The Grapes: Southampton’s most famous bar
A great British pub is jam-packed with history. Indeed, Ye Olde Traditional Local provides a social history more colourful than most corduroy-patched teachers can aspire to. Southampton’s The Grapes is one such pub.
A great British pub is jam-packed with history. Indeed, Ye Olde Traditional Local provides a social history more colourful than most corduroy-patched teachers can aspire to. Southampton’s The Grapes is one such pub. It’s positively drenched in the past.
It was in the pub on the morning of April 10th 1912 that three brothers from the city — Bertram, Tom and Alfred Slade — spent a few hours drinking before they were due to board the most trumpeted ship in the world to work as firemen on her maiden voyage. However, for reasons that aren’t 100 per cent clear (some say they lost track of time, others mention they allowed a train to pass in the docks thus preventing them from boarding the ship) the brothers watched the Titanic sail from Southampton docks. Drinking in The Grapes saved them.
The Slade brothers watched the Titanic sail from Southampton docks. Drinking in The Grapes saved them.
John Thompson fireman survivor from RMS Titanic
As such, The Grapes, is a must for all historical maritime buffs with a leaning towards the macabre. Passengers on the cruise ships that still dock in Southampton regularly pay a visit to soak up some Titanic vibes. Some say the pub is the one featured in James Cameron’s Oscar-winning movie of the doomed ship.
For the citizens of Southampton today, however, the pub is best known for being one of the premier sports bars in the city. Located just a ten-minute walk from Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, it is one of the most popular pubs for match-going Southampton fans.
The pub also provides a timely lesson in knowing what works — and sticking to it. The Grapes is known for showing football. When the present owners purchased the pub they tried to change it — make it more upmarket. It didn’t work. The sport came back in and the pub hasn’t looked back since.
It’s a traditional pub that shows sport, has a fruit machine and serves pickled eggs.
That’s not to say it hasn’t modernised over the years — it has — but The Grapes knows what kind of bar it is. It’s a traditional pub that shows sport, has a fruit machine and serves pickled eggs. But it also offers contactless payments, allows food in from the many restaurants and cafes that surround it and has clever ways of keeping customers coming back.
It’s a mix of the modern and the traditional then. What better way to look forward to the future?
Manager: Paul Holmes
Screens: Four – two in the front, two at the back
It used to be a wine bar. “When the present owners acquired the pub nearly 10 years ago they tried to open it as a wine bar. That lasted a few months when we realised that sport was an integral part of the pub so we got the TV subscriptions back in. We realised we couldn’t change the venue — showing sport was what people knew the pub for.”
It’s a traditional pub. “A lot of people come in here because of the history, what with the Titanic and what have you, so we’ve tried to keep it traditional. Even down to little things like serving pickled eggs. We’ve gone back to that sports bar — as soon as the football is on we’re really busy.
We realised we couldn’t change the venue — showing sport was what people knew the pub for.
Showing sport is key to The Grapes. “To get rid of the sport wasn’t the greatest idea. We’re actually looking to extend it — putting things like the boxing on and other pre-pay events.
It’s in the grown-up part of town. “This area — Oxford Street — is the mature area of the city. Oxford Street has lots of restaurants. We’re lucky because we’re the only pub in this area, so that’s another reason we’ve kept it traditional.”
The football is big. “On a Saturday if there’s a game on you’re looking at making double what we’ve made all week – it’s a big, big thing for us. If you speak to people in Southampton they’ll tell you that The Grapes is the place to be on a home game. Saturday games are certainly the biggest for us — people like to make a day of it. Particularly if Southampton win, they’re out to celebrate.”
Southampton home and away. “Since Southampton returned to the Premier League it’s been good because there are lots of fans here – so even if they’re not going to the game they’ll come out to watch the game on TV. And it’s not just Southampton fans that we attract — it’s all the football fans in the city. And even from the Isle of Wight. You definitely notice it.”
It’s renowned for showing sport. “We don’t really do much else. We tried doing live music on certain days but people come in for the football so it can be hard. We’ve moved the music to nights when football isn’t on. Throughout the week if the football is on, we’ll be showing it.“
It’s adapted. “When we took over the pub we had just two screens at the front. We needed to filter people out to the back so we got two new TVs out the back. It spreads people throughout the bar. Increasing the screens definitely increased trade.”
It’s busy for all the big games. “We were packed for the Liverpool v Manchester United game for instance. It can be hard to predict and it definitely depends on who’s playing. It can also depend on what students are in the city. Some years we have a lot of Manchester United supporters, other years it’s more Liverpool… And you know those games will be busy. But football definitely brings people into the pub.”
And other sport too. “Rugby in particular. We’ve started doing boxing too — we got a lot of requests for it. We debated it for a while as it is expensive, but we’ve tried it in place of live music and it works.”
“When the cruise ships are in we get a lot of requests for the rugby — we can split the games up and zone areas.”
Zoning. “When the cruise ships are in we get a lot of requests for the rugby — we can split the games up and zone areas. So we have football on one side and rugby on the other. There’s never any trouble: our regulars respect the pub and our staff.”
It uses social media as an advertising device. “We use Facebook (which is linked to our Twitter), Instagram, Snapchat… We’ve just got a new team in because there’s a big turnover in staff when the university term begins. Some of them do a lot of social media stuff at university so they run a lot of our social media channels.”
Customers can order from the restaurants on Oxford Street and bring it into the pub.
“The good thing about that is we don’t have people running about with food — we can concentrate on just serving drinks. It means the customer can get a decent pizza from Pizza Express across the road, watch the game and we still make money.”
It did try food. “We’ve only got a tiny kitchen upstairs. We also have rooms upstairs so cooking and bringing the food down can be problematic with people staying up there. So we only offer traditional bar snacks — pickled eggs, pickled onions, peanuts, pretzels…”
Pizza Express work with the pub. “They’ll run over and bring the pizzas – which other people then see and that will often lead to them ordering some food too.”
People order from the café next door too. “That’s more of a daytime thing. And then there’s Max’s on the other side. His food, which is excellent, works really well in the summer when people are sitting outside. He’ll take it to people’s tables.”
People can open tabs before going to the match. “When they come back afterwards they can carry on. It works. It makes people come back — we try and push it. We swipe their card at the till, it opens the tab and then when we cash off the final total and that goes through as a transaction.”
Contactless payments. “We offer it — it certainly speeds up transactions.”
Fruit machines. “Apparently we have one of the best takings in Southampton. It does really well for us.”
Loyalty card. We offer a Gold Card at the manager’s discretion. It gives customers 10% off.
Happy hour. “It runs throughout the week.”
There’s accommodation. “We’ve got four rooms upstairs. They do well. We’ve just joined Airbnb.”
Wi-Fi. “We have three different accounts. If one isn’t strong enough you can reconnect to another. We try and have some fun with the passwords. It was once ‘What are you asking for?” So when people asked what it was we’d say, ‘What are you asking for?” It confused people. And when older people asked it got a bit silly so we changed it.”
What makes a great pub today? “It should be simple. I think it’s nice for people to come in here and order straight away. It’s about having enough staff, having what people want and a nice atmosphere. Keep it friendly, keep it traditional — this pub suits a traditional feel, something people understand.”