Although the term gastropub is relatively new, the phenomenon of pubs dedicated to serving top-quality food has been around for some time.
The Eagle on London’s Farringdon Road, founded in 1991, was one of the first to attract the new description, but establishments such as the Angel Inn at Hetton in North Yorkshire have been serving up good food for years.
Denis Watkins, who bought the Angel Inn out of receivership in 1983 and ran it until his death in July 2004, is widely regarded as the godfather of the gastropub.
Figures on the size of the market are hard to come by, due to the difficulty in defining exactly when a pub serving high-quality food tips over into the realm of a gastropub.
According to market researcher Mintel, pub food is now a £6b-a-year industry, and much of the growth in demand and customer expectation has been fuelled by the rise of the gastropub.
The phenomenon has had a ripple effect across the whole pub sector. The average pub now gets more than 25% of its turnover from meals, and the number of pub diners has overtaken the number of pub drinkers, according to Mintel’s 2004 survey.
The vast majority of gastropubs are independents but some chain operators do exist, such as the five-strong Thomas & Carter chain, owned by the Massive Pub Company, and the London-based Lewis & Clarke chain, also with five outlets.
Even pubs giant Spirit has a Gastro Pubs & Bars division, with individually branded sites in London, Edinburgh, Northampton and Cambridgeshire.
All Bar One, part of pub group Mitchells & Butlers, has also taken the gastropub concept as its template for food service, although its outlets lack the individuality to be considered true gastropubs.
The gastropub sector will continue to grow and evolve, says Mike Coughtrey, head of pubs and restaurants at business advisors KPMG.
The Which? Pub Guide 2004 identified 67 gastropubs in London, up by 17, with new arrivals opening in Manchester, Cardiff and Brighton.
But while London remains the hub, there is now much more of a regional spread.
High-quality chefs moving out of London to become landlords have helped fuel the growth. particularly in rural areas.
“Wherever there are large numbers of commuters there will be the affluence needed to support the phenomenon,” Coughtrey says.
There is still a lot of potential for growth. The Which? Guide, for instance, suggested that, while food standards had improved markedly, pubs serving good food remained in the minority overall.
But with wet sales reducing, more and more pubs need a hook by which to attract new custom, and are turning to food as the answer.
In property terms, gastropubs, or even just establishments earmarked for conversion, are selling at a premium, says Billy Couper, manager for London bars and restaurants at Christie & Co.
“There is big demand, there is a lot of interest, particularly in London in places such as Islington,” he says.
The proposed ban on smoking will need to be addressed by the sector, but
many gastropubs already have outside seating areas so will not need to make too many changes.
Gastropubs, like the rest of the pubs sector, will also have to get to grips with the changes to the liquor licensing regime due to come into force in late 2005.
Many independent pubs were struggling to submit their applications for new licences by the 6 August deadline.
But it is gastropubs’ reliance on relative affluence that is likely to form the main challenge for the sector, suggests KPMG’s Coughtrey.
“It is vulnerable to changes in spending. If there is a downturn, people do not stop eating out, but they do change where they eat,” he says.
Labour shortages may be a problem, predicts Coughtrey. “It is a low-wage industry, and the pub sector as a whole, unlike in Europe, has not done a good job in promoting itself as a quality career.”
The sector may also face increased competition from high-street restaurants, with expanding chains such as pizza and pasta operator Strada pitched very much at the gastropub customer.
With pub chains increasingly muscling in on restaurants’ territory, restaurants will inevitably need to find ways to respond. If they are successful, this could create a much tougher financial climate for gastropubs.