Ring the changes
When a beloved pub is taken over, new owners can face an unenviable balancing act, writes Jemma Beedie
Saturday 22 October 2022
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Beer52 Awards 2022
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When the news broke of the sale of Glasgow’s iconic Ubiquitous Chip to the Metropolitan Pub Company, an arm of Greene King, there was dismay among the local community. Many feared the pub chain would strip the Chip, as it’s affectionately known, of its essential character.
Established in 1971, the restaurant and pub was one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Glasgow. It is famous for a number of things, including (but not limited to) the intricate murals across several walls, painted by the artist and author Alasdair Gray, who passed away in 2019.
The establishment has long been a favourite of people from all walks of life, from those who drink in the bar, propped up on stools or slouching in corners, to tourists making a pilgrimage to a renowned institution, to students of the nearby Glasgow University celebrating graduation by taking their parents there and getting them to foot the bill.
The rooftop terrace is one of the best kept secrets in the area, a miasma of twinkling fairy lights and heavy smoke. The cushy, comfy bar area, up the flight of stairs, entices drinkers to stay a while, and really sink into their surroundings. The restaurant is bright and airy, so lined with plants it feels like eating in a botanical garden. The Chip is special.
So it was fair for the initial response to be wary. The Alasdair Gray Archive, which has the task of preserving the work of this prolific polymath for future generations, was, at first, worried about the changeover. The archive’s custodian, Sorcha Dallas, is now cautiously hopeful about the future of the murals in the Chip. “We met with the new management a few weeks ago with colleagues from Historic Environment Scotland and are keen to all work together to not only list the artwork but make a preservation plan so Alasdair Gray’s murals are protected for the future.”
As a resident and fan of the West End, Sorcha had enjoyed visiting the Chip for many years. “[I] was obviously saddened that it was no longer a family business and felt the coverage surrounding this didn’t help minimise fears over the future of Alasdair's works and preserving them and The Chip for the future.
“This has changed through discussions with the new management and their willingness to work with us to help preserve and raise the understanding of Alasdair’s works and the important history of The Chip. These discussions are at an early stage and [I’m] hopeful that this is realised in not only listing the murals but renovating them so they can be preserved for the future.” Sorcha notes that it might be interesting to see how the process had progressed at the year-mark.
While Greene King might be known for having the same menu across most of their 2500 pubs in the UK, Metropolitan Pub Company (MPC) operates slightly differently. Their gastropubs, most of which are located in London, aim to build on what existed previously, maintaining established menus, simply tweaking the experience to give their customers value.
We don’t tend to love change, even though it is often the catalyst for improvement
A change of ownership can often make us punters feel as though the rug has been swept from under us. We don’t tend to love change, even though it is often the catalyst for improvement. While some buyouts, especially by chains, can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of their former customers, many are positive.
Johnny Robertson spoke to me about the Douglas Arms in Dumfries, or the Dougie, as it’s known by the owners, locals, and in fact anybody who passes through.
Johnny previously owned and ran a pub a few streets away. “Years ago, Les [Ross] and Lewis [Boddy] rented the unused floor above my pub [the now-closed Queen of the South], opening their own ‘mini bar’ operation up there – quickly it became apparent, when they were attracting double, sometimes triple the number of patrons upstairs versus down, that they were much better at bar craft than me.”
Les and Lewis soon outgrew the mini bar. They took on the Dougie, a pub steeped in history, which has both a snug and a medieval cellar. Though the pub had not been kept in top condition by previous owners, the pair saw something special there.
Les, who has recently become the sole proprietor as Lewis went back to working in a social care role, explained that while the pub had only been closed for around six months before they took over, its last decor refresh was before the smoking ban was introduced in 2006.
“We actually did refurb one in about six weeks with a little bit of money we had and a credit card, so it was clean and didn’t smell bad,” says Les. They pored over archive photos to see what changes could be incorporated in the next round.
The team was “obsessed” with the idea of replacing the bar, having pored over archive photos of the pub in its glory days. “We replaced the bar with an actual tree, from an elm tree that dates from when the pub opened. We thought that was quite nice. Having a nice piece of wood that we know is going to age well,” says Les. The Douglas Arms dates from the 1640s, and isn’t even the oldest pub in town.
“During lockdown we took a bounceback loan and got a little bit of funding. We ripped out the toilets, put in the original footprint with heritage tiles. We tried to make it look as if the fabric of the toilets was very traditional and we just put in new fittings.” Les explains how they have tried to put in features and accents that look authentic, even if, strictly-speaking, they aren’t. “There is a nice mix of Victorian features with our own personality in it. We’ve tried to be more sympathetic than the previous refurbs.”
