It started with the creation of a bar aimed specifically at women and young professionals with the emphasis on good food and wine, closely followed by a wet-led Irish bar. And since Bass rolled out All Bar One and O'Neill's in 1994, the company's shift towards branding has showed no signs of slowing. Five brands have been tried and tested over the past two years.
"Most of the estate consisted of community pubs," says director of communications for Bass, Bob Cartwright. "We looked at the market and long-term trends and saw a decline in pub traditionalists. All Bar One set the style for a whole host of similar ideas. It was a new way of thinking. The bars had large windows so that people passing could look in and see if it's the type of place they'd like to go to. And the large, open, airy spaces were designed as places where women would feel safe. The bar display showed good quality wines and good food. It was a very civilised place to be."
And so Bass set out to identify the key groups it could target. Women, families, seniors, "empty-nesters" and the affluent young were all pinpointed and managers have since been busy developing a range of brands to appeal to one or more of those key groups.
Bass currently operates about 200 branded pub operations. The strategy now is to strengthen the competitive position of all the company's pubs and to continue to roll out increasing numbers of branded and clearly differentiated concepts in both the drinks-led and food-led sectors of the market.
"Brand pubs are the fastest growing sector of the market and will continue to be in the future," says Cartwright. "Food is the area with the fastest rate of growth. The UK is behind Europe and the USA in terms of food, which shows there is enormous growth potential."
It's a scream
It's a Scream is a concept designed to appeal specifically to students. There are now 27 trading, all located in towns and cities that have colleges or universities, and therefore large student populations, such as Lancaster.
First developed in 1996, the brand serves all-day breakfast and aims to give students value for money with offers such as the "burger and beer" deal from 3pm to 7pm which consists of a pint of any draught beer with a burger, chips and salad for £2.95-£3.75, depending on the venue. "The menu offers basic, wholesome, value-for-money food," says Chris Bulaitis, general manager for the brand. "Our most expensive dish is steak and chips for £3.95."
Since the customers are students, business varies according to the time of year. For instance, takings during term-time are often double those in the summer break. As may be expected, the brand is wet-led and food accounts for only 5% of overall takings.
In addition to the normal pub range of lagers and beers, the bar stocks flavoured vodka, flavoured tequila and alcoholic crushed-ice drinks. For entertainment, each venue has a juke-box with contemporary music, a television showing MTV or major sporting events, and giant-sized versions of games such as Connect Four and Jenga.
Although all the venues come under the It's a Scream brand name, each one retains its own pub name. "While they, the decor and the trade may be similar in many ways, the buildings themselves are very individual," says Bulaitis.
The amount invested by Bass into each venue ranges from £40,000 to £400,000 depending on the amount of work required and whether or not the building is an acquisition or an existing part of the estate. A further four venues are due to open this month and Bulaitis estimates a total of at least 50 by the end of the year.
Targeted at the affluent young, Bar Coast is a stylish café-bar that made its debut in Maidstone in June 1996. This brand, now 13-strong, aims to fill what Bass perceives as a gap in the marketplace for 20- and 30-somethings with high disposable incomes who have outgrown the clubbing scene.
Bass is marketing the brand as somewhere in between a pub or bar and a club and prefers to call it a "pre-club bar". The venues are spacious and the decor is striking, with the use of bold primary colours.
During the day the emphasis is on food with a menu offering choices from brunch such as eggs Benedict (£3.75), bar snacks such as a roasted Mediterranean vegetables and pesto sandwich, and full meals such as grilled swordfish steak with lemon, black pepper and parsley butter, fries and a mixed leaf salad (£6.25).
Food is available all day and brand manager Tim Longdon says that because the venues vary so much it can range from 10-40% of takings. In the evening the focus switches and the emphasis is more on the bar, music and meeting people.
Beverages available include cafetiäres of coffee, cappuccino, minerals, wines from around the world, spirits and beers. There are four beers on draught including Carling Premier, and a range of bottled beers, but no bitter. Each venue has a resident DJ on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Seating capacity ranges from 50 to 150, and although the core opening times are 11am-11pm, some venues, such as Putney in south-west London, open at 9.30am to catch the breakfast trade. Others have late licences until 2am.
