When the Essex community of Cold Norton rallied to save their pub in 2007, few volunteers would have expected to be thrust into the midst of the on-trade nearly 10 years on — first as leaseholders, later pub owners and now letting the pub themselves.
But the journey has been far from easy. As Paul Guppy, director of the committee that now owns the Norton, explains: “It probably isn’t very evangelical of me to say this, but it’s been bloody hard work. Much harder and a longer process than I think anyone involved thought it would be.
“Initially there was this rush of euphoria that the pub was open again — it was in our hands, our responsibility — and the first few months flew by as we cheered our own success… but then you move towards “business as usual” and, regardless of what anyone else tells you, that thrill wears off.”
For the team running the Norton, as the pub transitioned from public conservation project to bona fide business, several issues became clear.
“The committee that initially opened the pub surged ahead with getting the job done, but six months in we formed a new committee with slightly more specific skill sets for running the day-to-day,” Guppy says.
“Once the gloss had worn off, we really had to knuckle down and run it as a business. We now have a few guys involved who are ex bank managers and my background is in property so we were just in a slightly better position to look after the business.”
He added: “We also made the decision a few years ago to change from a limited company to an industrial providence society to open the door to discretional rate relief and a lot more grant opportunities. In that sense, the headlong rush to get ourselves set up initially didn’t help us operate in a measured way. That’s the one thing I’d change looking back.”
Guppy also points to customer perception as a potential danger, once the pub is ‘safe’. “After we acquired the freehold of the pub, our outgoings came down considerably, but our challenges changed, namely, a proportion of our customers seemed to think, ‘Right, that’s it, the pub is saved’ and didn’t come in so regularly.”
“It’s at that point we looked at where we were going and we realised it was time to let the pub — we were beginning to plateau on wet sales and the food offer never really took off for us. We knew it was ready for a tenant,” he admits.
That tenant is Boris Poliakov, former head sommelier at Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House and now starting out on his own with partner Nora Fitzgerald. After discovering the Norton, he “made the right noises” to convince the committee of his intentions before being handed the keys in February.
“First and foremost, this pub is the community’s meeting place and we were acutely aware of the social responsibility we have in taking it forward,” Poliakov says. “We have a strong vision of what we want to do — for example, our experience as sommeliers gives us a great opportunity to introduce the community to a slightly broader scope of wine — but that won’t stop this being a place people come to hang out.”
Rumours of seasonal, locally-sourced food on the menu and an extended spirits and cask-ale offering have the community talking, but Poliakov admits the special relationship the pub has with locals has given him the assurance he needed to take it on. “What makes this opportunity all the more wonderful is being part of a great community with a committee behind you every step and locals ready to step in to help at the drop of a hat — it’s a great feeling to know you’re where you belong,” he said.
For Guppy, the challenges the community faced made saving the Norton more satisfying. “It was our goal to save the pub, stabilise it and hand it on so it could continue to grow,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve achieved, but that first pint as a paying customer is going to taste better than I can describe.”
The Norton will reopen at the end of March.