This week’s exclusive Diary comes from the UK Pub Retail Summit, hosted by M&C Report. We have insights into nightclub guru Steve Thomas’ thinking on his new venture; Ian Payne on M&B’s “bastards”; Rofus Hall on the gender debate; and Mark McQuater discusses Barracuda’s plans for its student-focused bars.

552 is the magic number
An old chestnut was unearthed at Summit: how many pubs are sustainable given the current pressures from all sides? Stonegate Pub Company chief executive Toby Smith had a very firm idea - 552. The number happens to coincide with the size of the Stonegate estate.

Thomas aims high
Former Luminar chief executive Steve Thomas chose the Summit to give the first public presentation on his new company No Saints. Thomas, who stepped down at Luminar last year, insisted that he was too young to retire at the age of 57. “I still want to shuffle a shoe but slower.” He also revealed for the first time that he is backing his 25-year-old son in opening nightclubs under the Wonderbar tag. “I understand the mannequin (of running nightclubs) - he understands the clothes the mannequin should wear. He’s been in nightclubs since the age of nine.” A site has opened in Banbury with an Alice in Wonderland theme - and the company is on site at a second in Sevenoaks. “It’s a nightclub and you enter through a rabbit hole,” Thomas said. And he praised the imagination that went into the opening - carrots were hidden all over town in Banbury to whet appetites. And last but not least - where did nightclub supremo Thomas get the No Saints name? “It’s nothing to do with my behaviour,” Thomas revealed. “My original finance director was a Northampton Saints supporter. I decided he wasn’t the right person to take the business forward and decided that we’d name the company after him.”

Payne tells it straight
Industry veteran Ian Payne has never been one to mince his words. He revealed that the 333 M&B pubs acquired by Stonegate Pub Company last year had a 87/13 wet/dry split and average weekly takings per site of £14,000. Managers quickly realised that, unlike M&B, his company loved wet-led pubs. The pubs were the “M&B bastards”, said Payne. He was scathing about the standards at one of M&B’s “bastard” brands, the student-focused It’s a Scream, part of the package snapped up by Stonegate. He described the state of the outlets on acquisition as “disgusting”. “I went mad when I went to some sites. The toilets were so bad it was beyond belief.” He also revealed that there was a local difficulty that needed sorting out quite quickly. M&B had a handful of bars called Lakota that were the subject of a threatened copyright suit from a Bristol operator who had a bar with the same name. And the solution? No expensive consultation with design agency Fitch required. Payne decided to rename the bars Missuola after his favourite Montana holiday destination. “We did that in a week,’ he said.

Popes hit the Bull’s eye
Everybody loves Richard and Loren Pope’s Bull’s Head in Repton, Derbyshire. M&C Report group editor Paul Charity refers to it as the “genre-busting pub” on account of its expert blending of the best of pub and restaurant. Praise for the pub was a theme as the UK Pub Retail Summit. Referring to the Bull’s Head, Spirit chief-executive-in-waiting Mike Tye had this to say: “To me, THAT is a brand.”

It’s a woman’s world
From Orchid boss Rufus Hall was the news that all men know in their heart-of-hearts. He quoted fashion guru George Davis’s dictum: “Women are the new men”. And Hall was keen to elaborate: “Women are the powerbrokers”. By which he meant that it’s our ladies - even when us chaps are “chasing them” - who make the key decisions of where to go to eat. And they even know stuff sooner than their dim menfolk. “Women are far more attuned to trends,” he noted. Ain’t it the God-fearing truth?

Barracuda still keen on students
Has Barracuda Pub Company given up on students? Depends on who you ask. Stonegate chairman Ian Payne told the Summit that it “looks like Barracuda is getting out of the student market - good news for us”. Barracuda chief executive Mark McQuater said that, in fact, Varsity was performing “very very strongly” after being broadened to appeal to young professionals. However, McQuater did report that Barracuda, once trading at 22 sites, is now down to a single site, with the last one set to be converted to a Smith & Jones in the next few months.

American eating habits
One surprise attendee of the Summit was Peter Large, the UK executive and Michael Cannon cohort who recently oversaw the sale of US restaurant chain Fuddruckers for $61m. American restaurant firm Technomic presented on UK consumer trends and vice president Patrick Noone was asked a question about US restaurant trends. Large had a ready piece of insight: “Americans tend to eat much more by category.”

Money grinder
Diary caught up with Bill Priestley of LGV at the Summit, who spoke highly of the success of a novel take on karaoke at Amber Taverns, the northern-based pub operator that’s backed by the private equity firm. Amber, which has just acquired its 70th site, currently has two outlets in Failsworth and Oldham that host the organ-led karaoke events, with sales up 50% and 70% respectively.