Martin qualified as a barrister but the pub he occasionally frequented in Muswell Hill, North London was going to be the only bar he was interested in. “It had been converted from a bookies. At that time, 1979, most pubs were handed down by the big brewers with just their drinks available. But this guy had a great range of real ales which I’ve always loved,” Martin says. “One day the landlord told me that he didn’t like running the pub and asked me if I would take on the eight remaining years of his 10-year lease. I knew absolutely nothing about running a pub and it could have been another squash experience! But I eventually got a handle on how to do it.”
Martin sold his London flat to pay for the pub which he immediately re-named Martin’s. “I remembered my time at Nottingham University and the good regional brewery pubs I’d enjoyed time in there. London, as I said, was run by the big brewers and the pubs were very low quality,” he says. “I thought if I could run this pub well with that variety of ales there would be strong demand.”
The pub certainly attracted early attention. Within three weeks a brick had been thrown through its window!
“I had a few pints after that,” Martin remembers. “The name Martin’s was in the glass that had been smashed and I thought let’s go for a new name. And on a whim, helped by the drink, I went for JD Wetherspoon’s.”
JD was in homage to Sheriff JD “Boss” Hogg of US TV show ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ while Wetherspoon was the name of an old teacher in a New Zealand school during Martin’s peripatetic youth.
In those early months he undertook various operational and customer service experiments to make his pub a success. He offered lunchtime food, filtered coffee at the bar, switched off the music and during off-peak times in January and February tried ‘much lower pricing’. “You have to keep trying things and if you make mistakes then rectify them,” he says.
Within two years Martin had a second pub in Crouch End, North London – a ‘very dilapidated motorcycle showroom’. He paid £38,000. “We begged, borrowed and well not stole, the money to pay for it,” he says. “At that time it was very hard and costly to get planning and licensing for new pubs. People didn’t want to challenge the big brewers but we did and that is partly the secret of our success. We doggedly went after properties and we soon twigged that if you could get very nice converted buildings it would be a plus with the customer.”
In the next instalment of the series, we hear how Martin grew his fledgling business into the famous chain of pubs it is today…