Why smaller British pubs are hitting the big time

A resurgence in smaller bars and pubs across the country reflects a broader cultural shift.

February 06, 2020

Britain’s renowned pub culture built its reputation on consistency: traditional dishes like fish and chips and a smattering of familiar ales and lagers could be expected at almost any establishment, anywhere in the country.

But increasingly, pubs are all about individuality.

New artisan bars and micro-breweries are cropping-up nationwide, often linked to the UK’s growing number of independent beer and spirit producers. The resurgence last year helped push the total number of pubs and bars in the UK higher for the first time in a decade, with 315 added to reach 39,130, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

Demand for uniqueness in the UK mirrors the cultural push away from the mainstream happening across the world. Social media is a big driver, with purveyors of food and drink using online platforms to generate a buzz and stand out, rather than needing a prime space in the centre of town.

“Social media means you can host bars or small pubs in unusual or more out-of-the way locations and still build a following and get people through the doors, whether for special events like gin sampling or live music, or to simply enjoy a night out,” says Richard Moulds, JLL UK Director Foodservice Consulting.

Small venues on the rise

For patrons, it’s all about being in the know: discovering a small bar tucked away on a side street or another hip locale – like the Neon Raptor Brewing Company in Nottingham’s Sneinton Market – and then sharing posts of the evening on social media.

The more interesting the space, the better. A pie-and-mash shop in Walthamstow, London, is transformed into The Jellied Eel, a pop-up bar selling cocktails and croquettes on Friday and Saturday nights. In Edinburgh, the Wee Pub is housed in a tiny room which only has space for 20 regulars.

Notably, food is a big part of this.

“These artisan bars are often tied to micro-breweries, so customers are attracted by the beers on offer and the opportunity to catch-up with friends, but there’s definitely opportunities for food,” says Moulds. “Whether that’s offering customers hot bar snacks alongside craft beers, teaming up with local producers to offer one-off dining experiences like curry nights or serving-up tapas.”

All-day opening

Gone are the days when pubs were simply a place to go for a drink. Today it’s all about being part of a community, and offering a dining experience that reflects local needs, whether that’s opening-up to serve breakfast, offering high-quality coffee, cakes and sandwiches during the daytime, being dog-friendly or a designated drop-off point for parcel deliveries.

Some artisan bars offer live music or put on hot snacks like cheese toasties or specialty pies, to appeal to evening drinkers, while others, like Vintage Inns, are expanding their vegan menus.

Operator Lounge creates pubs that reflect the local communities they serve. Whether that’s putting on drink promotions, hosting Sunday brunches for families or offering games and colouring books to keep younger visitors amused.

“People want to feel they are part of a community and pubs have a real role to play in this,” says Moulds. “It’s not just towns and villages where we are seeing this trend. It’s also happening in cities where small bars are becoming a key ingredient in city centre mixed-use developments, offering office workers a place to grab lunch, or catch-up after work.”

Designing for rising demand

With more people concerned about their carbon footprints, using sustainable materials like using recycled wood to create tables, or old beer kegs as seating, are gaining traction, too.

“On the whole, the fit-out that’s on-trend at the moment tends to be very organic,” Moulds says. “A lot of wood, exposed brickwork and the use of recycled materials – which also ties into people’s desire to lead more sustainable lifestyles and waste less.”

“Savvy operators realise many of today’s customers want unique spaces firmly anchored in their communities. Get the offer right, then the customers will follow,” he says.