Village pubs have had a tough few years, with many closing down as their influence in the community has waned. James Stagg looks at how landlords are using their initiative to bring the punters back in, with everything from vegetable box schemes to post offices
The village pub has been a vital part of community cohesion for centuries. If ever you wanted to find a local tradesman, hold a meeting or just find out the gossip, the village pub was the place to be. But in recent decades its influence in local life has waned, resulting in pub closure throughout the country.
For those still in business it is no longer enough to simply serve up beer, wine, spirits and sympathy. The watchword of every landlord is now diversity, as they seek to return the local pub to the centre of the community and bring in the widest possible variety of trade.
A report produced by sector skills council People 1st in partnership with the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) at the end of last year found that over the past year publicans have been diversifying and offering more than just a location to enjoy a beer. Of those surveyed, 94% said they had tried new ideas over the last 12 months, while 84% had invested up to £5,000 introducing new initiatives.
And it's not just BII members who are turning to less traditional revenue streams. Across the country, pubs are embracing change and offering services that include village shops, post offices, vegetable box schemes, butcher's facilities and even barber shops. Particularly in more rural areas, where local shops and services have been forced out of business, pubs have picked up the pieces and provided a service to the community, as well as generating welcome additional revenue.
"Times are tough for some, but licensees with entrepreneurial flair who use their initiative and take a few calculated risks can reap the rewards," says Neil Robertson, chief executive of the BII.
"The industry is unique for budding entrepreneurs in the current climate; there is enormous scope for their talents."
Those pubs that have integrated themselves into local life are the most successful in broadening their appeal and attracting a wider range of customers. Just selling beer to middle-aged men is no longer sustainable. A case in point is the Nags Head in Billericay, Essex where manager Simon Sugrue has helped turn a traditional drinking man's boozer into a welcoming and inclusive community facility.
"The pub was going to close so the only option was to change the way it operated," Sugrue explains.
"When Linda [Webber, the owner] bought it, the pub was dark, dingy and smoky. It was very much a drinking man's pub; a pub that everyone knew was for one type of person."
Webber brought in Sugrue for his local knowledge; he had grown up in the village and knew the community and what would work. Together they have set up the Nags WAGS - which is more of a Women's Institute-style group than a collection of wannabe footballers' wives - and run regular coffee mornings, race days and charity events.
"I wanted to put the heartbeat back in the village and make the Nags Head a place that you'd visit to find a local tradesman like a plumber, brickie or mechanic," Sugrue adds.
"When everyone gets together there's a real sense of community and helping your neighbour. Village life is fickle but also very friendly, and in this village residents know that if they want anything they can come to the Nags Head."
While the Nags Head has got by without offering any more food than a Sunday roast, most pubs find that it's the lure of first-class food and even take-away services that draws in the trade. At the Fishes in North Hinksey, Oxford, general manager Katie Robertson has introduced a vegetable box scheme. Part of the Peach Pub Company (winner of Caterer‘s Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2009), the Fishes began the arrangement after discussing it with North Aston Organics, a firm that shares a farm on which Peach has a training facility.
"We started using them at the pub and volunteered to act as a distribution point for the area of Oxford not already covered by North Aston Organics," explains Robertson.
"It's local produce, which is important. When customers come in to eat, they can go away with a box of vegetables from the same source. What's more, those that come in to pick up their boxes often stay for a drink."
While the Fishes displays its boxes behind the bar, a growing number of businesses have built dedicated shops as part of the pub. Particularly in rural areas, where local shops have struggled to stay in business, pubs now offer provisions that would otherwise mean a trip out of town. The Black Swan hotel in Ravenstonedale, Cumbria, has brought back the village shop, as has the Black Cow in Dalbury Lees, Derbyshire, while rural post offices have been retained at the Kings Arms in Stainton, Cumbria, and the Mussel Inn in Plymouth.
All of these were given guidance and help with funding by Pub is the Hub, a not-for-profit organisation begun by the Prince of Wales (see box, page 30) that assists in the development of pubs as a community resource.
"The majority of the time pubs contact us and if we have an advisor volunteer in that region we'll forward the details on to them," says Sarah Burns from Pub is the Hub.
"We advise businesses on whether their plans will be feasible, and we provide help with business plans or marketing, for example.
"Usually a pub won't have money to make the changes that could bring in the community, so we advise them on possible funding streams."
The Black Swan's owners were given help getting through planning red tape and advice that led to a grant for 50% of the capital expenditure. It had suffered many years of decline but, following its purchase by Alan and Louise Dinnes, it now provides a community service, being a meeting place and a source of local groceries (see box, opposite).
