Paul Boggia tells Sonya Hook how he and his partner Jane Fairhall sell real ale and home-cooked food to keep ahead of competition and the recession at the Kingston Arms freehouse, in Cambridge.
Jane took on the pub first, when she was working in a microbrewery with her brother Peter. They'd decided it would be a good idea to have a pub as an outlet for their beer, and in 1999 they came across the Kingston Arms. It ticked all the boxes, so they bought it.
Pubs on the high street were too expensive for them at the time so they chose one that was 50 yards off the main road, but it didn't matter then because they were selling their own beers.
I came on board after about a year, as Jane's brother moved up to Yorkshire. I don't have a background in pubs, but I am a trained IT man and I have a logical business head.
The Kingston Arms is an Edwardian building, very close to the railway, which originally attracted a lot of railway workers. It's not massive, which is a shame because lots of our competitors are big. We can take 50 people inside and another 50 outside, and we've maximised the space by squeezing in tables. The bar is in the centre, with chairs in a C-shape.
The pub needed a good clean when Jane first took it on, but the building was sound. It took 10 days of cleaning and decorating to bring it up to scratch. It does have a lot of character, including two lovely fireplaces.
Jane was keen to get a good food offer going from the start. It needed a full commercial kitchen, and thankfully she was able to pay in three instalments.
Banks weren't happy to lend to private individuals and the kitchen was the biggest expense at the beginning, so it was good that she was allowed to pay for it gradually.
We had the garden fully covered early on too, and replaced the parasols before planning was required.
The summer period is a lifesaver, as we get a lot of use out of our garden. We put on LED rope-lights to give it a nice Continental vibe, and in the winter we try to make the inside as appealing as possible by lighting the log fires and making it cosy.
The garden is used all winter by smokers so we installed soft seating and chimineas to keep them warm.
When we came on board, there were three pubs in a row, with ours in the middle, on the main thoroughfare to north Cambridge. But at the time this area was up and coming and there wasn't anywhere offering decent beer and decent food in the same pub.
We wanted to cater for people who went to the pub for a proper ale or a nice wine and lovely pub food — home-cooked, but also affordable, rather than being too much like a restaurant. For the first couple of years the business rocketed, and underwent a real transformation.
When we took on the pub, this densely populated area had a lot of wealthy and bohemian residents, so we made an effort to attract them and managed to turn the business around pretty quickly.
We didn't have the money to advertise so we relied on word of mouth and a mail-shot, and we offered the first pint free per person on the first night. We put on 10 pumps of ale and no lager at all. The ale was good and quickly attracted local Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) people.
We had no jukebox, no darts and an atmosphere conducive to conversation, and we developed a reputation for serving good food too, which was well supported by the locals.
Rising to the challenge
We were sailing along nicely until the recession hit just over a year ago. In recent years lots of pubs copied our strategy by serving real ale and good, affordable food, and the area became known as a real-ale quarter. Two or three pubs around us upped their game and a couple of new pubs sprang up, so it all became a lot more competitive.
We have had to be innovative. I am not an alcohol drinker, but we are both logical thinkers and that's what you need to keep a pub running in this current climate.
We brought out a Recession range of beers at £1.80 a pint, which the local students love. We also have a Recession menu. We use cheaper cuts of meat, but still ensure we do good quality meals. We haven't lost any of our regular clientele by doing this and it hasn't damaged the main menu, but it has added a bit of extra business and encouraged a few new people to visit the pub. The concept also hit the local papers, and even had coverage in The Sun!
We've added all sorts of other little touches too, such as blankets in the garden to keep people warm. We now offer free Wi-Fi and we were one of the first around here to do so, and we organise weekly barbecues throughout the summer.
The pub now sells its own cookies and that's become another talking point around the area, because it's an unusual business extension for a back-street boozer. It only involves a few minutes' work for us to make delicious cookies and costs just pennies, but they do have an incredible mark-up when we sell them out to local cafés. They are also popular with people who order them with coffees in the pub.
None of this could help us during the off-peak trading hours though, when it was getting quieter and quieter. In the early years we had some success in drumming up trade, but when the recession hit it was difficult, particularly as we're not on the main street.
We decided to stop flogging a dead horse and so we just stopped trading during these hours. We now only open from 5pm onwards during the week, and only do full days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was a good decision because opening for longer wasted money on staff and lighting. When things pick up we can look at changing this — we'll see how Fridays go as a measure of demand.
We need to be a destination pub because we're a bit out of the way, and all our innovative ideas are helping us to fulfil this.
For the time being we plan to concentrate on evening trade and are applying to open for longer in the evenings. Opening longer from Friday to Sunday has worked well, so now we want to make Thursday nights a big attraction. In previous times we have made Thursday a curry night or barbecue evening, which have succeeded.
In order to open longer we have to build up a better relationship with our immediate neighbours, who have always had an issue with this pub since before we arrived, when it had a bad reputation.
Unfortunately they objected to us opening longer, even though we have gone to a lot of trouble keep the noise down by installing rubber matting in the cellar and air-conditioning through the summer so that we don't need to open the windows. We need to make sure the local residents are aware of all the good things we are doing here.
We do find it satisfying running our own business, despite all the economic challenges we face at the moment. In a way we enjoy navigating a ship through rough water.
Although we are supposed to be coming out of the recession, we haven't seen an increase in turnover yet to indicate this is the case. We are aware though that the hospitality trade is expected to be one of the last to feel the benefits. Plus, we are in the relatively unusual position of being surrounded by new pubs rather than pubs going out of business, which dilutes our trade.
We don't expect our 2010 figures to be as high as 2009, but we are running the pub more efficiently and together with our business-boosting ideas we expect to make a small profit, which we expect will rise further in 2011.
Facts 'n' stats
When took over the pub: 1999
Wet:dry split: 66:33
Turnover y/e 30 June 2004: £366,540
Turnover y/e 30 June 2008: £446,841 (best year to date)
Turnover y/e 30 June 2009: £434,825 (recession bites into last six months)
Covers: 50 inside, 50 outside