Real Life Stories: Transforming The Bell Inn at Bearsted

run a pub, refurbish a pub
Written by: Pub Partners Team
Date added: Tue, 03/01/2017 - 10:00

Two years ago Nigel Williams and his partner Andrea took over The Bell Inn at Bearsted, Kent. This Greene King pub is in the countryside, right on the edge of the Kent Downs, but also close to Maidstone and other large towns.

Here we share how Nigel and Andrea have transformed it into a thriving community pub.

Read on to be inspired and decide whether you would like a project like Nigel and Andrea!

Spotting The Potential In A Pub

Right from the start Nigel had a vision for the Bell. He already knew the pub and location well, having lived in the area, and says it was ‘oozing with potential’.

“Bearsted has quite a diverse mix of pubs and I think what we’ve done is bring a traditional pub back into the area.”

Nigel had run a pub before but that hadn’t worked out, partly because of its location. So when The Bell Inn at Bearsted became available he had a very good idea of what he was looking for in a pub, and whether the Bell was a good fit.

He wanted to run a community pub – the kind of pub he likes to visit - attracting locals and families, as well as visitors to the area. The Bell had the potential, but it did need some work.

Nigel says, “It’s the right size, and the area was screaming out for a family pub. There’s a few other pubs in the area that have a slightly different mix of customers: some can be quite colourful characters, some are very much football orientated, some are very foodie. But there wasn’t a pub where you can come and bring your family, feel comfortable and feel that you’re welcome. I think we’ve done that. I knew that this pub could do that very quickly – lovely big garden, lovely big areas inside, and that’s why I wanted this particular pub.” 

“As soon as I saw it advertised I thought ‘that’s a peach, I want that pub!’ I 100% believe it was the right thing to do. They say in life that you need to be lucky, but sometimes in life you need to make your own luck – I think we’ve done that here.”

Working With Greene King

Having not had a great experience with his previous pub, Nigel was determined to get it right this time. The most important thing for him was to work with a pub operator that was transparent and honest:

“Greene King are very transparent. They tell you what’s available, we went through the numbers together, and I am very fortunate to have a great BDM with Yvonne* who’s been good from day one. I gave her a hard time, but the nice thing is she’s realistic and won’t oversell anything. She’s good in terms of getting you to think about things. So for me it was an easy negotiate because we could be quite open and honest, and realise where we could go with the pub and it’s potential.”

His advice for other potential landlords is to “make sure that you get the right deal for you. That the numbers stack up and that you can trust the pub operator.”

Nigel’s Business Development Manager is Yvonne Fraser and her role involves finding the right landlord for the right pub and then working with that landlord to develop the business. Every landlord prepares a business plan that explores the goals for the pub: what they want to do, why they think it’s a good idea, and how they plan to do it.

You can download a business plan template here if you want to have a look.

With Yvonne’s support Nigel was able to create a plan for transforming the Bell into his perfect pub; and with some tough negotiations he also secured the right deal for the refurbishment project!

Here’s what he did:

Year 1: Trade

Nigel and Andrea’s first year at the Bell was focussed on developing their ideas for transforming the pub. Although they were confident that their vision for the pub was right, they needed to be sure that they executed it in the right way.

“By trading in it for the first year we were able to see where we would make the biggest gains. That was quite an advantage to us as we could clearly see what would work.”

There were two main considerations:

  1. Existing customers
  2. Design

Customers are at the heart of any pub business and Nigel knew that he needed to get them on his side. Although he wanted to attract new customers to the Bell, he didn't want to alienate the locals, especially as some of them had been drinking in the pub for over 30 years.

When Nigel and Andrea took it over, the Bell had a very male clientele. It didn’t appeal to many women, couples or families. However, Nigel knew that it was important that he got it right for existing customers:

“You have to care, if you don’t care these people won’t stay. They’re your stable bread and butter, they bring in £5,000 a week, they’re always there. They’re the ones you want to keep but also you’ve got to be aware that you’ve got to entertain the new audience.”

That first year was spent listening to the customers. Nigel says that ‘the art of keeping customers’ is to keep them informed. By sharing his ideas, listening to feedback and finding out about what had been done in the past, Nigel was able to align his plans with his existing customers and in the process get their support.

“The biggest fear was they thought I was going to make it ‘foodie’, just like other places in our village where they couldn’t come and enjoy themselves. By listening to them, what’s happened in the past, what’s worked here, what didn’t work, I got them interested. I’m so pleased that a lot of the guys, and girls, that were here before are still here and they love the place.”

The other key consideration was the design of the refit. Nigel already had a vision of what his perfect pub looked like and he was determined that Greene King didn’t give him a ‘clone pub’.

“To be honest my worry when I was first talking to Greene King about doing the pub, is that you go and see a lot of pubs and managed houses and everything seems to be duck egg blue! Everywhere I went these refits all looked the same and I was so determined to make sure my pub was not going to be like that.”

