This is The Tavern. It occupies a position in the centre of Stafford at the end of the pedestrianised section of the main shopping street, and in my experience has never looked either a busy or a particularly appealing pub, despite what should be a really prime location for a town centre drinking hole. Five minutes walk from the station, even closer to taxis and buses, and right in the centre of town.
Owners Enterprise Inns want to sell it, have it advertised for sale in fact, and as they have (in my view anyway) not managed to make any sort of success out of it I can’t really blame them. And last week they had some very serious interest from an experienced publican who’d done some careful research and had come to the conclusion that they could turn this into something that would fill a pretty large gap in Stafford’s market.
Stafford is a fairly typical historic market town which is somewhat overshadowed by the dominance of Stoke-on-Trent over the county to which it gives its name. At times or in places it seems tired and run down, sure, but at others there’s a liveliness about it and it is certainly far from written off. But from a drinkers point of view it rarely gives me cause to venture into town. More so in the past few years since I’ve been living a few miles out of town, and more significantly a station stop further south that means leaving Stafford railway station to venture to the pub is a mission in itself*.
The overwhelming impression of the town centre (possibly the whole town, though there are maybe one or two pubs further out that serve a more suburban market fairly well) that the research previously mentioned backed up, is that Stafford appears to have no real independent free houses. At this point I will invite anyone who can genuinely correct me to do so, but let me explain that thinking first. There are a small number of clearly brewery-tied houses – Joules run one, there are the inevitable Marstons-group pubs, and the other that springs to mind is perhaps the best of the whole town centre, the Titanic-run Sun Inn, which was born out of the Everards’ Project William and serves up mostly Titanic, and a couple of Everards, beers with the odd guest. Then there are the usual pubco premises that abound and all appear constrained by the usual restrictions that such ownership brings. Then there are the free houses, at least some of them independently owned yet seemingly wrapped up in tight deals with certain breweries or other suppliers that no doubt provide them a low-effort way to offer cask and other beer but with precious little option for the more discerning beer consumer. In fact the odds are that the best chance to find something different is by visiting the Wetherspoons that, regardless of me not being a huge fan of the chain anyway, I find one of their less inspiring outlets.
So, what Stafford could probably do with is a genuine free house that puts on a wide and varied selection of quality cask beers, and maybe even supplements that with a UK and International keg offering as well. Done properly, truly independent, and providing an oasis for those who want to seek out something a little different. Something that (especially in my own case) might make the five-to-ten minute stroll from the station to venture into town a worthwhile experience, especially given that there is virtually nothing even uninspiring within the same time window. Or that might mean the trip into town is a worthwhile experience for those searching for something of interest in their pint/half-pint/third-pint glass, rather than heading outwards towards Stoke, Stone, Crewe, Wolverhampton, Birmingham or even further afield.
I understand that was exactly the sort of concept that certain parties had in mind when they attempted to make an offer on The Tavern. I say attempted, because Enterprise Inns won’t be considering the offer. Why? Because they know that quite possibly someone other than themselves could turn the pub into a successful one. Possibly a really successful one. They don’t want that because they own other premises in the town. They want the custom going to their pubs rather than being swayed by a bettering offering. And so the sale is restricted. This building cannot be used as a pub once sold. The resstrictive covenant, which prevents a purchaser keeping a pub a pub, is being applied, in order to ensure that drinkers are forced to accept the more mediocre offerings which their other premises in the town, and those controlled by other equally protective organisations or owned by beer-ambivalent companies who are happy to just dumb-down the beer offering that they don’t understand. It’s almost like a cartel except that many of those complicit in it are completely oblivious and frankly don’t seem to care.
What is there to do? I have no idea. Change of use from a pub is a much easier matter than getting new premises licenced. As ever the pubcos seem to be able to call the shots and prevent market forces from ever having a chance. If they are so sure they are the custodians of the pubs that ought to survive, commercially if nothing else, then they ought to have the courage of their convictions and let others have a go at providing them a challenge. Instead they are allowed to exert a monopoly influence safe in the knowledge that reversal of the damage they do is prohibitively costly and sadly the law supports them.
Shame on you.
DISCLAIMER: I have no involvement in any attempt to purchase the Tavern, but do know someone who is. I’m no more or less pissed off as a result as I would have a vested interest in drinking there if it was turned into the kind of venue that was described to me!!
* most notably since the always interesting, if not always successful, Stafford Arms next to the station was run down by one or other of the pubcos (I won't say which as I'm not 100% sure) and eventually became overflow parking for a Mercedes dealer.