“They’ve propelled it forward in time,” raves Johnny. “The result is a bar which retains traditional features such as a wood burning fireplace, authentic wood panelled walls and a crowd of friendly regulars, but includes modern amenities like comfy seats, refurbished and clean toilets and a snug with its own dedicated bar.”
While some drinkers of bygone times do continue to visit the Dougie, taking the new decor and new policies in their stride, some are put off by its “explicitly and overtly” LGBT-friendly vibe, and lack of televisions.
Though the pub is opposite a bookies, Les was adamant they would not be showing the races. “We don’t have a telly, we don’t show sports. We might have music on, live music. We’re a little bit left-field, little bit alternative. We’re occupying a niche and it’s doing us a lot of favours, it’s working well for us.”
“Needless to say, I thoroughly recommend you visit, but with the variety of ales on offer, you may need to make multiple trips,” laughs Johnny. “I love the Dougie Arms. You will too.”
I hear regulars are delighted that their favourite Furstenberg will still be served
It’s not only independently run pubs that have benefited from being bought and refurbished, though. Some pub chains, which will remain nameless, build their reputation and business on cookie-cutter decoration, keeping everything from the carpets to the staff uniforms to the range of beers and menu identical across all locations. It can be comforting to know what you’re getting – that’s one of the reasons for the global success of McDonald’s, after all.
But some of us want more from our pubs. We want to walk in and feel a sense of place, feel the history. We want to know from the first foot in the door that we are in a pub that’s important to the community, and that it is particular to its home of York, or Lancaster, or Dumfries.
The Cardigan Arms in Leeds was bought by Kirkstall Brewery in 2017. The pub, which is one of 250 in CAMRA’s top heritage establishments list, was previously owned by Greene King. A community cooperative buyout was unsuccessful, with the grassroots movement unable to match Kirkstall’s bid; thankfully, the brewery has shown a great deal of sensitivity in refurbishing and running the Cardi, as it’s known, and today it is recognised locally as a success.
Kirkstall has put huge effort into bringing the Grade II listed building back to its Victorian glory days, albeit with Instagram-friendly accents. By paying attention to the community, the pub’s history, and what the building required, Kirkstall has succeeded in breathing new life into this pub.
Thornbridge is another brewery chain known for sympathetic refurbishment. The historic Cricket Inn in Totley is now on the AA’s pub guide as ‘Pick of the Pubs’, after nearly a decade and a half under Thornbridge’s management – in partnership with other local stakeholders.
The leafy exterior lends the pub a distinctly English-country-pub feel, and that’s exactly what it is. A welcoming sight after a stroll in the Peaks. While prices are in line with the location and award-winning food on offer, it does cater more to the tourist crowd than locals.
Hopefully that’s something the Chip will avoid, as it has done this far in its 50 year history. This is not the first time it has changed hands. Original owner Ronnie Clydesdale passed away in 2010 and management was taken over by his son, Colin, and daughter-in-law Carol Wright. As with every such change, the initial response was not positive. However, it’s not clear what regulars would have preferred.
Colin and Carol did keep the essential spirit of the Chip intact, continuing to deliver his dad’s vision of delicious local, Scottish fare, and keeping Fürstenberg on as the house lager – a revolutionary escape from the chokehold Tennant’s has on the rest of the city. Charmingly referred to as ‘Fusti’, this lager is one of the many things keeping punters returning night after night.
Pat Byrne, of the renowned Glasgow West End: Pat’s Guide website, has plenty to say about the Chip. “I hear regulars are delighted that their favourite Fürstenberg will still be served,” she said, before adding on a more serious note, “I think Michael Horan, managing director of Metropolitan Pub Company, appears to have a firm grasp of new opportunities alongside understanding of the affection people have for the Chip.
“I'm very fond of the place myself and worked there as a waitress when I was a student at Glasgow Uni,” she adds. “I'm particularly delighted that the Alasdair Gray mural will be retained. Alasdair was still working on the mural when I first met him at the Chip in 2002 to interview him for my website.”
Pat is positive about the change in ownership: “I'll definitely be popping in from time to time and as ever celebrating some special events at the Chip.”
If MPC are clever, and if they do continue to honour the Chip’s legacy, they may have success. By listening to the voices of their regulars and staff, and looking at the changing attitudes of the city around them, MPC may just be able to retain the Chip’s essential character and history while forging on into a new era.
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