There can be up to 35 staff employed including full- and part-time, but staff numbers and the split between bar/waiting staff and kitchen brigade depend on how much food each particular venue sells.
The amount invested in each site ranges from £400,000 to £1m. "We look for sites in city centres which are on drinking circuits and with good pedestrian flow, usually in the better parts of the city," says Longdon. The 14th Bar Coast is due to open in Cambridge this month and a further four are planned by the end of the year.
Cartwright describes Edward's as "a chameleon". "It changes to cater for several different markets according to the time of day," he says. The concept was first developed in 1996 and there are now 30 venues trading under the brand name, with an average capacity of 150 people.
Mostly sited in towns such as Grimsby and Doncaster, the venues have either been converted from existing pubs or are newly acquired premises, such as Edward's in Reading, which started out as a furniture store. The cost to develop each venue ranges from £750,000 to £1m and Bass hopes to open a further 20 venues this year.
The day starts at 8am at Edward's with the menu offering a range of breakfasts from full English (£3.95) to eggs fried, poached or scrambled served with toast (£2.50) and croissants with preserve (£1.95). Morning shoppers are the target for hot drinks, including speciality coffees, and pastries until the full menu comes into force at 12 noon.
Lunch dishes include cheese and bacon potato skins served with dips (£3.25), burgers, salads, sandwiches, pasta, baked potatoes with various fillings, combo platters, traditionals including bangers and mash (£4.45), and a choice of four desserts (£2.45 to £2.95). Afternoon coffees and pastries attract shoppers again until the bar, with its range of beers, bottled lagers, spirits and French and New World wines, becomes the focus for the early evening wind-down from work, with music introduced later for the younger, evening pre-club crowd. Food accounts for 15-20% of overall takings, with each venue serving an average of more than 500 covers per week.
Goose & Granite
First developed in 1996, Goose & Granite is the Bass version of a traditional pub and is frequented by a wide variety of people. The 11 pubs now trading aim to provide value for money in both food and drinks, good service and a welcoming atmosphere for shoppers and business people during the day, those wanting a drink on the way home from work or an early evening meal and, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, the drinking crowd.
The pubs tend to be located in towns, on a main thoroughfare, range from 2,000 to 3,000sq ft in size and are fitted out in a traditional pub style at a cost of about £500,000 each. Four more are planned by the end of 1998.
The traditional pub food includes combos of deep-fried mushrooms, potato skins and onion rings with garlic bread and dips (£4.25), scampi and chips (£3.95), chicken Kiev (£4.25) and lasagne (£3.95), and accounts for 20% of overall takings. Beverages include a full range of lagers and bitters, a minimum of two cask ales and Goose's Brew, a cask bitter priced at 95p a pint. Wines are French and New World and coffees are also available.
First & Last
Bass's latest venture, a bar called First & Last, is essentially a City pub aimed at professionals. The three venues currently trading are all located in central London - Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Piccadilly - and have opened within the past six months with an investment of £400,000 each.
The venues are existing pubs that have been converted. Visible kitchens have been built for theatrical value and food is served on bright blue crockery.
Brand manager Jim Forward is proud of the food, which he describes as "traditional with a twist". There are four menus that operate on a four-week cycle and change completely every quarter.
Starting at 8am on weekdays, customers can choose from the breakfast menu, which includes eggs Benedict (£3.45) and English and American muffins (£1.45 and £1.25 respectively). An all-day full English breakfast (£5.25) is available on the main menu which runs until 7pm.
Devised by development chef Lawrence Lingard, the menu offers eight dishes such as grilled salmon escalope with leek mash and a sorrel sauce (£6.95) and a range of five baguettes (£3.75-£5.45).
The number of covers served per day ranges from 60 to more than 100 according to the size of the venue. Forward says the food takings have doubled since the conversions. Emphasis is on good service with an average of four waiting staff providing full floor service. To ensure a high level of service, staff were trained by Ivor Spencer of London's Ivor Spencer Butler School to refine their performance.
On the beverage side, the pubs have own-label wines - including vin de pays, Chardonnay and claret - in addition to the short main list, ales, lagers and spirits.
Because of the City locations, none of the pubs open on Sundays and at present only one opens on Saturdays. Bass has no plans to develop further sites until it sees how the first three perform.