JD Wetherspoon look to sweep the board in Edinburgh

Posted by on Sep 30, 2014 in Pubs | 13 Comments

The St John’s Church on Victoria Street, with the door of Finnegan’s Wake lower left, Liquid Rooms lower right

There’s a fantastic old article in the Onion, America’s masterful online mouthpiece, about Starbucks opening a new branch, in the toilets of an existing Starbucks. Written in 1998 – which certainly makes both me and the Onion seem old – the piece has that particular thing that all great satire has; a certain element of truth. Well, maybe not truth, exactly, but whilst it won’t ever happen, it doesn’t seem entirely beyond the realms of possibility. It’s along similar lines, for instance, as one of the UK’s largest pub chains opening a new outlet directly on top of an existing pub, four doors up from a third, whilst simultaneously proposing three other outlets in a city. Except, that might actually be about to come true.

JD Wetherspoon have lodged a planning application with the City of Edinburgh Council to develop the long-abandoned St John’s Church on Victoria Street into one of their pubs. The site, which previously housed Khushi’s Indian restaurant, has been empty since 2008*, when a fire there caused the business to relocate. On the ground floor of the building – and still trading – is Finnegan’s Wake, and underneath in the basement is the Liquid Rooms venue. ‘Spoons have entered a plan to restore and convert the first and second floors of the building, with a glazed entrance lobby leading to a restored connecting staircase and lift area. At the top, a third-floor roof terrace will be constructed to give views over the city to the south. As with most Wetherspoons’ pubs, it could be open from 7am every day; closing at 12:30am (1:30am Thursday-Saturday).

*Aside from Bar.Bados, a festival popup that was there in August, that is

Considered on its own, this is a fairly huge development for the centre of Edinburgh. Except, the thing is, it’s far from being a lone concern. At the same time, planning applications are also being considered for three other new Wetherspoons’ in Edinburgh – the conversion of the Caley/HMV Picturehouse on Lothian Road, the renovation of the old Empire Bingo Hall on Nicholson Street, and an attempt has also been lodged to turn Jimmy Chung’s on Waverley Bridge into one of their pubs. If all were to be successful and have planning consent granted, the number of Wetherspoons’ in Edinburgh would increase from five to nine (and eleven if you include the two at Edinburgh Airport, although they are fairly distinct entities).

Jimmy Chung’s on Waverley Bridge, which is still trading

This flurry of paperwork to the City Chambers raises a number of questions, the most obvious of which being; does Edinburgh need more pubs, and, if so, does it need more Wetherspoons? This is an interesting metric, as these things aren’t mutually exclusive, by any means. It’s difficult to criticise the chain without sounding like a gigantic beer snob – they certainly sell a lot of cask ale, and take great pride in having more entries in the Good Beer Guide than any other pub company. As a whole, their estate runs to over 900 premises in the UK, with sixty-four in Scotland (a figure which combines JDW and Lloyds No1 bars). 64 sounds a lot when you think of it as a standalone number – yet those pubs north of the border account for just 7% of their national portfolio.

Spoons’ success is down to a highly-specific, rigidly-applied formula. Rotate a bountiful selection of competitively-priced cask ale, but lead with food – particularly their curry club, and food in the mornings (JDW’s own figures state they sell over 450,000 breakfasts each week – a figure reached thanks to a 40% increase when opening hours were pushed back from 9 to 7am). No music in their buildings, at all. Cosy up to the Campaign for Real Ale, which helps with the Good Beer Guide judging (members are given sheaves of vouchers annually for discounted beer in Wetherspoons’). Look to acquire – in some cases, saving – buildings of character, incorporating their well-lit, multi-tabled interior with every refurbishment. Price everything as reasonably as possible, and streamline delivery at point of sale.

JD Wetherspoon are popular precisely because of this formula; they are familiar and yet flexible – many give unlimited coffee refills during the day, for example, and serve food until 11pm. It encourages people to come back. Like my Dad, for instance, who used to hold occasional meetings in the large ‘Spoons in my hometown. Back then, pre-smoking ban, he’d sit as far from the bar as he could get, in front of a large bookcase, complete with yellowing leather-bound hardbacks, installed for ornamental value. My Dad started reading one of them, one day; and then before every subsequent meeting he’d turn up and carry on with the book, eventually leaving a bookmark in place; it’s probably still there.

