The White Horse – (Anonymous) Investing in a village pub: development, trials and tribulations.

The current publican and owner came back from America 10 years ago having been badly burnt in the property crisis as a property developer and wondered what he was going to do. He took the pub on a lease and then two years after moving negotiated it to be free of tie and bought the freehold as an investment. He gradually began to refurbish the pub, took out the old carpets, which were filthy and began to extend the pub itself. One of the first innovations was to put the ale barrels on a stillage in the bar and that was a winner becoming the most popular part of the pubs sales and gradually he put in new bars and chillers. He is not sure why he has stayed being a publican because it’s a tough business today. The revenue isn’t great, and he does 80 hours a week on a minimum wage. He feels sorry for those who are in tied pubs earning even less.

Even though he is pleased with the renovations; the addition of the conservatory; the upgrading the toilet facilities; the implementation of a stone floor and comfortable seating there have been problems and issues. He feels that the local Conservation Society and the local Council have not been very helpful. Although he had planning permission for the conservatory, he used good quality plastic frames because the wind blows very strongly up the valley, but the conservation Society and the council wanted the frames to be made of wood. He had to go to appeal and although he won the case for the conservatory while at the same time his detractors were talking about the bulldozers coming in to knock it down. The appeal cost him £15,000 he is being obliged to remove the plastic framed windows above the conservatory on the main building at the back and replace them with wooden frames. That will cost another £15000.

He was told initially that we could do whatever we wanted to the back of the building so long as he kept the front of the building, like its past appearance. He renovated all the stone on the front of the building raked out all the cement filler and replaced it with lime pointing in keeping with past building practices in the area. He took out the boarded-up windows and replaced them properly with windows and he notes the irony that the boarded-up windows were listed. He was told by the local estate agents that a pub in the village adds £20-30,000 value to the houses in the village and he would have thought the local Conservation Society and Council would have been happy to negotiate with him in order that the pub not only survives but becomes attractive to customers from outside the village in order to ensure its survival.

He has created three bed and breakfast rooms in an annexe attached to the pub and these are full most of the year and provide a very necessary income to assist the pubs survival. The function room above the pub is to be turned into two separate B&B rooms making five in total eventually. The advantage of this venture is that the people that stay there use the pub and eat there so it enhances income. The pub advertises on and their assessments are always 10 out of 10 for the quality of the rooms and pub services. He has effectively created four houses out of the original pub and were the business not to survive it would be easy for developers to make a lot of money converting it into those four homes. In order to maintain the building as a pub, village support is crucial for the survival of their pub. 

Currently, village support is between 10 and 20% regulars which is very similar to all the other village pubs in the locality and the pub would appreciate more local and regular support. He tells the story of a wake in the pub, where one of the villagers attending said they hadn’t been in it for 15 years. While there was some irritation from the locals about recent ale prices being raised – the first for three years – he argues that the pubs prices are still cheaper than three of the nearest pubs. The White Horse is a rugby supporting pub showing all the premiership games and many others because this is a rugby supporting area. They don’t show much football because there’s not so much interest, so the pub is clearly trying to attract local interests as well as reaching further afield.

However, survival depends on attracting customers from further afield and he has had to move the pub up market because the village itself cannot sustain a pub. He has five of the top lagers in the country – some from the Czech Republic – and a wide range of good quality ciders together with 24 different gins so we think we offer the customer a very good range of high-quality drinks. He recognises that the pub market is different today and pubs cannot just rely on ales. Whilst it is true that the pub has lost the cheaper lagers that some of the villages would prefer the pub has to look further afield in order to sustain its existence. He believes in high standards with regards to food and he claims that TripAdvisor voted the pub’s Sunday lunch the best in the area. He is, by his own admission, ‘a bit of a perfectionist and if we are going to do food, I want to do it well’. As, with other village pubs keeping good chefs is always a problem as they tend to move around quite a lot but nevertheless, he insists on good quality food. He had a chef who was a local town football supporter and would not work on Saturday’s, the pub’s busiest day because he wanted to go and watch a football match. One Saturday a chef didn’t turn up because of a death of a distant relative and he had to turn away 100 people.  He says, ‘there isn’t the commitment nowadays from many chefs although the one we have a present is very good’.

As was experienced by another publican he complains about VAT on food which by its perishable nature means they are throwing money into dustbins as there are no claims that can be made. He considers VAT on alcohol as being OK as it is not perishable but having it on food is an income to the Treasury and a continuing loss to cafes and restaurants which he suggests is why many of them close after a year or so. However, he argues that if a café/ restaurant does not serve alcohol they are not liable for VAT on food until the turnover is £85000. 

He has been in business all his life and this is the toughest of all of them. He doesn’t mind working in fact he quite likes it but he is not sure how much longer he can continue as he is now 70 and working 80 hours a week and chucking barrels up on a rack. However, he is not sure who would want to take on this business and he finds it very worrying. His personal partner lives in America and so one possibility is to lease the business to his regular bar manager.

Looking to the near future he is doing the garden this year, which will create a great view across the Cotswolds and provide an outdoor eating alongside fourteen parking spaces and the pub is good for walkers having the Cotswold way nearby and the pub advertises seven walks around it on our website. He has built two small houses at the back of the pub which have planning permission and when they are finished, they will probably be for rent them on a long lease.

He enjoys the pub when the rugby boys are here and he enjoys it when a small band of villagers come in for a Jam session on a Tuesday, even though other villagers rarely came in to listen to them. ‘They are very amicable and if someone asks them to play something they will oblige’. They have charity quizzes on Sundays, with a recent one for prostate cancer and having 50 competitors but only 6 locals. He ensured there was a prize for every team. However, he competes with other village activities such as quizzes where more local attend and a school fundraising day once a year and that kills his business and there doesn’t appear to be any shared participation which he cannot fathom. He is glad when the county Horse Racing Festival week arrives in March as all the B&B rooms will be full. There are two Six Nations rugby weekends either side of that as well as a County Rugby game when it’s busy and then it’s Mothers’ day after which business picks up for the summer.

Again, we see another village pub that struggles to survive and must look to secondary incomes such as B&B and up-market restaurant menus and drinks to ensure its viability. These pubs need all the help they can get because they need ‘to use it or lose it’. It might be the case that village clubs could try to use the pubs facilities more often for events or for after event celebrations, such as buffets. This publican has improved dramatically the quality of the building structures and the pubs services, such as sports TV, a range of seating arrangements, maintained a drinking bar close to the barrel stillage, a high-quality menu and places for family or club dining. It is to be hoped for the sake of the village that the pub can remain a village pub.

However, the latest news is the owner has now reluctantly put the pub up for sale and will eventually return to America. It is a pity as he has turned an uncomfortable drab pub without any secondary income into one that is attractive, up to date and he has enhanced its potential income considerably. We applaud his efforts to ensure the survival of this village pub and hope that due to his efforts a buyer will be found, and it will remain a pub for the benefit of the village.