday afternoons retired gentlemen will set out a picnic, students will order pizzas for delivery and businessmen will come in with sandwiches from the deli next door.
"It works well for us because we can concentrate on looking after the beer, and people love the idea because it's cheaper than eating out. That, combined with an excellent range of well-kept real ales, is all a lot of people want."
Favourite supplier Barker has two favourite suppliers, Wye Valley Brewery in Herefordshire and Oakham brewery in Peterborough. "They brew excellent beers - modern, hoppy and golden, for which there's a huge market now. A lot of lager drinkers are switching to these ales but a lot of pubs are sticking with the old-fashioned brown beers, which people are tiring of. We sell a traditional product but are keeping ahead of the modern market and the beers from those two breweries just fly out in vast quantities," he says.
Best business advice The best advice that Barker could give would be to be different: "There are so many people copying each other and nobody is coming up with anything new at all.
"We don't operate as though we are part of a small company; the way we operate is like a free house would. I have the complete freedom to buy any beers that I want and along with our electronic beer board and ‘bring your own' policy, we don't sell national brands such as Carling or Guinness."
Spotlight on the beer board
With the number of beers changing each day, keeping customers up to date posed a problem. Barker came up with the idea of using an electronic beer board and Moorhouse, who studied computing at university, programmed it.
Two plasma TVs on the wall show all the beers, pump numbers, prices and colour codes. "It's live on the website so every time a beer is changed you can see it online," Moorhouse explains. "Every time we change a beer it tweets so that our followers on twitter are kept up to date. It also tells us roughly what price to sell it at and is linked up to our stock-taker. Even though we are a traditional pub we do use modern technology."
The board has been such a success that it has inspired other pubs to do the same. "The Babington in Derby [a Wetherspoon's] asked us if they could use the idea and they've done it very well, although it isn't as sophisticated as ours. Ours also indicates which beers are brewed locally and we have the Camra local ale symbol on there, which is another selling point, because people are so interested in local providence these days," he says.
nigel barker's Revelations
Favourite hotel Hotel du Vin, Birmingham
Favourite restaurant Edmunds Fine Dining, Birmingham
Which book has inspired you? Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island
Motto Tantum bibendum parum temporis ("So much to drink, so little time")
If you weren't a publican, what would you have been? A journalist
Which publican do you most admire? Annie Walker (from Coronation Street)
Describe your business in five words Forward looking, traditional yet modern
Facts and stats
Owner Black Country Traditional Inns
General manager Nigel Barker
Number of staff 15
People per week 2,000
Average spend £7