The St John’s Church (left) looking down Victoria St; the Bow Bar is four doors down, the blue frontage with the people standing outside

At the time of writing, JDW’s application to convert Khushi’s has garnered 107 comments (it can be found on Edinburgh Council’s Planning and Building Standards Portal, under reference number 14/03524/FUL). Until the decision has been made, all are hidden from public view, only the names of those who submitted something are displayed. So whilst there’s no way of knowing for sure what public opinion is, given the high-regard in which people hold Victoria Street, and the number of comments that have come in, I’d be surprised if there weren’t a significant number expressing concern with the plan. In a city that generally likes to keep things just as they are, that one particular cobbled curve embraces individuality, with numerous small shops standing shoulder to shoulder from the George IV Bridge down to the Grassmarket.

What impact will a three-level JD Wetherspoon have on these businesses? Would it drive extra custom to Victoria Street, or cause it to be swamped? How will the other local pubs fare if the scheme is given the green light? The Bow Bar – long considered one of Edinburgh’s best pubs, and not fifty yards down the road – are openly against the idea, as you’d expect. These kinds of large pub developments do get pushed back, sometimes, if public sentiment rises high enough; the 910-capacity Waxy O’Connor’s ‘superpub’ that would have replaced the Charlotte Baptist Chapel was refused planning permission back in December, due to noise issues raised by residents of Rose Street. If the numerous small businesses on Victoria Street come together, something similar may be achieved.

But, here’s the thing. Maybe JD Wetherspoon are expecting this. With five pubs here already, they know the Edinburgh market. They may be a large-mouthed fish on the seabed, primed to hoover in custom; but they also know how many lures to flick out to attract attention. The proposals for Khushi’s and Waverley Bridge were submitted on the same day, so having four applications in front of the Council could be a smart tactic; a sort of ‘co-ordinated scatter’ approach. It could be they don’t intend for them all to succeed. Load the decks, and if you end up with one or two at the end of the long-winded process on multiple fronts, then it’s not a bad result. If that’s the case, it could well come down to which application is shouted about the most (or least, depending on your point of view).

The Planning Application references for the Wetherspoons’ developments are as follows – St John’s Church 9 Victoria Street 14/03524/FUL (lodged 01/09/14), Jimmy Chung’s on Waverly Bridge 14/03514/FUL (lodged 01/09/14), HMV Picture House on Lothian Rd 14/02936/FUL (lodged 21/07/14), Empire Bingo hall on Nicholson St 14/01864/FUL (lodged 13/05/14). JDW’s own figures state each of these pubs, if successfully approved, would create 40 new jobs.

Yesterday, it came to light that from 1st October, all Wetherspoons will be stocking such ‘craft’ beers as Lagunitas IPA, BrewDog Punk IPA and This. Is. Lager [the latter on an exclusive basis, outwith BrewDog’s own bars], Rogue Amber Ale, Devils’ Backbone IPA, and Brooklyn Lager (to name a few). Clearly, they are adding a different weapon to their arsenal. But in how many Edinburgh pubs will these beers be offered? That’s down to the Council…

UPDATE 17/12/14
The Edinburgh City Council planning authorities announced this afternoon that the JD Wetherspoon proposal for Victoria Street has been rejected, on grounds of noise and disturbance to residents and lack of maintaining character of the church building. With the Empire Bingo Hall on Nicholson Street already turned down, JDW are currently 0-2. Although, amended applications are in for the other two sites…


  1. Chris
    September 30, 2014

    It’s not really about planning permission, it’s a licensing issue. They’ll more than likely get planning for buildings that are empty.
    That Kushis venue however has never had a license and is in an over provisioned area, the Picture House is also in the red zone… In fact, they’re all in the red zone.

    The council have said ‘no new licenses’ in these areas.

    They’ll get one of them. My bet would be the one at the station.

  2. The Beer Nut
    September 30, 2014

    It’s a bit of a risky business to buy first-string commercial properties like these in the knowledge that there’s a strong chance you won’t be able to use them. I’d be surprised if JDW had the casual capital to throw around like that. They’re certainly being a lot more circumspect with their expansion in Ireland.

  3. Richard
    September 30, 2014

    Chris, that’s really interesting; I walked along to Waverley Bridge to take that photo, thinking I’d find it suddenly boarded up (like the HMV Picturehouse, which was ‘secured’ fairly rapidly after changing hands). But not only is it still trading, at 5:30 last night it was pretty busy. people knocking back Chinese food in the windows. I also found the Empire Bingo Hall is actually up for sale (offers over £450,000)

  4. The50FTQueenie
    September 30, 2014

    I think of ‘Spoons now as identi-kit travel cafes. Despite the different venues they are taking over around the country, the offer – the food, the tableware and the ambience is the same no matter where you go. Yes it’s efficient, it’s cheap and occasionally welcome (if you’re stuck at the airport before 7am for example). But their rapid expansion will ultimately be their downfall as people wake up to the fact they are not ‘pubs’, they are in fact greasy spoon caffs with a slightly better beer offer.

