Pubs, if you think about it, could be likened to football teams in more ways than one. For a start they are, as their name suggests, very public entities that tend to be of interest to all – and because of that their overall performance is placed right up their on a high-profile altar for everyone to praise, or knock.
So running a pub must in some ways be similar to managing a football team. If you take on a beaten up old place which no one frequents then the only way is up. A bit like a football manager who’s taken on a side facing certain relegation, you will not be thrown into a pressure cooker of expectation.
Do a David Moyes, though, and take over a Manchester United, and you will automatically be under pressure to succeed.
I was thinking this when I travelled to the far south west recently to visit a pub that sits in the heart of one of the prettiest, best loved fishing villages in the UK. In footballing terms, the Cadgwith Cove Inn is way up there in the premier league. It is famous and popular despite being so far from the rest of the UK.
While serving a strongly-knit community – which of course is a central part of its charm – the pub also plays host to small armies of visitors who make their way down to the Lizard each year.
And all these customers – both the zillions of tourists and the local fishermen and other villagers – will undoubtedly make presumptions about the place. They will assume it will be there; it will provide a good beer and food; and that it will continue to wear the same quaint air of unchanging Cornishness that it has done for the best part of 400 years.
But in today’s fast-moving society, it is wise to presume nothing. Especially when it comes to pubs, even more especially, when it comes to country pubs in out-of-the-way places…
The rate of demise for such places is something like 28 pub closures per week. Which is the underlying reason that the Western Morning News has joined forces with Otter Brewery in bringing you this series about country inns. We, like so many of our readers, want to stop the rot – and in our bid to do so we are visiting successful hostelries around the region to find out what makes them tick.
25 years in insurance
All of which brings us to Garry and Helen Holmes who took over the Cadgwith Cove Inn just 18 months ago and seem to be making a tremendous success of the job, despite the fact neither of them had ever worked in a pub before.
Garry served 25 years in “the insurance game”, while Helen worked as a regional sales manager with Thomson Holidays.
So when Otter Brewery managing director Patrick McCaig and I visited, we wanted to know what had made two successful people working “up-country” move to the most far-flung part of Cornwall and take over one of the county’s most famous pubs…
“It started with us wanting to live in this part of Cornwall, because I have cousins here and family links with Cadgwith,” said Garry. “I spent over ten years having most of my holidays here. For us, it was wanting to bring our own children up here – to relive what I experienced as a child.
“When I introduced Helen to Cadgwith she absolutely loved it – and we were asking how we could make living down here? Then, three years ago, we were down for the regatta and one of my family happened to mention the pub was coming back on the market. I Googled it and we started to negotiate within a week.”
Helen added: “We knew we could run a business – and we knew this pub very well. Every time we were down here we were having a drink or eating here. When you do that, you can’t help but think you absolutely love it – but that you might tweak it one way or another.”
However, the pair were aware of the dangers of wading in and changing things without a by-your-leave – a mistake which has occurred in all too many country pubs taken over by people intending to live out a dream.
“We feel privileged to be given the opportunity to run this pub and we wanted to get that message out there,” Garry told Patrick and I. “The locals were ready for a change. They, perhaps, felt the pub was not being loved in the way they wanted it to be loved. But of course, better the devil you know. People wish for change, but then – when they know change is coming – go from thinking about a potentially positive situation to one where they’re not sure if it’s going to be positive.
“So we did a few local newspaper pieces trying to set our stall out and give local people an inkling about what sort of people we were. We talked as much about what we weren’t going to do, as what we were. We found it important to make certain statements like: ‘We will not be changing the bar – we will not be changing the lounge… We will be here to invest and improve, but the changes will be subtle’.
“The locals had seen a history of people wanting to come here and turn it into a restaurant – so we wanted to make our intentions clear.”
Helen joined in: “This is a working fishing village – the locals are the fishermen here – and one of the tweaks we did want to make was to make sure all the fish served here came from the cove.
Fair to fishermen
“In the past that wasn’t always the case – now we’ve got six boats selling to us and we try to make sure we are fair to all the fisherman. We even have their names on the menu. That is really important – because, really, the fishing is the heart and soul of the village and you need to see it reflected in the pub.
“The fish is caught in the morning and on our menu in the afternoon,” she added, ensuring that both Patrick and I and Otter’s public relations man Ross Hayward all tried different fish dishes for lunch.
“All this was hot on the heels of the Fisherman’s Apprentice programme on the BBC which was highlighting the difficulties local fishermen had – so one of the first things we wanted to do was make sure we could take as much fish as we possibly could from those guys,” said Garry. “Also, there is a real demand from people who want to know if the fish has been caught in the cove…
“Visitors love the fact that they can see the fishermen bringing in the fish – they’ll literally sit here watching them drag the fish box up,” laughed Helen who went off to place our orders for what, I have to say, was a happily memorable maritime meal.
Patrick, who being a brewer is something of a pub-expert, commented: “You are almost creating a sort of ‘celebrity-dom’ for your local fishermen. People who are coming down are beginning to say things like – ‘Wow, this is one of Legg’s lobsters!’ That is unique – and what’s more you’ve been clever enough to get the local fishermen to embrace that. You’ve got the locals helping to make your formula work by being a part of it.”
The line a publican must tread between regulars and locals – and the itinerant armies of tourists – is often a difficult one to tread, so I asked how the couple had been faring as they worked behind the bar in this most iconic of all Westcountry inns…
“I think it’s easy,” shrugged Garry. “It’s about having a pub which is open to everyone 365 days a year. We happen to be very busy at certain times – but the locals understand that. They will pick their moments when to come in.
“They very much embrace the tourists – they get the importance of tourists to Cornwall. They actually become part of what’s on offer, in that they will sit here and tell stories – and they will remember the people who come back here three or four times a year.
“What we don’t have here is that the door creaks open and the music stops and everyone looks around. The locals will smile to the visitor and they will proactively start a discussion in a friendly way. That immediately relaxes the visitor – they will stay longer – they will have a lovely time and want to come back.”
But he added: “There is an expectation that’s never discussed that locals never expect to wait – the challenge for us is how do you manage that without alienating the holidaymakers? The key for us is just to try and serve quickly. But sometimes I will make the locals wait – just a little – simply because they weren’t next in the queue. But you can accelerate the process. The key is quick acknowledgment – so they know, you know, they are there.
“It has been a massive learning curve,” he admitted. “We came in on the 6 August (2012) and I’d never stood on that side of the bar before. There we were – we’d got a new chef and we’d got crowds coming through the door. But what we did have was locals sitting either side of the bar pointing to where everything was to help us. They wanted us to succeed – which is just as well because we were a little bit rabbit-in-the-headlights.
“Looking back, the amount that you absorb – both consciously and unconsciously – it had to sink in quickly. But we are still learning. It’s hard work,” he smiled. “I don’t think people who haven’t run a pub fully understand how hard it is. We’ve had to learn to adapt ourselves to little things – like when people phone and want to speak to their friends. That was something I did expect would happen. But we’ve had to come to terms with the fact that it is part of a village pub.
“Then there’s the fishermen who radio in to the pub to say: ‘Have you got five or six people in there who could help pull the boat up?’”
“Yes – we’re enjoying it. Yes – the business is doing well. And yes – we are reinvesting back into the business,” said Helen who told us something of the pub’s famous Friday night sea-shanty sing-alongs…
The thought seemed to put a gleam in her eye and she added: “We are looking forward to the next 18 months, certainly.”
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