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).
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.
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…
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…