Nigel and Andrea spent a lot of time visiting other pubs to get inspiration. They took a camera and if they saw something they liked, took a photo. With these they created a mood board to give our Greene King designer a really good idea of what they wanted.

Nigel says that his experience of working with our designer was great. Together they were able to create a design that met all his expectations:

“I think the designer really got his head round what I was looking for. You need to have a designer, you need to have someone who thinks slightly differently to you, if I’d done the painting it would have been awful, but he knew how to pull things together.”

Year 2: Refurbishing The Bell Inn

With designs drawn up and existing customers on board, the Greene King builders moved in and Nigel and Andrea moved out. While they had a holiday in Egypt the major work of refurbishing the pub took place.

Nigel says, “They were going to smash the pub up and rip it out, and I didn’t want to be here the noise would have been phenomenal. When I got back in it was great because the last two weeks I spent time with Greene King’s builders and they were fantastic. All the guys were so willing to help and real grafters, they didn’t let up – real tradesman. When you said ‘do you think we could do this, or that’ there was never ‘no’, it was always ‘let’s try’. So we changed a few things and it became the dream.”

The big reveal was a nerve-wracking experience but Nigel and Andrea didn’t need to worry. Having done their homework they had created a space that worked for them, and for their customers.

The new layout balanced the various requirements of customers new and old. A traditional bar for locals to prop up and put the world to rights, a separate restaurant area for people visiting for the new food offering, and comfortable seating for customers wanting a quiet drink and chat.

The pub retains many of the features customers had liked before, such as the dartboard, but allows Nigel and Andrea to offer a new experience too. For example to provide a better experience for female customers Nigel and Andrea have expanded the drinks offering to include a wider range of wines and prosecco, and also introduce a range of gins.

“We have a lovely gin offer now with six different types of gin. I like to create the theatre with the big bowl, lots of ice. I think women feel that someone’s looking after them. I think we’ve done a really good job of bringing them in.”

New Food Offering

One of the most significant changes to the Bell is the food offering. Although the Bell has always served food, Nigel had a very particular idea of the kind of food offering he wanted. Now he’s serving lunches and dinner, specialising in great, classic pub food.

Nigel has installed a classically trained chef in the kitchen who has many years experience, and two assistant chefs. The food offering has a focus on fresh, local produce and traditional British dishes. While Nigel is the first to say that his pub food is not fine dining, they have already carved out a reputation for delivering good quality, freshly prepared food at reasonable prices.

The balance between the traditional pub vibe with a well-stocked bar, and a restaurant offering a something a little bit more special than standard pub fare, has created a great all round pub offer.

Live Music and Sport

Another feature of the Bell is Friday Night Band Night. Live music is something Nigel and Andrea love to go to, so why not incorporate it into their own pub concept? Balancing live music and their evening food offering may seem like a challenge, especially as Friday nights are when many people want to go out to eat but Nigel says it works well, “everyone knows we do it, there’s no surprises. A lot of people who ring up to eat on Friday want the live music too.”

Nigel also explored the option of screening live sport at the Bell and signed up to BT Sport for a year. The first match he promoted heavily and in his own words it became ‘like the terraces, it was dreadful. People were effing and jeffing and I had little old ladies in the restaurant who could hear it, and I very quickly just shut it down.’ That experience taught him that his was not the right pub for sports events on this scale, and although he still screens a few matches it’s a much more low key thing for locals.

“We have a good little football league here, there’s thirty of us involved in that, and we have great banter over that. So what I’ve done is kept it [BT Sport] but what I don’t do is advertise it. So the people who come in know about it, and they know it’s a no effing and jeffing pub. We enjoy a more sedate game and it’s great, we have great banter in here and that is just proper; that’s what makes it a pub.”

Year 3: Future Plans For The Bell And Beyond

2017 will see a transformation of the garden and with the addition of a ‘street food shack’. As the Bell has a large garden with room for around 100 customers, there is great potential for summer trade.

The development of the outside space will create a new opportunity to grow the business and revenue further. The street food shack will offer food such as stone based pizzas, burgers, salads, etc., and also a take away service.

Nigel and Andrea don’t plan at stopping at one pub. They have plans to transform another couple of pubs in their part of Kent with the aim of managing all three together, with a great team of staff to help them.

Would you like to transform a pub like Nigel and Andrea have, and build a really successful business that has great potential to grow? There are similar opportunities out there for the right landlord, as well as pubs that don’t require such a major transformation.

If this has been a dream of yours, why not take the next step to see whether you could make it a reality? If you’re ready you can contact us for a chat, or attend one of our Open Days which are a great opportunity to meet our Business Development Managers and find out more.

Find out when our next Open Day is and book an appointment here.