The pub chain is now the fifth-most-popular breakfast destination in the UK. What’s the attraction? We shared a fry-up with early-morning customers in one of the chain’s Lincolnshire boozers
It’s market day in Boston, Lincolnshire, and Wetherspoon pub The Moon Under Water is filling up. But most aren’t in here for a pint: they want eggs and coffee, bacon, bagels, and juice.
Despite its reputation as a chain at the coalface of boozed-up Britain, JD Wetherspoon is fighting for pre-eminence in the morning market. Not content with its existing roles as pub of choice for Generation Preload, mid-week curry house, and makeshift community centre, JD Wetherspoon is looking to corner the breakfast market, with price cuts (a traditional breakfast will have 40p shaved off its price, while coffee with free refills is dropping from £1.15 to 99p) and an expanded morning menu.
In Boston, diners look out at the queue growing outside the butchers over the road. Children play as families wait while their hash browns and eggs are fried. There is the odd pint here and there, but, it being a little past 9am, the majority are nursing coffees.
Brian and Alan, both engineers at the local hospital, have just finished their fry-ups. The two friends first started coming to The Moon Under Water eight years ago, after the husband-and-wife owners of their previous breakfast spot of choice started arguing in front of the customers. What do they like about it?
“Value! And it’s clean,” says Brian. Like many Wetherspoon establishments, the building that houses The Moon Under Water has seen many guises: “This place has been a bar, a hairdresser, a restaurant.”
Another couple of friends, Carol and Sue, have both finished a fry-up too. It’s market day and they have come in as a break from the Saturday morning shop. Carol likes the family aspect of the pub: “I sometimes bring the grandchildren here for a meal,” she says. “It’s good quality, and I think it has got a lot better [in recent years].”
The success of Wetherspoon is down to the British obsession with a bargain. Ask anyone why they go to these pubs and they’ll mention two things: affordability and reliability.
Just as Steve Jobs seemed a perfect figurehead for Apple, so too is businessman and mullet wearer Tim Martin a perfect fit as the founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon. He’s a bloke who looks like he could be standing beside you in the queue for the bar, not talking to shareholders from his yacht.
But if Wetherspoon is to budget food and drink to what Apple is to cutting-edge tech with chamfered edges, its evangelists aren’t nearly so sycophantic. Though Alan says Wetherspoon is “brilliant”, he thinks the introduction of condiments served in bottles rather than sachets was a mistake. “To have that on the table, looks a bit of a mess, like a greasy spoon or something.”
Husband and wife Sue and Paul had a light breakfast of toast and jam (Sue) and a vegetarian breakfast wrap (Paul). They like Wetherspoon, even though the porridge and bagels are half the price in McDonald’s (but the “porridge can be hit and miss,” says Sue). And Dave says the washing up sometimes leaves a little to be desired, mentioning a lipstick-stained coffee cup that he sent back recently. But they forgive these smaller issues for the bigger picture; as I greet them they are thumbing through the Wetherspoon magazine, admiring the opulence of Harrogate Wetherspoon, the Winter Gardens, housed in a former Royal Bath building.
Sue and Paul used to travel for a living. “It used to be only McDonald’s that used to be open early in the morning or late at night, but now if we are travelling we tend to head for a Wetherspoon’s.”
The growing popularity of Wetherspoon as a breakfast destination does have health implications – particularly in Boston, which became known for its obesity problem in 2006. The large breakfast here comes in at 1,467 calories, while the traditional is a still substantial 892 calories. The calories are published on the menu.
Boston’s The Moon Under Water is one of a handful of Wetherspoons named after George Orwell’s fictional vision of a perfect pub, and the chain’s lack of music does adhere to Orwell’s dictum that such an establishment should contain “neither a radio nor a piano”. The quiet suits this time of the morning.
But anyone who has spent a sticky-tabled evening in the company of jugs of blue booze knows that Orwell’s desire for a place in which “drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way” is less successful the later it gets in the day – and Orwell surely would not have approved of its habit of hiring people on zero-hours contracts.
The chain is now the nation’s fifth-most-popular place to have breakfast. Its accessibility in terms of price makes the march of ’Spoons’ seem inevitable, particularly in a world in which public space is ever-shrinking: it lines its pubs with books while libraries are closing, and competes with supermarket beer prices while offering more company than a living room or kitchen.
Winning the breakfast war maintains Wetherspoons’ existence as a kind of unofficial public space. How sobering you find that reality depends on whether your glass is half full or half empty. And perhaps how many of them you’ve had.
This article was written by Tim Burrows, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 17th March 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010