Celebrating a year since they rescued the Snowdrop Inn in Lewes, East Sussex, from dereliction, Tony Leonard and Dominic McCarten talk to Phil Mellows about a most colourful adventure.
Buying the pub
We already ran two Greene King leases in Brighton, the Hop Poles and the Eagle, and we knew about the Snowdrop. It was known for its live music and vegetarian food and was John Peel's favourite pub, but had more recently become run-down and a bit rough.
It was Punch-owned and it decided to sell it, by which time it was semi-derelict. There was no hot water and Harveys Brewery's cellar services now use the old pipes as an example of what happens when you don't clean your lines. People here never thought it would be a pub again.
We paid a bricks and mortar price for it — £305,000. We knew it would work because it had worked before and there was a huge well of affection for the place in Lewes — it's unique and they wanted it back.
It was quite emotional when we opened. We had people in tears here. It shows that when a pub goes, it really harms a community.
Doing it up
We cleaned it up, decorated and tried to keep the spirit of the pub as it was before. The challenge was how to make it bright. There are windows on three sides but it still felt dark because of the décor.
It's a Victorian pub, and that was a time of glorious colour and bright objects. It's the opposite to a gastropub where everything is stripped back and minimalist. This is a riot of colour, it's an adventure. We even put back a swirly carpet — after taking them out of our other pubs!
It used to be a bargemen's pub and that inspired the barge theme, the roses and castles you find painted on barges. It already had a nautical theme, ship's figureheads, and we collected more stuff on eBay.
Outside the pub was yellow so we painted it green — and a woman who lives across the road came out of her house and started clapping! You don't get that kind of response too often.
The Snowdrop heritage
The pub was built in 1840 and is named after Britain's worst avalanche. Eight people were killed on 27 December, 1836.
Its identity had been washed over, but we have a responsibility to preserve that heritage. The avalanche is why the pub's here and we should embrace that.
So we had a new sign done, a reproduction of an early sign that shows the avalanche.
Making a profit
We've stuck to our business plan, and done better. We've beaten our year-three forecast in our first year! There's a strong pub culture in Lewes and word of mouth spread quicker than we expected.
We listened to what people wanted, but there has to be a balance there. It's like football management, everyone thinks they're a pub expert.
Live music, food and being part of the community are the important elements. We're now the headquarters for the South Street Bonfire Society and helped organise this year's Lewes OctoberFeast festival.
We had to get the local community behind us first. That was a very deliberate strategy. Now we have a huge cross-section of customers.
We've encouraged families by making it bright and colourful with tubs of toys and Alice in Wonderland pictures. The kids love the spiral staircase! The youngsters will run up and down it, there's something magical about it.
We recruit on personality. Practical skills they can pick up easily. It's how you deal with customers that's important and we want our people to be warm and outgoing.
We have a wide variety of people working here, the youngest is 16 and the oldest in their 40s. In a family-friendly pub, if you've got a mother working behind the bar they can take the view of a parent. And experience of life can add to the interaction. This is a local pub and people want to have a conversation with staff.
There are two types of people who work in pubs — those who see it as a career and those who are just filling in, but have useful skills. The push towards a more professional trade is a good thing, but others can contribute to the business too.
We put staff through wine courses with Harveys and cellar training with Cask Marque. They try every new ale as it comes on and we're taking them on a trip to the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich.
Food is a big part of our offer and we'll only serve what we would eat ourselves — that's our starting point.
Everything is locally sourced and the meats are organic. We'll buy in whole chickens and use everything, nose to tail, and we've got two pigs that we're fattening up for Christmas.
The menu changes daily and dishes are priced for everyday eating. We shy away from gastropub prices. They're a canny bunch in Lewes. Besides, we feel mortally offended when we're called a gastropub. Any pub that does food should do good food.
We started with three handpulls and have gone to seven, including a cider. We'll usually have on two Harveys beers and two Dark Star. The other ales are usually locally brewed, too, although we're not strict about that and we've recently had Thornbridge Jaipur IPA.
We have to be mindful of the fact that Harveys and Dark Star are a strong combination and drinkers have a fierce loyalty to them, so the other beers have to stand up to them and be a bit special.
Meantime Helles (4.4%) is our best-selling lager and we're replacing Kronenbourg with Brooklyn Lager and Guinness with Meantime Stout.
It's a scary decision, but we're doing it because we believe they are better products and we prefer working with smaller brewers.
Stocking Meantime Helles itself was a risk. This is very much an ale town and we weren't sure there would be an interest in craft lagers. But we've made it our best seller by inviting customers to taste it.
Again, we're selling what we like. We've been tied for so long it's a huge joy to sell whatever we want. It's like being in a sweetshop.
We've also introduced a bottled beer range that includes Belgians and Americans. It all adds to the sense of adventure.
Music and events
We're at the end of a dead-end street so you have to give people a reason to come here.
Mondays we have jazz. That took ages to build, but if it feels right you should stick with it. Wednesdays it's folk, acoustic and roots. Whoever turns up plays, and people say it's like a real Irish pub session. On Saturdays we put on local bands.
People are open to all different styles of music here, and the wooden walls make for great acoustics.
Upstairs we use for events. Most recently beer writer Pete Brown did a brilliant tasting of eight IPAs and curries up there for OctoberFeast.
Facts 'n' stats
Bought pub: September 2009
Price paid: £305,000
First year's turnover: £500,000
Wet:dry split: 60:40
Food served: 12noon to 9pm
Typical price of a main course: £7.95
Best-sellers: belly of pork, liver and bacon, sausages and champ, potted shrimps, mackerel paté, game
Number of handpumps: 7
Best-selling lager: Meantime Helles
Wine supplier: Harveys of Lewes
Number of staff: 18