It's not every village pub that boasts part of a real steam loco in the main bar or houses an Indian restaurant and takeaway. Point of difference? The Loco in Haxey has bags of it. NIGEL HUDDLESTON reports
When Ziggy Ahmed's pub won the centuries-old Haxey Hood game in January it was only the second time in its history.
The historical significance of the win in the traditional rugby-type game was tempered a little by the fact that the Loco has only been a pub since 1985, when it was converted from a former Co-op store by a previous owner. The three originalcottages that the Loco occupies, in the High Street of the Lincolnshire village of Haxey, have also been home to a furniture store, a bookshop and a fish and chip take-away in their time.
Ahmed bought the pub in 2001 and has since turned part of it into the Kashmir Sidings Indian restaurant and takeaway. Other than that, it's remained pretty much unchanged since opening. But Ahmed has big plans, and is sinking £100,000 into a refurbishment this year that shows an eye for an opportunity.
An under-used second bar and function room to the rear of the pub will be converted into sevenletting rooms and a manager's flat. The reason for the move is a little further up the road.
The old Finnigley RAF base, near Doncaster, is being upgraded to international airport status, potentially bringing an influx of business visitors and itinerate employees into the area.
"It's a 10-year plan, certainly," says Ahmed. "But if they start flying now and it expands some more there'll be a big need for accommodation in the area."
And if that accommodation is attached to a pub-restaurant, so much the better. But Ahmed is keen to retain the Loco's place in village life too. "The pub game is getting harder and harder," he says. "You have to keep moving to keep the locals interested."
The centrepiece of the main bar is the front end of a real steam locomotive, whose installation originally inspired the pub name. Naturally, Ahmed's keeping this massive talking point, but sprucing up the rest of the bar with new furniture and décor.
From car sales to bar sales
After a spell managing a pub in Newark, Nottinghamshire, Ahmed turned his hand to car salesmanship. "I enjoyed it," he says, "and I probably would have been doing it now if this hadn't come on the market. This was one of our locals and it came up for sale so I thought I might as well give it a go."
The major change made by Ahmed and wife Karen was the introduction of Indian food, which gave a point of difference. "How many pubs do you know with their own Indian restaurant?" he asks.
What Ahmed who originally comes from Pakistan didn't intend at the time was that he would end up as head chef as well as owner. When the initial chef decided to leave, Ahmed found it hard to find a replacement. "I franchised it out to somebody for over a year, but he got fed up, so I thought I'd take it over myself," he explains.
"I'd always enjoyed traditional cooking but restaurant cooking's slightly different. When you're doing larger covers you have to alter the rules slightly. But I try to keep everything as traditional as I can and give good quality. It's not fast food. People may have to wait but if they do, and they enjoy the food, they will come back."
Ahmed also tries to recognise the practical limitations of the business. "We do a smaller number of dishes and make sure that we get them right, rather than try to do too many different things."
He's found inspiration in some unlikely places, including a restaurant discovered while on holiday in St Lucia. "I spent a couple of days in the kitchen with the chef and we learnt a few things off each other."
The restaurant does its briskest business on Saturdays, when the pub football team contributes to the trading levels.
Guide listing pulls in punters
An entry in the Good Beer Guide also helps bring in Camra pub-spotters. "We might get a minibus full coming. Some of the beers they'll like and some they won't, but it gets them through the door."
The cask ale line-up is John Smith's as a fixture and a rolling menu of guest beers from micros across Lincolnshire and into Yorkshire. "I normally don't just get one barrel," says Ahmed, "I'll get four. It makes it worthwhile for the brewer coming out to deliver and it's nice to give that level of support to small breweries."
Neither pub nor restaurant opens at lunchtime because the village does not have many office workers who traditionally boost business, but Ahmed has brought forward opening time from the previous owner's 7pm, to 4pm. "We've got a decent teatime trade now and it still gives me enough time to get the prep done in the kitchen."
The one exception is Haxey Hood time when the village is thronged all day, and a bit of local history is often rewritten.