In George Orwell’s vision of the perfect pub, the clientele of his imaginary Moon Under Water consisted “mostly of ‘regulars’ who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer”.
We started running The Cowpers Oak in December. Although Tim’s a local lad, I’d never laid eyes on the pub in its heyday. However, after a few shifts, I’d heard plenty of customers reminiscing about the family-sized roasts and the back field’s mini-farm. Weston Underwood is a little village with no other services; no cornershop, no post office. From the beginning, we wanted the pub to become a village hub and something that locals could be proud of.
We began by putting the rumour mill to rest. With the village grapevine working overtime, we hand-delivered Christmas cards along with a letter of introduction, encouraging support by including dates of festive events. Several comments let us know this personal touch was appreciated and it’s something we continue to do on a regular basis.
First impressions count
While our die-hard regulars would hold the bar up if the roof were caving in, we’ve managed to convert some of them to dining with us, too. Plus, making the place look good with a substantial refit was worth the investment.
Having won Buckinghamshire’s Best Kept Village many times, Weston Underwood likes to keep up appearances, and now the locals feel that the pub is more in keeping. “It’s smart; it feels cared for,” one lady told me recently.
It was a similar story when Rob Stanley and Nina Pierson took on the “dark, gloomy and unwelcoming” Grade II-listed Chelston Manor in Torquay. They painted it in lighter colours and removed the dark stain from the bar area.
Something we soon realised, as did Rob and Nina, was that everyone who comes through the doors is a potential customer. During our refurbishment, we used a number of local workmen. Not only did this help support our community, but they felt like part of the pub from day one, and were soon bringing in friends and family to admire their handiwork.
Events for locals
Despite the Chelston Manor’s location in a holiday destination, the couple knew it was local support that would make the venture a success.
“The beautiful garden, which was ideal for live music and outdoor dining, just wasn’t getting used,” says Rob. “Luckily we had good weather early in the year so we started a regular Sunday barbecue with live music. It brought back a lot of locals to the pub and gave us an early boost, picking up trade quicker than we had expected.”
Events are key. Our pub quiz is compËred by Tim and brings in regular teams, generating camaraderie. The dartboard’s back up and we’re currently trying to recruit a team.
At East Devon’s community-run Yarcombe Inn, demand is high for good food and entertainment but with profits going back into the community, there’s no time for the board to put their feet up.
As the pub’s Peter Tarrant tells me: “Initially, being without a pub for over a year generated enough enthusiasm to restart the business. We now run events such as music nights and we host skittles matches – all aimed at attracting locals back in, which is particularly difficult in a remote area such as ours.”
Inspired by the new breed of community-run schemes, we plan to create a ëcommunity panel’ to give them some ownership and provide us with their opinions. Inviting locals in to sample a range of tipples for our new wine list, for example, will hopefully help build a rewarding relationship. The mere fact we’re the nearest pub for some of our customers isn’t enough to keep them coming back.
Ways to win local love
Hold regular events you know your locals will like, from games nights to cheese and wine tasting evenings
Support nearby businesses by using local tradesmen and suppliers
Keep in touch with your community directly, through social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or with personal letters
Engage locals by getting their opinion, for example in creating new menus