Late one evening last March, Tim Martin, founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon Plc, Britain’s highest-profile pub chain, descended to his basement to record a video message for his staff of 43,000. It had been a bad week. Cases of the novel coronavirus were surging across the U.K., racing far ahead of the National Health Service’s ability to cope. Desperate to stop the spread, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government had ordered all bars to close. The decision was without precedent; Britain’s pubs stayed open even during the Blitz.
In the grainy video, recorded on a phone camera, Martin did his best to sound reassuring. “I’m very sorry about the situation that has occurred with our pubs,” he said, clutching a mug of tea decorated with what looked like woodland sprites. “It puts everyone in a very difficult position, and I know you’re all sitting there wondering what the hell is happening.” What he said next wouldn’t exactly put Wetherspoons employees at ease. There was “no money coming through the tills,” and government checks that would temporarily cover as much as 80% of wages for furloughed workers weren’t yet in the mail: “They’ll probably be pretty slow-paying it, so there may be some delays, for which I apologize.” For those who “didn’t want to wait around,” he continued, “we’ll give you first preference if you want to come back.” There were jobs available at supermarkets, he noted. “Deeply appreciate your work,” he signed off. “Best of luck!”
The national reaction was furious. “Tim Martin tells his 40,000 staff to go to work at Tesco,” read a typical headline. Ninety members of Parliament signed an open letter denouncing the company, which had revenue of £1.8 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2019, and demanding that Martin guarantee wages. In responding to the uproar, he and Wetherspoons were adamant that they’d never said workers wouldn’t be paid, and they rapidly announced that 80% of all salaries would be covered, in line with the government’s furlough scheme. But whatever their original intentions, the damage was done. Once-loyal customers declared on radio call-in shows that they’d never return. When pubs reopened in early July, some drinkers relied on an app called Neverspoons to direct them to independent establishments instead. It was downloaded 18,000 times the first week it was available.
In many towns, avoiding Wetherspoons is no easy feat. Since it was established in 1979, its core competence has been expansion, even as the overall number of pubs in the U.K. has declined sharply. Virtually no town center or city neighborhood is without at least one Wetherspoons, with nearly 900 spread across the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. They often occupy some of the finest buildings around—fin de siècle opera houses, art deco cinemas, old winter gardens, and towering Georgian corn exchanges, all repurposed to sell beer for as little as £1.29 a pint. They also manage to accommodate everyone, playing host to drunken students while remaining places you might take your grandmother for tea. They’re loved and loathed, sometimes by the same people, at once a national treasure and an embarrassment. Wetherspoons is so ubiquitous that, after pro-European Union campaigners vowed to stay away in protest of Martin’s advocacy for Brexit, the humor site the Daily Mash called it “impossible to boycott.”
Things have been dire for Wetherspoons since the uproar over the video, though. In October the company reported a £105 million pretax loss, its first time in the red since 1984. Even after the reopening, it said, sales were 15% lower than a year earlier. Then came another burst of Covid- 19 cases and a second national lockdown, which gave way to a dense thicket of new regulations. By November, most of Northern England was at Tier 3, the highest level of Covid precautions, requiring pubs to close. By mid-December, London and large swaths of the southeast were there, too. On Jan. 5 came a third national lockdown.
The latest wave of closures represents an existential threat to the entire British pub trade, which is thought to contribute more than £23 billion to the economy each year and more than £12 billion in tax revenue. And while vaccines, which the U.K. has been distributing more rapidly than almost any other country, promise to end the acute phase of the pandemic, Covid’s potential long-term effects—fewer office workers to fill pubs at day’s end, for example—could create a world considerably less hospitable to a business that can’t move its relationship with customers online.
Over its 40-year history, Wetherspoons has become an avatar for a low-wage, low-cost economy, sacrificing worker pay for affordable prices and leveraging its scale to beat out smaller competitors. Now the chain finds itself standing alongside its rivals in a new position: unsure about what political leaders will do next to control a virus that’s changing form and still spreading rapidly; about what the exit from the common market will mean in practice; and, above all, about who will bear the cost.
For much of the postwar era, Britain’s pub industry was dominated by a group of brewers known as the Big Six. Their network of company-owned pubs stretched across the country, selling predictable beer churned out at vast factories. Their executives spoke with plummy, upper-class accents and dressed in neat, prim suits. Their enterprises were little loved, despite periodic attempts at quirky, themed redesigns, but their grip on the industry seemed unbreakable.
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