    But this is just another chain company eating up and taking over premises all over. They contribute to the closure of many local pubs (in Dalkeith and Galashiels for example) as they can’t compete against their buying power.

    As for the beer? Well most of the offers are limited in turnover, except in their busiest of premises. In my experience the cask beer is not always fully available, not well kept and usually leans heavily towards English brewers who can supply bulk at discount rates.

    I filled out a survey for CAMRA last night, where they are obviously starting to question their voucher tie in with ‘Spoons for members. For what it’s worth, I’ve hardly used any of my discount vouchers in the last year…

  5. Barm
    September 30, 2014

    If I were the Bow Bar I’d also probably prefer JDW not to open next door, but I wouldn’t be too worried if it did. The State Bar in Glasgow is directly across the street from a JDW and doesn’t seem to be suffering. It does a roaring trade and has just been voted CAMRA Glasgow Pub of the Year for the second time inside three years. Great pubs like the Bow can compete with Wetherspoons.

  6. Tom Hogg
    September 30, 2014

    I’m with Chris. It’s a licensing issue, so if you want to reduce their impact, find out who’s on the licensing board and lobby them, not the planning committee. Long term, the answer is to get organised. For example, if the Victoria Street owners and traders (and I include landlords and tenants in that) want to stop the street from dumbing down (there has to be a risk of tartan tat shops appearing as well) then they need to be able to get the public on side, appoint planning and licensing consultants of their own and come up with their own proposals for running the street.

  7. Chris
    October 1, 2014

    You don’t need to own something to put a planning application in. You don’t even need to be leasing it. They’ll have spent, in relative terms, bugger all in checking out each venue and submitting planning. To them dropping £50k across 4 sites circumspect to seeing if they can open one of them is a drop in the ocean. They won’t get licensing for Victoria St, I’m pretty confident of that, and I think Lothian Road is unlikely, given that it’s tidied itself up a bit. South Clerk Street more likely, the station is far more likely. Which of course means I’m guaranteed to be wrong.

  8. The Beer Nut
    October 1, 2014

    Thanks for the clarification, Chris. That’s really odd. Having your plans publicly available before purchase would give the vendor a massive advantage in the price negotiations, but then perhaps money is no object.

  9. JimD
    October 1, 2014

    Richard, excellent blog, but I take great exception to your statement, “Cosy up to the Campaign for Real Ale, which helps with the Good Beer Guide judging”. So, how many JDW pubs are there in Edinburgh? 5. How many are in the 2015 GBG? Check and see.

  10. Richard
    October 1, 2014

    Thanks Jim; my point was on a national scale, as JDW state they have more GBG entries than any other pub company. I imagine this is, in part, down to towns where there is very little real ale available other than in the local Wetherspoon, so those pubs receive (deservedly, of course) more votes when it comes to GBG time. In terms of Edinburgh, we are lucky due to the huge number of real ale outlets in the city, so I’d guess JDW outlets have a lot more competition in that regard, when it comes to the judging.

  11. Neil
    October 2, 2014

    Jeez……..One thing I hate is snobbery of any kind and that’s what is clearly on display here………..phrases like “their impact”, craft in exclamation marks etc etc….what is the problem? a mass market brand expands and at the same time attempts to give customers more choice with options that are actually pretty good …..the worst thing about the current beer trend is its like music films etc “i loved their first album but now they are popular …….” “his early indy films were amazing but since he went studio….” this post is likely to be shot down in flames but as u drink a single bottle of 14% imperial stout or like a total div give 50 sheets for a 60 odd % beer….just think…. it is best when all is good, just enjoy great beer and hope all do likewise

  12. Richard
    October 3, 2014

    Hi Neil, thanks for the comment. I never actually said that I didn’t like Wetherspoons – they have their place in the grand scheme of pub life. What I was writing about is how many places they have, and what they might do to that grand scheme.

    I tend to write ‘craft’ or ‘craft beer’ just because it doesn’t have a definition here (unlike the US), so is used to mean almost anything. Oh, and I’ve only ever paid 50 sheets for a 60% beer once – and yes, I really did feel a total div… 😉

  13. GhostDoggyWoofWoof
    January 13, 2016

    Don’t often drink in their pubs (unless in Glasgow) but don’t really see the problem with them taking over upper floors of the “Preservation Hall” as I remember it. Likewise with jimmy Chung’s at Waverly (which is now closed so I suspect they have won that battle). The Picture House on the other hand, was and could be a great live music venue and it would be great if they failed in that particular venture and it could be brought back to life as a music venue. But they have probably won that one too.

    Good news that they are stocking craft beer tho. Although with Lagunitas half owned by Heineken are they craft 😉

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