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17 February 2017

Meet the man standing up to Wetherspoon’s

Philip Thorley’s battle against the pub chain.

By Rohan Banerjee

Wetherspoon pubs, whether for their crazy carpets, curry club or bargain breakfasts and booze, are as much a staple of British culture these days as queuing or rain. While the Campaign for Real Ale reported in 2016 that almost four pubs in Britain were closing every day, the chain, headed by outspoken eurosceptic Tim Martin, continues to thrive with 917 outlets employing some 35,000 staff and a pre-tax profit of £66m for the year.

Still, as with any large business empire – see Starbucks or Sports Direct – Spoon’s pubs do not exist without resistance. Competitors rue being undercut, while plenty of people believe the conversion of churches and theatres to accommodate £2.70 pints to be in bad taste.

Small towns often struggle to cope with the presence of a Spoon’s pub and a great many local traders have feared their businesses being cannibalised. In June this year, Martin opens the 918th and largest pub in his company’s history in one such town, converting Ramsgate’s Pavilion – a former casino and dancehall. So what does this mean for the area’s existing bars and restaurants?

***

Philip Thorley is running late. In the meantime, I’m treated to a complimentary coffee and packet of crisps. McCoy’s, no less.

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When he does arrive, the barmaid tells me, we’ll do the interview upstairs because “that’s where he usually speaks to journalists”. The use of the word “usually” throws me a little, I must admit.  

Philip turns up soon after, in a gilet over a nice shirt and the type of jeans that could be passably worn with a blazer.  He’s in his early-50s, speaks quickly and confidently, oozing enough wide-boy chutzpah that I half-expect him to get a round in, even if it is only 11am.

He greets each of his bar staff personally and asks them how they are before turning his attention to me.

Philip – notably not Phil – is the operations director for Thorley Taverns, a 20-strong pub chain founded by his father Frank on the Isle of Thanet in 1975. The name Thorley carries with it a level of local celebrity and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone around here who hasn’t been to at least one of the family’s venues.

Four of those venues are in Ramsgate, all within a few minutes’ walk of the forthcoming Spoon’s behemoth. Philip smiles and shrugs.

Pausing briefly to shake hands with Brian – “Hello mate you alright?” – he begins. “So my father started the company nearly 50 years ago and from having cigarette machines in pubs, he got what was called an assignable tenancy and it’s grown. I joined him when I left school and we’ve now got 20 sites which are all within 20 minutes’ access from our head office in Broadstairs. We operate in many different areas of the pub industry. We’ve got hotels, pubs with rooms that you can hire out, gastro pubs, seafood restaurants and some late night venues too.”

What makes a pub a Thorley tavern, then? “Style, standards and service,” Philip reels off instinctively. “There’s nothing else that you can replicate across such a variety of pubs. No two venues are the same, no two drinks offerings are the same. They’re all aimed at different parts of the market. It’s the culture that ultimately makes it one of ours.”

He adds: “I like to use the phrase that we’re big enough to be professional but small enough to remain personal. I know all my team and all my team know me. We’ve got very small turnover for senior staff and we get the youngsters, the students, the part-timers coming back and working outside of term time in their holidays.”

Philip casts a wistful glance out onto Broadstairs promenade, overlooked by the Charles Dickens’s second floor dining area. “Lovely, isn’t it?”

Philip is from south London originally, but Thanet, which he dubs the “Mediterranean of Kent”, is very much his home. 

Indeed, the island, a political oddity in its largely working class populous but two safe Tory seats, fosters a weird sense of local pride; the explanation for which can probably be found somewhere between Stockholm syndrome and charming seaside views.  

When we talk about Spoon’s pending arrival, it’s Philip’s affection for the area that tempers his response. “To be honest with you, as a local resident as much as a local businessman, I would say that site has been sat empty for far too long. I actually welcome the fresh investment in the place and when people have come down here and thought ‘wow this is beautiful’ that old abandoned casino has been a scar on the landscape. It’s good someone’s finally doing something with it.”

Nevertheless, he’s not naïve. “Of course it’s going to present competition.” Is that a worry? “There’s always a risk of losing people. However, the natural scheme of things is that there has never been one venue which has been all things to all people, all day and all night.”

Thorley Taverns, Philip stresses, specialise in variety. On the risk of being undercut, he continues: “Look, if we feel that it would benefit our business to experiment with new deals then we might do that, but I don’t feel pressured into doing anything too reactive.”

What about young people, though? They’ll go where the drinks are cheapest, won’t they? “Young drinkers can be very fickle,” he concedes, but that’s not where Philip sees the bulk of his business. “Could I compare that with dining trade or bedroom trade? No. If you’ve stayed somewhere and you’ve enjoyed it, you’re less likely to move for the sake of a fiver.”

Are Thorley Taverns venues classier than a Spoon’s? Philip dodges expertly. “When you were at university, you might go to Spoon’s for a cheap pint. Now you don’t need to. It’s not the demographic; the world is not just made up of students and it’s not just made up of people who need a cheap pint. Thanet is on the up. Employment is improving. We’ve got a public that are looking to trade up at the weekends and enjoy themselves and have more expensive drinks. It’s not all the bottom end stuff. I know that we are a working class area, definitely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be aspirational.”

There have been plenty of instances of local traders around the country dreading the arrival of a Spoon’s pub in their area; but is the Thorley Taverns kingdom too big to crumble? “Look, I’m sure they’ve done their homework. So have we. If a big new Spoon’s pub attracts new people to the town then we’re going to want some of that as well. Should we need to make changes, then we will. We’ve been doing this a long time, so I’d say bring it on.”