Amber Taverns managing director James Baer told MCA’s The Pub Conference that for many wet-led pubs, food has been little more than a “placebo”.

But Punch’s Duncan Garrood’s insisted that some form of food offer was essential in even the best wet-led venue.

Baer said : “Some food offers are put into tenancies by BDMs just as a way of saying ‘You don’t need to cut your rent post-smoking ban’. That just isn’t going to work.”

He added that all too often food was “a placebo to support rents at time of smoking ban, but not a real substitute for giving customer a good wet led experience at a realistic price”.

Baer cautioned the industry against discounting the 40,000 wet-led venues that still account for 40% of the market place volume.

Baer conceded that a myriad of issues from the smoking ban to the duty escalator and changing demographics, particularly in traditionally industrial areas, had put wet-led pubs on the back foot.

However, he said the sector had been unfairly associated with poor décor and service standards as a result of historic under-investment from the pubcos.

He said: “They had too much debt in those businesses and they worked top-down: the debt dictated what the rent should be, what the share of profit should be from the pub, what discounts were available and what level of investment there was. Ultra-austerity is not going to work. You can squeeze and squeeze, but if you squeeze too far, there’s no business.”

Amber Taverns was an early adopter of the operator agreement model and Baer said it was an arrangement that had proven consistently fruitful.

He said: “The operator needs good local support. My area managers have 12-15 pubs, so they would visit the pubs at least once a week and talk to the operator every day. It’s amazing how much licensees like to talk and have somebody to talk to about the business, even if it’s just a hand on the shoulder encouraging them.”

Responding Baer’s comments on food during a panel discussion at the end of the conference, Punch’s Duncan Garrood said: “I have visited numerous wet-led pubs in the evening where the licensee has told me there’s absolutely no demand for a food offer in their pub. And what happens by 8pm? – the place is virtually deserted because everyone has gone home for their dinner.

Garrood added that he felt the key to a successful food offer was the quality, rather than the quantity or variety of food: “Whether you’re serving crisp and a sausage roll or a full gastro pub menu, it needs to be high quality. It’s much better to have a limited offer that you can do extremely well than try to be all things to all people and do that badly.

“Especially when it comes to food we have competition from so many fronts that customers won’t give us a second chance – we need to get it right first time.”