Wetherspoon’s and Nando’s – the rise and rise of the food-and-drink chains

Wetherspoon’s is much derided. Perhaps it’s because it sells its beer cheap – at odds with the UK’s Chief Medical Officer’s ever-lower recommended daily alcohol intake. Maybe it’s the chain’s ubiquity – it owns more than 1,000 outlets across the country. Or is it because it buys and converts much-loved local buildings into cavernous pub-restaurants? Banks, post offices, theatres and even a swimming pool (yes a swimming pool – in Rawson Spring in Sheffield) have all become a local ‘Spoons’.

However, Wetherspoon’s has its defenders too. The writer Kit Caless has even created an appreciation of the chain, through a blog and then a book about the pubs’ carpet designs. ‘Wetherspoons are like a blank canvas on which you can project yourself’ he argues in a 2016 Independent interview about his book. ‘You can come in alone to read the paper in a corner, or with ten people and be a bit loud’.

Associate John Kieffer has similar feelings about another ubiquitous chain: Nando’s. He sees the chicken restaurant as achieving ‘some kind of real inclusion’ through its ‘neutral environment’ and ‘convivial’ space – something he says ‘over-designed hipster places’ can’t manage.

The tensions between these chain pubs and restaurants, what they have replaced, and the ‘hipster’ trend Kiefer mentions, reveal something important about contemporary communal spaces, how they are used and who uses them.

Wetherspoon’s success arguably comes on the back of the disappearance of what was the bastion of secular community space – the local pub. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, the UK lost 29 pubs per week in 2014 (although this has now slowed to two per week). And this dynamic has been mirrored by the decline in the traditional, independent greasy-spoon café.

While independent, ‘hipster’ joints are on the rise, the real expansion in terms of space comes from the chains. For example, Pret A Manger now has nearly 500 outlets – the majority in the UK – and its expansion is continuing. It recently opened in Brixton town centre, and in contrast to the small specialist cafés and restaurants in the now-trendy Brixton Village, Brixton’s Pret opens from dawn till dusk and offers a large, comfortable space in which to linger. The result is everyone – from the beardy hipsters who also frequent the nearby coffee shops, to the Latin Americans who dine in Brixton’s Colombian eateries, to the area’s long-established Afro-Caribbean community – at some point rolls up in Brixton Pret. While its appearance was met in some quarters with dismayed cries of ‘gentrification’, perhaps, just like Wetherspoon’s and Nando’s, Pret rather that ‘hip’ represents the neutral, inclusive replacement for the independent, community food-and-drink spaces whose complete disappearance from the UK’s high streets now seems inevitable.