Monday, 27 September 2010

Round and Round and Back again

It is now confirmed. We are on the move.
Days off mean packing boxes, freecycling, charity donating and recycle items we no longer use or need. The house we currently live in is becoming more and more like a warehouse rather than the home we have enjoyed for more than four years now. Even the children are helping fill boxes, and there is an element of excitement buzzing around.
The destination village is Chilthorne Domer, a rather unknown village even by the local townsfolk, yet just 3 miles away from Yeovil itself. It is quintessentially British in appearance, a main street with a council/housing association area at the top end, houses of varying size down through, and surrounded by green belt farm land. There is a Primary school, church,  village hall, club house and children’s play park. The local Post Office and Stores closed years ago and was converted into a residential property, which a lot of rural ones have done over the last decade.
The Village also has a Public House, The Carpenters Arms or ‘The Chippies’ as it is locally regarded, which is a typical style Village pub, especially lately as it has been closed down for a while. Sadly, this is the same throughout the UK, with an average of four Pubs boarding up every week. It can be blamed on many things, from the Public Smoking Ban, to the price of Alcohol in Supermarkets, to the recession hitting average spend families hard, to bad Pub Company support and high Tie related Charges. It can also be linked to the fact that so many people give running a pub ‘a go’ with the belief that there is no need for prior knowledge or training in the industry, or even hardened industry professionals flourished with previous success believing they have the secret to making anywhere work......
And so to the main hub of this blog.
The move to Chilthorne is currently exciting for the rest of the family as inevitably it has the new surroundings to be explored, new people to meet and the house itself is set out better than the one we are currently in. That and the fact Nana and Poppy live four doors down.
And, yes, I am excited as well. But I also have another feeling bubbling up inside which I have not been able to place yet. I am labelling it Nostalgia with a question mark for now. I think that is what it is.
I moved over to England in the heady days of 1981, a mere scrap of a five and a half year old with my older Brother, Mum and Dad. We moved to Chilthorne Domer after a brief spell of living with my Grandparents in Yeovil Marsh and I can still remember the excitement of exploring the empty shell that was to become our home. I lived and breathed the village life there, up until the age of 21 when I decided to spread my wings and move to the next village on.
Back in those early years of my life, the Carpenters Arms was a community pub which the villagers used to frequent often, as well as diners from further afield. It had a reputation for being a well run establishment with good food and great service. The Restaurant used to be booked to capacity at weekends, at least a fortnight in advance. My Dad worked there as the Restaurant Manager who had  a Continental flair that made customers want to come back, his professional approach that was second to none (extremely uncommon in Waiters service in Public houses), and his willingness to go the extra mile, all of which complimented the running of this successful Pub. I worked there myself, carving out my first tentative step in the trade as a kitchen gopher, then assistant cook, often doing it by myself (at the age of 15, and for the princely sum of £1 per hour) I left before I turned 16, only to return when I was 22/23 and worked for different owners then as assistant Chef, before taking the role of Head Chef when the position arose, and earning my first few awards and recognitions. It was a popular place again, with bookings guaranteed all weekend as well as the latter end of the week.
Every time (since the mid eighties) a new couple took over, things started off well, with food given an overhaul, locals welcomed and befriended with open arms, and the talk of the pub being the heart of the community.
 As time wore on, cracks would start to appear in the landlords and landladies smiles. Friendships would become strained, sometimes resulting in a tirade of insults and threats of boycotting the business or being told their company was not welcome. The locals that visited became fewer as the months ticked by. Eventually, business would dry up and the Couple would vacate leaving room for the next ones........who went through the same.
Then the next ones.
And the next ones.
And the next ones........
The reasons are clear when you look at it reflectively. It wasn’t necessarily the licensees themselves, although it is never a great idea to think yourself immune in behaviour towards customers and tell them to (expletive deleted) off if they don’t like it, get drunk regularly and row with their partner in the bar, nor harangue friends when they are eating and do nothing when they have a complaint regarding food or service (even forged close friends are still customers). It was the turn in the trade. Pub companies were on the rise, as were house prices, tax brackets, and fat cats wallets. The Pub companies reached a stage than rather having Managers running the public houses for them and receiving the profits, they turned more acquisitioned sites over to leasehold Tenants to run as their own business.
With a few provisos.
The Tenants must buy the alcohol and soft drinks from the company at high cost.
