Real Life Stories: Running A Successful Community Pub

community pub, running a pub, start up business, The Bell Inn at Bearsted
Written by: Pub Partners Team
Date added: Mon, 16/01/2017 - 10:00

The Bell Inn at Bearsted was taken on by landlord Nigel Williams and his partner Andrea two years ago. Since they got the keys to the pub they have transformed it into a thriving business, and put the pub on the map in their part of the world.

In this post we talked to Nigel about how he manages the pub, his team, marketing, and all the other things that make his customers come back again and again.

If you’re interested in taking on a pub and making it the hub of your community, read on…

Running A Pub: Customers Come First

Nigel’s vision for the Bell was to create a pub offer that combined great food and a traditional bar for locals and visitors to the area.

With plans to refurbish the pub he knew that he needed to keep loyal customers on board from the start. This is why he spent the first year just trading, running the pub as it had been before without making any radical changes.

By listening to the existing customers, Nigel was able to get a better understanding of what would work for them and for him, he says:

“The biggest fear was they [existing customers] 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.”

Of course, Nigel also wanted to attract new customers to the pub to grow the business. By being honest and transparent about what he wanted to achieve with the locals, he was able to look after everyone. Long standing customers understood that the pub needed to be updated and given a new lease of life, but they also knew that they would continue to receive a warm welcome.

Recruiting And Managing Pub Staff

Nigel has spent many years working in retail and therefore has a good understanding of customer service. With the ethos that ‘customers come first’ he is very astute at recruiting and managing his team.

Unlike many pubs where the bar staff are predominately young people, Nigel has a multigenerational team. His youngest member of staff is 16 whilst the oldest is 46, and this is for a reason:

“I’ve purposely recruited slightly older people, for life experience. By having a mix of ages we have staff who can relate to the older generation, and most other people who come in the pub.”

Another key factor in the way he runs the bar is how he alternates bar staff throughout the week. This is done with customers in mind, Nigel says:

“If you’ve got the same barmaid on every single night, that guy who comes in every day can’t talk to them about the same thing he talked about the night before. So by rotating the staff, that guy can talk about his problems, or the good stuff, night after night.”

Nigel is clear with his team that they’re in the bar to entertain: Chatting with the customers and delivering a great community pub experience.

“The minute we come into the bar, we’re on a stage and that’s about entertaining people: a good chitchat, a bit of gossip, or talking about the news. You can’t just pull a pint and go and stand in the corner.”

Training and Personal Development

Most pubs see a regular churn of staff and this can make it difficult to create a strong, united team. Nigel seems to have achieved this:

“We want to create a company where people feel like they’re part of the family. Yes, some days I have my manager head on, but everyone works the same – we're all on one level. I work in the bar, I get ideas from the team, and we’ve all developed together as a team.

The ethos is that if everyone’s happy in this place, it comes across the bar.”

He is also keen to provide training and support for this staff. In fact Nigel’s youngest daughter is on a Greene King apprenticeship scheme whilst she works in the pub, and he’s also opened up these opportunities to other members of staff:

“The nice thing with Greene King is they’ve got the apprenticeship schemes available. My two younger chefs both want to do the Pro Chef Level 3, but need to do Level 2 first. So with Greene King I can get their Level 2 for free, and next year they can then do their Level 3. I’m investing in them and they’re going to stay because they’re improving their knowledge all the time.”

Being a hands on landlord means Nigel is in the pub working with his team all the time. However, he also relies on a couple of key team members to help develop the other staff: imparting their knowledge.

One person who is really bringing on other team members, and helping the business in the process, is Jason the head chef:

“We’ve got a couple of young guys in the kitchen and Jason has really imparted his knowledge to them, so the standard and quality is very consistent. That’s the bedrock of the kitchen.

“I’m confident that he [Jason] can go away for two weeks holiday and my two lads, the chef juniors, can cook the same quality as him and they can run the kitchen. If Jason’s off I get an experienced chef in to support my juniors. The juniors run the kitchen because they know how it works, and they get the kudos of being the main man for that day!”

His staff also use Greene King’s online training courses, keeping them up-to-date and strengthening best practices in the pub.

This investment in staff means that should Nigel and Andrea want a holiday, they have the team in place to hold the fort. In fact, Nigel plans to take on another pub in the future so having a great team around him is vital for this vision:

“I could pull out of here tomorrow and the team I’ve got here could run this without any shadow of a doubt. They've all got the skills, and I could manage it remotely.”

Marketing The Pub To New Customers And Old

When he took on the Bell, Nigel had a clear plan to attract new customers to the pub. One of the ways he has done this is through the food offering. While the pub has always served food, Nigel has expanded and improved the offering with a focus on great, British pub classics.

To do this he has appointed a head chef, who brings many years of professional experience to the pub’s kitchen:

“Our chef Jason is a phenomenal chef. What he’s done is brought classically trained skills to pub food. We do good pub food - we’re not a fine dining experience - but Jason finds the best ingredients possible. He puts a lot of passion into it. So our fish and chips is really great fish and chips, with fresh fish, beer batter and cooked to perfection.”

Word of mouth is an important part of marketing a pub, whether it’s promoting the food, ambiance or special events. But to get things really going, landlords must do some marketing.

Nigel has had a website created for the Bell, has set up a Facebook page and uses in-pub marketing material to get the message out. While he says he struggles with it, as he does it all himself, he seems to be doing a great job:

“When you’re the landlord, you’re the pot washer, the barman, the sweeper upper and you do everything, and so you have to allocate time to do it. I mainly use our website and Facebook page to advertise all our events and share menus.”

One group of customers Nigel was very keen to attract to the Bell was women; the pub previously had been very male dominated. As well as creating a more attractive environment and offering in the pub for women, he has also promoted it on Facebook using videos and photos.

“Videos engage people more. We’ve done videos of making a gin and tonic as a bit of fun!”

His Facebook page and website work together. If someone visits the website they can also see recent Facebook updates and that makes the website more interesting and active. They may also ‘like’ the Facebook page from the website and will then see the Bell’s updates in their news feed.

This gives Nigel the opportunity to share new menus, events and other news with customers on Facebook, drive them to the website, and through the door. His advice to other pub landlords is to “keep it simple and be consistent.”

Events: Music, Sport, Beer Festivals And Hog Roasts!

Another way of attracting new customers to the pub is to put on events. This is not just about making a healthy profit on the day, but also getting people to experience the Bell and hopefully return for more. Nigel says:

“Just try things. Sometimes things don’t work but you should keep experimenting.”

Nigel has found his regular Friday music nights are a big draw, creating a great atmosphere that gets customers coming back time and time again. He’s also introduced BT Sport for screening football; not to create a sports pub, but to provide something for his regular customers.

His advice for holding events is to plan the year in advance:

“I’ve got an Excel spread sheet with all my events in for next year, it makes life so much easier. I’ve already booked all my bands. I’ve got dates for hog roasts and beer festivals in the garden, they’re pencilled in. Then I only need to concentrate on the next few months, rather than too far ahead.”

Key Takeaways For Running A Successful Community Pub

  • Listen to your customers: make sure any changes you make are with their interests at heart.
  • Remember your team is there to entertain: they need to be happy and confident dealing with customers and providing a great pub experience.
  • Invest in your team: they will reward you by being better at their jobs and helping your business grow.
  • Experiment to attract customers: try different things to bring in new customers and to keep existing customers coming back for more.

If Nigel’s story has inspired you and you would like to talk to our team about running a pub, get in touch!