Standing at 6ft six inches tall, Wetherspoon’s founder and chairman Tim Martin is literally a giant of the pub industry.
Tim, who has a curious accent having lived around the world, was sporting a casual polo shirt when he arrived at his company's Square Bottle venue in Foregate Street where he stressed the chain’s commitment to Chester.
Clearly a ‘people person’, this trait is reflected not only in Tim’s relationship with staff but the Wetherspoon’s brand which is popular with working people because of its good value ales and food.
And the pub was bustling even at 11am last Friday when he visited to kill two birds with one stone – to check how the venue was doing but also to spread his anti-EU message to local media ahead of the June 23 referendum.
Tim, who launched the first Wetherspoon’s in 1979 and remains the chain’s largest shareholder, gave the background to why his company recently sold the nearby Forest House in Love Street but is also to begin work very soon on converting the boarded-up Bull and Stirrup in Upper Northgate Street into a Wetherspoon’s pub and hotel.
“What the hell am I doing?’ he asked rhetorically with a smile. “We made a strategic error a dozen years ago, but mostly in the aftermath of the credit crunch when a lot of pubs came up for sale and we opened – if we had a very good pub like The Square Bottle – we opened a second pub too close to the first.
“So we think we can definitely have two pubs in Chester. But The Bull is a much better location for pub number two than right next door to pub number one.”
It has been about two years since contracts were exchanged on The Bull and Stirrup and despite planning and licensing consents all being in place, the magnificent building remains empty.
“It’s a bit of commonsense really. It’s just the pace of developments, slotting into the development programmes, so we are going to develop The Bull. The hotels are good actually. They’re doing very well. We’ve got about 40 now and they’re doing very well. Quite a lot of what we’ve opened in the last while has been hotels.
“It will happen. I’d hope to go on site in the autumn but I haven’t checked. I know people are excited about it and it’s also not very good to have it closed so we need to push it along.”
A straight-talker, during our discussion on the forthcoming EU referendum he describes one European politician as ‘corrupt’ and his candid approach was evident back in the day when he played rugby for Nottingham University.
“I got in the first team and I told everyone what I thought of the coach and I never played for the first again!”
Tim has been sipping away on his coffee during the interview but is happy to pose with a pint of ale for a photo opportunity at the request of The Chronicle. Interestingly, he pulls out a fiver from his wallet to pay for his bitter but then takes a picture on his phone of the developing queue as he is unhappy customers are having to wait. Why does he have to pay?
“I always say if I don’t pay then who’s gonna?,” he quips, with a chortle.
While setting up for the photo in the doorway Tim finds himself in the path of two women and apologises before engaging in a spot of banter with the pair who have no clue he effectively owns the place. And when waitress Lizzie turns up to deliver his pint he takes an interest as she explains this is just her third shift in Chester having relocated from one of the company’s other pubs in Cambridge. “You’re used to a big pub any way,” he comments.
Tim, who was brought up in Northern Ireland and New Zealand, today lives in Exeter and is married with four children. “People say ‘Why Exeter?’ and I say ‘Near the mother-in-law is the answer!’”
The pub supremo admits he could afford to turn his back on the business he created and put his feet up but that’s not for him. He likes to feel he's earned his pint at the end of a working day.
“I think we’re built to work. Sometimes it peeves us off and we think what a drag this is but actually you can get away with eight or nine hours of work a day then you’ve got plenty of time to do the other things. And we’re built to be with other people and all the rest of it.
“And the other thing - you get money and then you start to buy big houses with 50 acres, and then go in the back of a limo and all the rest of it, you end up very isolated,” said the tall pub boss who towers over everyone. “I’m wearing my high heels today,” he jokes.