A strange brew in Greenwich’s Old Brewery

I hate to be the sort of idiot that constantly gripes about customer service, because it’s an easy way to sound like the kind of grotbag who thinks all people who work in service industries should bow and scrape to them.

But have any fellow Greenwich-ites noticed just how strange the service is at the bar in The Old Brewery? Now, I love the place, I love the beers, and I’d gladly subscribe to the construction of a statue to honour the founder of Meantime Brewery, Alistair Hook.

But I’ve heard a few odd tales of service in there, and encountered a couple of odd moments of my own. The reason I bring this up is that The Old Brewery is important. It’s not run by the awful Inc Group, it’s not run by a soulless chain, it feels like ours, owned by a firm that’s based in Charlton (and is moving to Greenwich soon). It was a great place to enjoy the Greenwich Sessions gigs for free, which was especially sweet since Inc Group was the concerts’ booze partner.

The Old Brewery should be something we can be proud of. And my word, it is a stupendous little bar. But the service in there… it’s just weird, like the staff have been told that keeping the place absolutely spotless is more important than serving customers.

The layout doesn’t quite help – middle-aged men tend to crowd out the bar – and admittedly some of the snotty customers don’t help either. But nobody seems to have told the staff how to serve in order at the bar, meaning trying to get a drink is a bit of a lottery.

I had a hilarious moment in there a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a bag of bacon crisps behind the bar, and finished my order with those wonderful words “and a bag of bacon crisps, please”. Which crisps, asked the woman behind the bar. “Bacon crisps, please,” I repeated, thinking she’d merely misheard me. She looked puzzled. She then brought all four flavours of crisps to the counter, and asked me which one I wanted. “Bacon crisps, please,” I repeated, pointing to the bag with the word “bacon” on the front. She finally understood.

Fast forward to last night, where there were three people behind the bar, three people waiting to be served, but only one serving – and stuck in a long demonstration of what whiskies were on offer. It took a bit of “what the hell is going on here?” face-pulling before another barman was given permission to serve. It seems as if the staff are ruled with a rod of iron, not allowed to use any initiative or wit of their own.

Right at the close of the night, obediently draining our drinks at 11.19pm and placing the empty glasses back on the table and getting ready to leave, one of the barmen approached us. Was it to collect our glasses, thank us for our custom and wish us a safe journey home? No. “We’re closing in ten minutes, guys,” he said, took our empty glasses, and walked off. I actually burst out laughing.

I worked in a busy tourist pub for a year in the 1990s, so I understand some of the pressure they’re under, but I think I can also sense when things aren’t quite right. Maybe it’s a Meantime staff-training problem – the service at the Greenwich Union has had some strange moments (recently the staff all seemed to have been instructed to ask “how are you?”, agony for those who can’t manage small talk) but generally it’s on the side of the angels. But the staff just don’t seem comfortable in the Old Brewery. It’s not that they’re outright rude, it’s just that they don’t seem happy there. Which I don’t understand, because I’d love to be serving the best beers in London. So what’s gone wrong?

Tourist Greenwich is notorious for crap service – like the haughty bar staff in Inc Group-owned venues, or the barman in the Cutty Sark one swelteringly hot day a few weeks back who had to be told what a “bitter shandy” was. Us locals are depending on The Old Brewery to save our sanity, and to save our home town from the march of identikit tourist crapdom. Please, someone make it better. Just give the bar staff a cuddle and tell them it’ll be okay. And do it quickly, eh?

13 comments

  1. I’ve been there twice, in both cases the tables were dirty, the staff rude and the food overpriced.

    I don’t mind paying extra for food if everything else is perfect, but everything else isn’t so it’s not worth it.

    It’s a pity, but I won’t make that mistake again.

  2. The Greenwich Phantom adds – I’ve moved this from the Greenwich Time post above:

    I sort of know what you mean, Darryl. I was there a couple of nights ago – there were three people behind the bar, only one of whom was serving, and the usual beeer-tastery of several types was going on. When I finally did get served it was by that one person (the other two were still polishing glasses) and after someone else who had arrived after me. Bah. Great place, iffy service.

