My pub: The Old Lion Inn, Cleobury Mortimer

By Sheila McWattie

- Last updated on GMT

Emma Gallagher: One of the UK's youngest licensees
Emma Gallagher: One of the UK's youngest licensees
One of the UK's youngest licensees, Emma Gallagher, tells Sheila McWattie about turning the Old Lion Inn in Cleobury Mortimer, south Shropshire, into a thriving entertainment hub. 

How I got here

I’d been working behind the Old Lion’s bar for more than 18 months when its long-term tenant left suddenly and owner Clive Evans had to take it back in March 2014. I had already passed my bar licence exam aged 17, and found it surprisingly straightforward and quick.

Although I was only 18 when the licensee’s position became available, Clive agreed to my request for promotion to landlady and my application for my personal licence through Shropshire Council was successful.

Business philosophy

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Work hard and keep smiling. Pub duties usually involve putting in long hours, so above all you need to enjoy what you do. I want all my staff and customers to be happy, and do my best to maintain everyone’s sense of involvement in our lively community.

While running the pub is clearly a huge responsibility, I’m totally committed to making the Old Lion stand out as a great community hub. In my view, the main assets of a successful licensee are a good work ethic, determination and a positive spirit.

Standing out from the crowd

Our sports and entertainment set us apart in this rural area. We show all the football, rugby, cricket, darts and other sports, and organise entertainment up to three times a month, with bands and karaoke guaranteeing a fantastic atmosphere.

In a quiet little market town such as Cleobury, ensuring that a range of live music is available gives everyone a buzz and attracts an increasingly loyal following.

Building our business

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Emma with her mum, Karen

I had plenty of help when I took on the pub: I employed my mum, Karen, sisters, Amy and Bek, and, with my former partner, Gaz, we mucked in to give the pub a thorough spring clean, a lick of paint and add some decorations. I also hired my friend, Jodie, and kept on my friend and work colleague, Jess.

Some people might consider me a novelty because I’m young and don’t have as much experience as most publicans, but I’m serious about growing our business and being practical about continuing to im-prove and evolve our offering. Added value is really appreciated here, whether it’s about being able to watch a sporting event, participate in a game or enjoy live entertainment.

Our clubs significantly boost footfall and social interaction on otherwise quiet nights. Our crib, dominoes and darts league, pub quiz and poker build regular clientele and new faces are always welcome. Live music has been the main driver of our consistent wet sales in the past nine months and our customers enjoy our simple bar snacks offer: nuts, crisps and chocolate.

Hiring some bands can prove expensive but making good relationships with quality local acts helps us balance our figures while boosting our reputation and profile. Our customers appreciate our support for local talent, and we’re always on the lookout for those who can make our offering even more diverse.

Quality drinks

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Following feedback I had received as a barmaid, I replaced some of our draught lagers with Grolsch, Coors Light and Carling, and in-troduced Guinness. I also switched to Robinsons, which has proved our most popular cider, followed by Strongbow and then Stowford Press. Twisted Spire — a reference to the landmark spire on our local church — and Town Crier ales from Cleobury-based Hobsons brewery both go down very well.

Jack Daniel’s, vodka, gin and Jägermeister are our customers’ favourite spirits.

Our range of energy drinks and other soft drinks is popular and I’m planning to try out a non-alcoholic beer soon.

Customers appreciate the sense of fun we bring to our drinks range: as the Old Lion is 100% wet, I invented a quirky range of cocktails named after our team members, including Sipalicious (my nickname is Sip) — a mix of vodka, Archers, blue curaçao, Red Bull and grenadine; Amy’s Delight (vodka, Disaronno, cranberry juice, lemonade and grenadine; and Big Kaz Kamikaze (vodka, Kahlúa, milk and whipped cream).

Teamwork

A warm welcome is our top priority. Working in a pub can be demanding, but we all love it here. Generating a great atmosphere starts with polite, friendly staff who know their jobs well and enjoy chatting with customers, including advising them about new drinks and future entertainment.

Our all-female team, who are all part-time bar staff, represent a wide age range: Jodie, Jess and my sister Bek are all in their 20s; my other sister Amy is in her 30s and my mum Karen (Gallagher), who acts as manager in my absence, is in her 50s.

I love the sense of trust and mutual respect here. We all agree that clear policies and practices to keep everyone safe and comfortable are essential, so zero tolerance of any trouble is key.

We all enjoy a bit of banter, but if anyone steps over the line, we let them know.

Best events

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Our free-entry Halloween fancy dress disco was my favourite event and our busiest night so far, with lots of creepy costumes, about 250 customers and an incredible atmosphere.

Our charity day for Cruvo (a local cricket, rugby and volleyball club) raised £400 and included a raffle, barbecue, face-painting, and fun competitions such as naming the bear and guessing the number of sweets in a jar.

Alongside this event, one of my friends had his head shaved to support the British Heart Foundation, raising £600.

My fancy dress birthday party in May, which featured the popular local Nick Parker band, brought in about 200 customers.

Smart marketing

Word of mouth works best for us in this rural area and I’m encouraged by a rise in interest and footfall through engaging customers via social media. Our Facebook page is updated regularly and I’m developing our website.

Rather than buying advertising, I engaged local PR consultant Samantha Howells, resulting in a big boost to our press coverage.

Best advice I’ve received

My supportive boss, family and friends encouraged me to rise above any sceptical comments when I took on the pub, advising me to ‘give it all you’ve got and prove them wrong!’.

Future plans

Continuing to contribute to and engage with our local community in ways that improve our reputation and trade are top of my list. I’m keen to test out new events designed to attract all ages: this winter we’ll add a bingo night and stand-up comedy.

Our upstairs function room is a potential asset but has been unused for some time. We are investing thousands of pounds in refurbishment works both downstairs and upstairs, hoping to turn this valuable facility into an entertainment space for private parties and group events.

Facts 'n Stats

Wet:dry split​: 100:0
Turnover this year​: at least £200,000
Staff​: Full-time and five part-time staff
Best-selling cask ale​: Hobsons Twisted Spire (£2.60)
Best-selling drink​: Sex on the Beach cocktail (£10 pitcher serving four glasses)

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