The Tenants must declare the profit made on a pre-agreed date at regular occasions.
The Tenants must expect an increase in rent/other charges, at regular intervals.
This ensured that the companies received a healthy wedge of income from someone else’s labour, leaving a small amount for the business owners to glance at before they had to more than likely spend it on fixing something or replacing something within the Pub.
If you worked in the same place you lived 24/7 for all the hours God sends, handle problems and issues that must be dealt with ‘a la minuite’, constantly smile and be jovial, pay for advertising & maintenance, stay on top of everything that is affected by Health & Safety, COSHH, EHO, Fire Safety, Public Safety & Liability, call yourself your own boss yet answer to your landlord, you too would be a little edgy, disillusioned and bitter after a while. These people who came and went certainly were.
It is hard these days making a balance of local Pub and favourably profitable business work. In the Western Gazette last week there was a feature about the Carpenters Arms that inspired me enough to write this episode. Over the last few years my dear Father has often reminisced about the good old days at the Chippies, and of the times we worked together, helping make the place a successful business. He often throws the old “It would be great if we could take it over, it would be amazing!”
Others have, in the past, asked me if I would ever consider taking that pub on.
My reply has always been consistent. I would only ever consider it if it was a freehold. Lock, stock, and two smoking barrels my own. There are a lot of negatives about that Pub that raises issues and concerns in my mind. Firstly, there is the interior. Dull and dark, very little space to accept customers in due to the sheer size and position of the bar and no scope to build extensions without losing valuable car parking space. With that, the outside is limited, nestled between a main road and a country lane, gardens belonging to Bungalows at the edge of the village, and a field. The car park is capable of taking approximately twenty cars with no overspill available. There is no scope to purchase land from the local farmer as this is one of his main fields for raising his cattle. It has also been in my opinion that in order to make it successful, the only other option in making a good return would be by utilising the upstairs space in some way for the business, be it extra seating, or the option of letting rooms.
I referred earlier to the reason why public houses owned by Companies are difficult for leaseholders to obtain a fair profit for themselves, but the way it has been overcome in some cases is the rise in food sales. By turning the Village Hub into a dining room for Gastro food and alienating the regular drinkers, some places have managed to get a healthy return that helps keep them in business comfortably, rather than maintaining a watering hole for locals, or a good mix of both. But when the diners fade out, there is no other steady income that would normally be gained through the ousted Villagers, and inevitably, the leaseholders still end up on the losing side.
Well, it seems that the Pub has been sold Freehold (result) which could mean that this quaint Village business could have its potential fully realised. The article in the Western Gazette explains how the new owners, Carol Davenport (a very well proven business veteran in this trade) and Lee Crawford (who amid other places, managed the difficult Greyhound Pub in Yeovil, and the Gardens nightclub) have bought it in a state of disrepair and sever damage, and are putting a lot of money into it to breathe new life and bring it up to date while maintaining its key charm. It seems that the business couple are aiming to utilise it as a local Pub where people feel welcomed and able to drink in a sociable environment, without fear that it’s all about the Gastro meals offered at fourteen pounds plus per head. On the contrary, good old style pub grub is the aim, which again gives a picture of a more traditional House. The key quote in the paper for me is from Carol saying that, “A lot of Village Pubs are closing and dying, but it is important for a village to have a Pub. It helps keep the Community together”. And I fully concur.
Does this make a successful business these days? Is there enough income to be had on an investment  within a “local Pub for local people”? Is there still the ability to run a Public House with the romantic ideals of the good old days and make it happen in the now? I certainly hope so. Not only have Ms Davenport and Mr Crawford put a lot of blood, sweat, tears and cash into this historically mentioned and grade listed building, they have also dared to believe in the aged traditions of village community life being an important factor within villages today. And they certainly know how to make a business work. They have a collective expanse of understanding of this fickle trade most people could only hope for. My family and I will be supporting both their efforts and business in a locals capacity, and also myself with keen interest in the ideology of this venture and as to whether it is still a viable option these days without all the tables being set for food guide rated, Restaurant style food,  just as soon as we have moved in and sorted the house as to how we want it.
Now, where is the packing tape gone?............

P.S. To the member of staff who said “You can’t beat a good egg”, you are daft, explain how you make an omelette....

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