A FOCAL POINT
Elsewhere in Cumbria, the Kings Arms in Stainton was also helped to diversify by Pub is the Hub. A family-run operation and the only pub in the village, it includes a small shop that doubles as a post office.
Adam Jakeman and his parents took on the pub five years ago. "It was a fairly quiet, traditional country pub, but it was tough going at first for one reason or another," he says.
"The owners of the post office were looking to offload it and initially my mum and dad took it on and ran it from their house. After a while they decided to integrate it into the pub so we've got a lean-to extension where we sell other bits and pieces as well."
There is a farm shop in the village but such is the community spirit that there is an understanding that the pub doesn't sell duplicate products. Jakeman says that since the shop has been open more locals visit the pub.
"It's more in the centre of the village now, more of a focal point for the community," he explains.
Those that have been successful not only put on events and services but also make sure any additional offering is locally sourced. Supporting local suppliers generates goodwill and creates a real sense of community. When Linda Gotto bought the Parrot Inn, at Forest Green, Surrey, four miles from the farm run by her husband Charles, it seemed logical to open up a butchers as part of the business.
"We have a farm shop on site with an emphasis on butchery," explains Murray Lobban, the full-time butcher.
"We process all the meat on the premises and sell all the subsidiary items that go with it, such as cooked pies and charcuterie."
Lobban says the shop brings in trade for the pub, while the pub generates trade for the shop. "People come in to buy from the shop and, as it's between the bar and the restaurant, they will stop by for a drink. In the same sense, punters on the way home might buy a pie for their evening meal," he adds.
With planning permission to build a farm shop beside the pub, there are plans to sell local vegetables too.
"There are no shops in the village at all so our bread, preserves and meat are very successful. We're busy all the time. There's good drinking trade but also lots of emphasis on food," Lobban says.
There's no doubt the licensed hospitality industry has endured a challenging few years since the smoking ban. But those that have embraced change and diversified, matching their offer to the needs and demands of their customers, have successfully returned the pub to the centre of the community.
PUB IS THE HUB
The Prince of Wales initiated Pub is the Hub in 2001, with the aim of encouraging rural pub owners, licensees and their local community to work together and retain local services. It is a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation that provides advice and guidance on developing and funding potential projects.
Pub is the Hub has helped pubs to provide local shops, accommodate post office services, provide school meals, IT training and community centres.
CASE STUDY: THE BLACK SWAN, RAVENSTONEDALE
When Alan and Louise Dinnes took over the Black Swan hotel in Ravenstonedale, Cumbria, it was what Louise describes as a "doer-upper", a business with potential.
"It was very tired. It had been successful 25 years ago but was failing, with horrific turnover and occupancy of 12%," she says.
Alan and Louise felt the location was right - rural, yet just a few minutes from the M6 - but were determined to have as many income streams as possible. With the help of Pub is the Hub, they invested around £150,000, restoring the building and developing the business. Cumbria County Council contributed half of the funds, through the Cumbria Rural Infrastructure Programme.
"We didn't have a lot of money so we sold our house and started work on the public areas," Louise explains. "We've built it up and reinvested and reinvested."
The hotel now forms a vital part of the community infrastructure since it includes the only shop in the village. It was opened last spring by the Prince of Wales, who also met local farmers to discuss rural issues.
"We've opened up a village store because it's a 12-mile round trip to the nearest shop," Louise adds.
"So locals now pop in for milk in the morning and stop for a coffee or a beer in the pub."
As much as possible is sourced locally. To reinforce the message there is a blackboard in the bar detailing where all the meat, fish and vegetables are sourced.
"Everything we use in the hotel we sell in the shop," Louise says.
"We have local cheese, sausages and bacon. A local farmer's wife makes soap that we use in the rooms - that's on sale, as is bread baked by another farmer's wife."
However, though the shop generates additional sales in the bar it doesn't turn a profit as a standalone business.
"We have to make sure it's manned full time, so we employ three ladies who job share," Louise explains.
"To be successful it has to be reliable so it's open from 9am to 5pm, and after that customers can come into the pub to ask for produce. It only just breaks even but it attracts extra trade into the hotel."
Not only does the hotel supply the village's groceries, but it has even become a location for a defibrillator to ease the pressure on the distant hospital. "There are ‘first responders' trained in the area," Louise says.
"If an ambulance can't respond quickly enough they will use the keypad on the front door and access the medical equipment."
Truly a public service.