Lewes Arms Boycott Reaches 100 Days, Greene King Still Clueless

I wrote about this before, the residents of Lewes, in East Sussex, England, have been boycotting their historic local pub, the Lewes Arms, because the new owner, Greene King, stopped serving Harveys beer, which is brewed just a few blocks away. The locals have set up a protest website, the Friends of the Lewes Arms. According to the British newspaper, Argus, the boycott today has been going on for 100 days and shows no signs of slowing down. In a prepared statement, Greene King shows how clueless they really are. And mind you, that means it’s not just a spokesman responding to an Argus reporter’s inquiry extemporaneously, off the top of his head. Somebody actually thought long and hard about what to say, probably going through several drafts before being satisfied with the final language to represent the company’s position. So let’s examine what the spin doctors came up with:

“All over the country, brewers sell their own beer in their own pubs — it’s a practice as old as the pub itself.

We recognise that some of our customers at the Lewes Arms don’t accept this practice but we are proud of our wonderful beers and proud to sell them.

Greene King is one of the biggest supporters of community pubs in this country. Last year we invested nearly £40 million on improvements to our pubs.

The direct feedback we receive on a daily basis is central to the way that we shape our service and our pubs.

We have been serving communities by running great pubs for more than 200 years and intend to carry on doing so for another 200 whatever challenges are thrown our way.”

So let’s look at this so-called statement:

  1. Brewers selling their own beer in their own pubs — “it’s a practice as old as the pub itself.” So what? I’m all for tradition when it’s a good tradition but the tied house rule is a terrible tradition and what’s more is why the English pub scene is so dire today. Because large companies are buying up pub chains and turning them into the fern bars of England: they all look the same and have the same beers in them. Yawn. I talked to Roger Protz about this in January when I was in London and he was adamant that these big chains were killing the good pubs.
  2. “We are proud of our wonderful beers and proud to sell them.” Go ahead, be proud, but don’t be stupid. Can Greene King really be so thick as to think this argument carries any weight whatsoever in Lewes? Is it really possible so shrewd a business could actually be this monumentally stupid? Doubtful, but this arrogant and clueless, well there you have me. When not biblically excessive, pride can be a wonderful thing that shows one’s own dignity, importance, and civic loyalty. So what should the people of Lewes be proud of? Hmm, let’s see. How about the local brewery that has been there for over 200 years, employing local residents and bringing all manner of economic benefits to the town. Should a small town support their local businesses that in turn make where they live a good place to be? I guess to Greene King, pride is only useful if it’s their kind of pride, the first person kind. Third person pride, as in what others might be proud of, well that just gets in their way.
  3. They’re the “biggest supporters of community pubs in this country” and spent almost “£40 million on improvements to our pubs.” Talk about a disconnect. They spent 80 million dollars to fix up their own places that they own. Well, whoop de f-in’ do! I bought flowers and planted them in my front yard. Does that make me a community supporter? I can’t really see how spending money maintaining their vast property holdings of pubs can equate to supporting communities. They’re spending the money on themselves, to improve their business. They’re not spending that money on the communities where those pubs are located. As this episode so nicely illustrates, they don’t give a rat’s arse about the local communities where Greene King pubs happen to be.
  4. Daily “Direct feedback” shapes their “service and [their] pubs.” And not just peripherally, but it’s “central” to how they run their pub business. There are kinder, gentler words for what this kind of language is; propaganda, PR, spin. But I think we can dispense with such euphemisms given how insulting this rhetoric is and call it by it’s true name, a lie. And not a little white one, but a great big whopper of a lie. I’d say they’ve been getting some pretty direct feedback about their service and their pub in Lewes for the past 100 days. Their response has not exactly been to listen carefully to their customer and shape their service there accordingly. Even with an estimated 90% drop in business at the Lewes Arms, Greene King refuses to give in to consumer demand. Now that’s customer service.
  5. For 200 years, Greene King has been “serving communities by running great pubs” and they will continue to do so “for another 200 whatever challenges are thrown our way.” Which is another way of saying F-you, Lewes, we’ll do whatever the hell we want. It’s pretty hard to accept that the community is best served by doing exactly what the community (including the mayor, the local MP and many prominent townspeople) does not want them to do and has quite explicitly asked them not to do. And as for this 200 years proclamation, I suspect that’s utter nonsense. I’m sure Greene King the brewery has been around that long, but for most of those years they owned local pubs around the Suffolk area. It probably wasn’t until around the 1980s that they started expanding rapidly to the point where today they “employ nearly 11,000 people, have a pub estate of around 1,700 houses, and operate distribution depots in Abingdon near Oxford, Crayford in Kent, and Northampton.” So “serving communities” outside their home area is most likely a relatively new phenomenon. According to their website, their “objective is to become the leading pub retailer-brewer, in terms of profitability and market share, in the south of England.” Notice there’s no mention of communities in that mission statement. Greene King pubs were all but ubiquitous during my last trip to London this January, and the city was much the poorer for it. We had to actively look for pubs with a decent and varied selection, and it was not an easy task. In recent years, they have bought out brewery/pub chains Belhaven, Morland, Ruddles, Ridley’s and Hardys and Hansons. Of these, only the Belhaven Brewery is still operating, meaning they shut down at least four historic breweries in their drive for domination. CAMRA has frequently lambasted them for their business practices.

So at every line of Greene King’s response to the Lewes Arms boycott they have not been truthful or even shown any understanding. This is the way of modern corporations, and it’s more than a little sad to see it so nakedly on display. I have nothing personal against Greene King or their beers, but this whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I don’t think it can be washed down with a Greene King beer anytime soon.


  1. Fran says

    Thank you for your most insightful and pithy comments!

    Here in Lewes we have achieved some great publicity over the last few days – a 4-page spread in a national daily broadsheet, a piece in a national Sunday paper, a piece in the London Evening Standard and yesterday a reference with a huge picture of campaigners outside the pub in the Financial Times, which every investor of any size will have seen.

    Other UK readers might want to sign the online petition seeking legislation that will prevent this sort of bullying business practice at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Beerchoice. Hopefully it will get enough signatures to land in Tony Blair’s in tray!

    It’s nice to know we have support from so far afield.

  2. Manek says

    I think you’ve put your finger on it precisely – very nicely said.

    What form of arrogance is it from a corporation which on the one hand talks about community values and promises to service local communities, and on the other absolutely refuses to give its customers what they want?

    Apart from the eye-popping hypocrisy, it makes no business sense in a capitalist economy. It makes you wonder if the words ‘real’ and ‘world’ have any meaning for these people. And if any of their shareholders are listening and wondering too.

    If I were GK’s PR company, I’d be giving GK some advice it probably doesn’t want to hear right now.

    I’d echo Fran’s comment – all the way from sunny Lewes, thank you for your insightful comments.

  3. Valmai Goodyear says

    Your analysis of Greene King’s statement is masterly.

    The Guardian newspaper’s article about the Lewes Arms row appeared last Friday. On Monday Greene King announced that the director who made the statement, Mark Angela, was leaving the company following restructuring (of the business, not of him personally) but that this was nothing to do with the public relations disaster that the Lewes Arms has become.

    There was also a large picture of disgruntled Lewesians in front of the Lewes Arms with a banner saying BRING BACK HARVEYS in the Financial Times yesterday (page 24).

  4. Jon says

    As a point of fact, Ruddles wasn’t closed by Greene King.

    Ruddles hadn’t been independant since the mid 1980s, when it was bought by Grand Met. They then sold it to Grolsch who, in turn, sold it to Morland in 1997. Morland closed the Rutland brewery and moved production to their own site in Abingdon.

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