The PubCo: Mitchells & Butlers

Apologies for my very lax updating of this journal (except for the ‘recently visited pubs’ sidebar, which I keep religiously up-to-date). Let’s talk about PubCos now. I had been intending for some time to write about this, but it’s a very confusing area to distill down to a short blog post like this one — complicated not just by legal changes but by constant mergers and acquisitions, renamings and rebrandings amongst the key players. As a case study, I’ll look at Mitchells & Butlers.1

The majority of drinkers are likely to have been into a Mitchells & Butlers establishment at some point in their drinking lives (however recently they may have started), but very few will be aware of it. Pubs tied to breweries (discussed in an earlier post) are recognisable to all (see fig. 7 in that post). Yet M&B, like many larger public-facing companies, tends to subsume its own corporate identity in a variety of brands specifically targeted to various consumer demographics, and if that sounds rather dull and lifeless then you’ll probably find their brands to be likewise. M&B own All Bar One, O’Neill’s, Nicholson’s, Ember Inns, Harvester and a variety of other outlets.

Corporate History

The company which currently exists under the Mitchells & Butlers name was essentially created by the Beer Orders of 19892 — before then, the M&B name hadn’t been in use since 1961, when the brewery founded in 1898 was acquired by Bass. The Beer Orders decreed a break-up of the large estates formerly tied to breweries, to create a new hegemony for ‘independent’ pub companies (PubCos).3 The incentives which were offered quickly saw a split between the brewing and the management operations within what had become known by that time as Bass Charrington,4 as the managing directors realised the greatest profit was to be had from the latter, and so the group split into Bass Brewers and Bass Taverns. While the former was eventually sold to global brewing conglomerate InBev, the latter renamed to Six Continents and then again to M&B in 2003, taking the company back to its original name, but in a vastly different guise.5

Managed Pubs vs Leasehold

M&B isn’t the largest PubCo — that honour falls to such companies as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns. Unlike them, however, all of its 2000 or so properties are managed, as opposed to Punch and Enterprise, who are largely leaseholders (though Punch has a managed division called Spirit Group, with over 1000 properties). A managed pub is one where the landlord is provided by the owner of the pub. As such, there tends to be a greater uniformity across managed pubs.

The Mitchells & Butlers Pub Brands

Certainly it can be difficult to tell apart any given pub within the named brands in M&B’s portfolio. A typical example of an O’Neill’s has a distinctive blue facade (fig. 23) and inside will have Caffreys and Guinness front and centre on the bar, but will otherwise efface the more distinctive elements of a real Irish pub (you won’t hear many sing-alongs to partisan songs as the evening wears on, for example).6

O'Neill's (Islington N1)
Figure 23. O’Neill’s (Islington N1).

Nicholson’s are probably the most popular of the bunch, as they are found in central locations and pitched squarely to tourists and after-work drinkers. You can’t move around far in the West End without hitting one of their distinctive pubs, embossed with gold lettering and ornate hanging signs, again featuring plenty of gold-leaf (fig. 24).7

The Porcupine (Covent Garden WC2)
Figure 24. The Porcupine (Covent Garden WC2).

The All Bar One outfit crops up all over London, and is distinguished by their hanging baskets above the windows, as well as (again) prominent golden lettering (fig. 25). These are more wine bars than pubs and focus on catering to city workers in prominent locations generally near tube stations and in commercial locations.8

All Bar One (Holborn WC2)
Figure 25. All Bar One (Holborn WC2).

Their other brands, such as Harvester (e.g., The Falcon, Falconwood SE9) or Ember Inns (e.g., The Railway, Hornchurch RM12), tend to be found more often in suburban areas or in the countryside, and so are less prominent in the London drinking environment.

However, whereas these pubs are marked by a distinctive brand and consistent design, Mitchells & Butlers — unlike, say, Punch Taverns’ Spirit Group9 — has a more fractured profile. Apart from the brands listed above, there are also unbranded M&B pubs. In a way this may be illusory, since the company retains some internal classifications: one style of unbranded pub, described as an “affluent residential-area pub”, is called Castle, for example [see update below]. In its corporate strategy, M&B states that they “strive to… respond to changing… consumer expectations by evolving [their] brands and formats”, and indeed many of their pubs have been refitted over the years. For example, a number of O’Neill’s in more aspirational areas have been repositioned to cater to an increasingly affluent customer base, as in the case of The White Hart (Crystal Palace SE19, fig. 26) or The Market Tavern (Mayfair W1).10

The White Hart (Crystal Palace SE19)
Figure 26. The White Hart (Crystal Palace SE19).

With the changes which have taken place in the social and financial landscape over the last few years (the smoking ban of 2007 and economic difficulties as a result of the so-called ‘credit crunch’), this kind of change will probably only continue to occur.

See also:
My photos of Mitchells & Butlers pubs that I know about, on Flickr (includes former M&B pubs, as well as closed ones).

UPDATE (March 2012)
The pubs I refer to in the entry as “Castle” unbranded pubs have since been labelled Metro Professionals by Mitchells and Butlers. This is undoubtedly an attempt at trying to focus what was always a vague aspirational grouping of largely disparate properties, though they all share the same drinks ranges and food menus.

[1] If any publicans or experts in this field are reading, please do use the comments to correct or clarify the no doubt manifold errors. It is not my intention to discuss the current financial situation or future prospects for M&B, nor to specifically criticise their brand (beyond a bit of low-key grumbling about corporate blandness).
[2] The Beer Orders were later revoked, removing the limit on pubs tied to breweries (a move that at the time essentially affected only Scottish & Newcastle’s managed pubs division, though they later divested a large number of their properties to the Spirit Group).
[3] Sadly, like many legislative changes, the new laws haven’t particularly helped pub landlords themselves, as publicans’ lobby groups such as Fair Pint will attest.
[4] When they acquired M&B in 1961 the group became known as Bass, Mitchells & Butlers, but renamed again in 1967, upon taking over the London brewer Charrington, to form the new company, finally dropping Mitchells & Butlers from their title.
[5] The information in this paragraph is largely sourced from the Mitchells & Butlers website.
[6] For more, see my set of O’Neill’s pubs on Flickr.
[7] For more, see my set of Nicholson’s pubs on Flickr.
[8] For more, see my set of All Bar One bars on Flickr.
[9] The Spirit Group has a consistent gold leaf design and lettering across most of its properties (The Goat Tavern, Kensington W8, provides a clear example of this).
[10] For more, see my set of Castle unbranded pubs on Flickr [or “Metro Professionals” pubs, see update].


2 responses to “The PubCo: Mitchells & Butlers

  1. So what do you think of the unbranded M&B pubs? I just figured out the other day that the Ranelagh in Bounds Green and the Crown on Clerkenwell Green are both numbered among these. I’ve been to both, prior to this discovery, and liked them both. I can see the similarities now, but it was only after I spotted menu duplication that I figured it out.

  2. I have nothing against them. As a drinker, I think they are fairly benign. It’s really their branded ones (particularly Harvester and O’Neill’s, less Ember Inns and Nicholson’s I have no strong opinion about) which I try to avoid.

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