Founded in 1758, Samuel Smith’s – or Sam Smith’s – is regarded as one of the most old-fashioned and secretive of pub empires, thanks in no small part to Humphrey Smith, its 75-year-old head honcho.
Under Smith’s guidance the 262-year-old, 200-strong pub chain and brewers – which includes the John Snow in Soho and The Fitzroy Tavern – has gained a reputation for secretive business practices, registering numerous businesses with Companies House to avoid revealing its sales and profits under one entity.
Its co-owner is even more mercurial. There’s no Wikipedia page for Smith, he abhors social media and is rarely photographed. But, ironically, the hereditary co-owner of Yorkshire’s oldest brewery-come-pub-chain is no stranger to headlines.
Smith is known for ruling with an iron fist, reportedly often turning up unannounced at his pubs in a chauffeur-driven car to check standards are being adhered to.
Just some of his heteroclite rulings include banning all swearing in his pubs in 2017, as well as banning music to avoid paying copyright fees. He’s also banned mobile phones, and once closed one of his pubs on New Year’s Eve because the landlords were supposedly serving too much beer in their pints.
This August, The Cow and Calf in Grenoside, Sheffield’s managers were reportedly fired and the doors closed indefinitely – just weeks after it had reopened after lockdown – when Smith stopped by and found his favourite desert, chocolate fondant to be missing from the menu.
The same month, the pub chain garnered even more headlines when it emerged that it was refusing to comply with the government’s track-and-trace programme.
What’s more, following its introduction in 2019, some Sam Smith pubs in York are still forbidden from accepting debit or credit card payments, despite the global pandemic and the shift to card only transactions at nearly every commercial business in the country.
Meanwhile, My London reports that Wetherspoons and Sam Smiths raised prices following lockdown, bringing in a profit of £210 million. Reportedly, customers at Sam Smith pubs in London had to pay up to £1 more per drink than before lockdown.
Like the sun rising in midwinter, however, there is a rumour of slow change on the way in the form of Humphrey’s 31-year-old son Samuel Geoffrey Gladstone Smith. Smith Jr is in charge of the 40 Sam Smith pubs in London and reportedly ordered staff that they must comply with track-and-trace rules.
The younger Smith is reportedly looking to modernise the business and attract a new generation of drinkers, but for the time being at least, the Sam Smith brand remains very much the enigmatic Humphrey Smith’s empire.
So who is Humphrey Smith?
Information on Humphrey Smith is hard to come by, but according to the London Economic, he’s as set in his ways as you might imagine, beginning each day by going out to buy rashers of bacon, one sausage and an egg for his breakfast from a local butcher.
As for the business side of things, the London Economic explains that his family “owns most of Tadcaster and the surrounding agricultural land and swathes of commercial land in Leeds and prime London spots.”
The family’s wealth is estimated at anywhere from £750 million to several billions with the Sunday Telegraph estimating Humphrey Smith could be worth £5bn, pointing to his property empire of an estimated 30,000 acres, and the fact that Sam Smith beers are sold across the United States, as well as the UK.
In other words, Smith has exactly enough money to do whatever he likes with his pubs — a right he exercises freely. Mobile phones, jukeboxes, modern decor, televised sport, pool tables, debit cards and drinks not produced by his company are all banned from most of his pubs. Apparently, they detract from Smith’s idea of what the pub should be; a refuge from the world outside, a place where people go for intimate conversation and escape.
Some have praised these measures. Others have been less enthusiastic.
An article in the Grimsby Telegraph explored one of Sam Smith’s pubs in Cleethorpes, North Lincolnshire noting that signage declared “Mobile phones, iPads, laptops, tablets, and other transmission/reception devices are not allowed to be used inside this pub. We want our traditional pub to be a haven for social conversation.”
It’s a nice sentiment, at least. But one that fell apart somewhat when Humphrey Smith himself was pictured using a mobile phone in a Manchester Wetherspoon’s. Presumably, Smith doesn’t see technology as inherently bad, it just isn’t for his pubs. Posting to TikTok in a lesser, rival pub is absolutely fine.
Smith’s biggest head scratch moment, however, came when he shut down the Fox and Goose in Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire just seven weeks after it opened after he heard a patron use the ‘F’ word in the bar, presumably at a cost of thousands of pounds of lost revenue.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the GMB trade union has previously criticised the company for its treatment of pub managers, actions which resulted in a number of court cases.
What does the future hold for Samuel Smith's?
During lockdown, the pub chain did receive some positive PR, however, when it employed a horse and cart to deliver beer to residents of Sutton and Tadcaster, North Yorkshire where its brewery is based.
Simon Crook, stable manager at the Sam Smith brewery, said: “We’re making people’s lives a bit happier, more smilier [sic]… Our horses have to go out on a daily basis. They’re not show horses, they’re meant to work.”
The business, however, would not disclose how many of its staff had been furloughed. And, in 2018 it was fined £30,000 and Smith earned a criminal conviction after refusing to hand over documents relating to its pension scheme.
“We are in receipt of your tiresome letter and we are not prepared to divulge the information to your organisation,” Humphrey Smith told the Pension Regulator at the time.
The TPR must hope that things will become easier under Humphrey’s son Samuel.
According to The Telegraph, “One person who knows Sam says: “He is a good sort really. Everyone is just waiting for him to take charge.” Just when that will be is anyone’s guess.
“We love being unique and quirky and hate the idea of being boring,” Samuel told business and beer journalist Glynn Davis in his only published interview. “We’re also not interested in what other people say about us, that’s just other people’s views. Just judge us by what we do, with our beers and pubs.”
Despite his emphasis on just how “quirky” and “unique” his pub chain is, Samuel would be hard pressed to be just as eccentric as his father. Whether his eventual ascension to the throne heralds a dramatic change is anyone’s guess.
For now, one thing is for sure, if you do happen to spot Humphrey Smith enjoying a pint of Taddy Lager in one of his pubs, whatever you do, don’t ask him for the wi-fi password.
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