    TGP – you know your endorsement is on their postcards, don’t you? 🙂

  3. It doesn’t seem to be a lack of staff that’s the problem (unlike other places), just the staff don’t seem to really know what’s going on. A general “who’s next?” from the bar staff to a crowd of waiting punters is almost acceptable when a place is heaving, but not when there’s more staff than customers. They should be able to have a general idea of what order the customers turned up in. And it sometimes seems like some of the staff aren’t allowed to serve; they sort of stand around with a look that says “I’d like to help, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to”. Maybe they need sending up to the west end or City to get an idea of how bars can be run.

    It’s a shame because the beers are great, the venue’s nice, and the food I’ve had has always been very good. Out of all of those things the service should be the easiest to get right.

  4. I can’t speak for the bar, but I went to the restaurant last week and I couldn’t fault the staff. Very attentive and happy to accommodate our whims. I thoroughly enjoyed it, made by the good staff. Maybe bar needs a lesson from the restaurant?

  5. Our experience in the restaurant a couple of weeks ago bears out the poor service comments about the bar. Despite booking, there was no one ready to show us to our table. I had to go right round the bar to get anyone to take any notice of us. It was only just over half full, but there was a long wait for our starters, and the beers we ordered (to match the food)didn’t arrive until we’d almost finished. We had sat and waited to start eating, and watched what we thought were our drinks sitting on the bar waiting to be brought over, but, after 3 staff had stopped and looked at them and walked away we eventually got an apology that there had been a mix up. Those drinks disappeared and some time later we got the correct drinks. There was also a long wait for our mains, and our waiter was not that bothered about offering us further drinks – to match the food.

    The sad thing is, the food is very good. However, if they can’t get right the USP of the restaurant – beer matched to (and actually served with the) food – then I fear for their future. I will give it another try, as I too was hopeful of a decent challenger to Frank’s empire.

    Let’s hope they read the comments on this blog and things improve in both the bar and restaurant

  6. Yes, indeedy, Darryl – I do know – they were polite enough to ask me if it was okay. I am delighted they use my words on their postcards. The place is, in general, brilliant. I’d hazard the best bar in Greenwich for looks, atmosphere, and, I’m told, beer. That doesn’t mean to say there isn’t room for improvement – and yes, the service could do with some polishing. But I still go there whenever I get the chance.

  7. True, Phantom – I’m hoping that their use of your words means they take blogs seriously and address the service. There’s a whole heap of goodwill towards Meantime out there, and I hope they don’t ruin it by taking customers for granted.

  8. been a few times, and can’t fault the place. It makes my heart sing if I think back 10yrs to when the whole shooting match was behind closed doors, quietly crumbling away.
    When I went one night this week I was the beneficiary of an explanation of the differences between Pale Ale and India Pale Ale, with free tasting to boot. The youngish barman really knew his stuff (although granted I didnt check behind me to see if a queue was building) but at the time I was struck that this was better than the run-of-the-mill agency type bar staff that seem to staff most pubs these days (or maybe that’s just Inc?).

  9. The Old Brewery is a 4* place, based on the only time I’ve visited them. Good drinks, good food, good service. Of course it can’t top the Pilot Inn, a 5* place (but then again, it is my local).

  10. I’ve been maybe 12 or 15 times, for drink, food and morning coffees since it’s opened, and altho there might have been the odd scatty moment in a crowded bar I’ve found the staff the nicest in the area. When we had to wait 15 minutes after our restaurant booking time we got a free round of drinks; the last time I was there one of the staff asked after my son and they’re cool about letting me taste the rather variable, strenght-wise, Porter (Oh no! Maybe I was the 40something holding up the other poster?). I like the staff at the Union, too, they’re young, vibrant and friendly, which is certainly not always the case at the Tolly.

    Alistair Hook is by all accounts opinionated, but I think he’s done a good job selecting and training staff, and I’m glad he’s made his home in Greenwich.

    To me, both the Union and the Old Brewery only have one real fault – the outrageous prices for a glass of wine. The other week a bar-man recommended the Pinot Noir. It was NINE QUID! Maybe the slow service on that evening was me being carried out, fainting at the shock to my wallet.

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