Chalking up success

05 June, 2017

I’ve always been amused by old pubs, bars and restaurants which have the words ‘fine ale, wine and spirits’ or similar painted on their wall or written across their window.

Do people really stop and say: “Oh look, they have fine spirits there. We really must pop in.”? Or eye a pub without such wording suspiciously and say: “Well, it looks nice, but there’s no indication that its ale is fine, so let’s give it a miss.”?

I think it’s a reassurance thing and, back in the day, perhaps such words represented some unofficial marque or badge of quality, as much a fixture as the pub or bar name.

Today’s equivalent is the external chalk board – and a subtle change has taken place in the past couple of years. The chalk board came to prominence to promote food in the days when pub food wasn’t a given. Twenty years ago a boozer offering more than a stale ham roll and a bag of nuts needed to shout about it. Since then pubs and bars have advertised their food offering and the fact that children are allowed through the door.

But these days people assume that food will be on offer, though they might have to do some digging to find out if they can eat after 3pm.

So the chalk board has evolved. For a long time it was used to advertise live music, pub festivals and quiz nights. Now, though, it has a new role.

We spent a pleasant Saturday recently driving along the coast of north Norfolk on England’s east coast. The drive takes you through a mix of tacky holiday resorts such as Great Yarmouth and Hunstanton, through old Victorian resorts such as Cromer, and past pretty playgrounds for the rich such as Wells, Cley and Holkham.

It’s a wonderful place to visit, a perfect mix of beaches, quaint villages, and natural beauty. Until recently, though, its hospitality offering left much wanting. The pubs tended to be tacky and run down, or bordering on high-class restaurant status.

Not any more. The pubs along the 20 or 30 miles we travelled are fiercely competitive – and they’re fighting their battles on their chalkboards.

Not with food, either. It’s craft spirits that licensees  are using to state their offerings. “We love craft gin,” said one, and another highlighted its range of local gin. Yet another, which we didn’t stop at, claimed it had the region’s best selection of single malts. The highly impressive Jolly Sailors at Brancaster made a virtue of its impressive range of rums.

I have long felt that the craft revolution would provide even the smallest outlets with the opportunity of offering a new unique selling point. If north Norfolk is anything to go by, pubs and bars have jumped at the chance.

So do people decide to visit a pub because it has 30 different rums? Probably not, says the Jolly Sailors. Being dog-friendly and having a smokehouse, nice garden and home-made pizzas are bigger draws. But the impressive range of rums helps mould customer perception in a positive way.

“It represents quality,” says the pub.

Very much like the fine ales, wines and spirits signs of old, in fact.

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