Mark Annear, licensee of the Great British Pub of the Year, the Cott Inn in Dartington, Devon, had built up a strong head of steam following his win in the Great British Pub Awards 2019, and had seen business build strongly throughout the autumn and even into January.
Annear says: “We’d had a brilliant January, when everyone else was reporting trade down 6%, we were up on last year by 11%. And then, as soon as we got to February, we had three storms in a row and then corona hit us. We had some of the earliest cases declared up the road so Devon became a hot spot, even though we only had two cases.”
However, Annear hasn’t allowed the crisis to shut him down entirely and, along with his wife Mel and the rest of his family, has relaunched the Cott Inn as a drive-through takeaway food and drink operation.
He says customers were able to book their orders online and pick a time slot for collection. “We are trying to control the number of people coming through. We’re having to monitor the website constantly so we don’t have too many cars coming through at once. Just before they are due to arrive, we start cooking the food.”
He says there was a lot of manual management because his software can’t automate the process, but he says the pub is staying on top of it, for the moment.
Customers are assigned a parking space on arrival, and Annear has set up 10 numbered bays, with tables beside the driver’s side. A team member then brings the food to the table and moves away, allowing customer to collect their takeaway without contact.
He says one of the challenges the pub is facing is with its food packaging. “We’re starting to run out,” he says. “And we don’t want to use plastics so we’re looking at alternative options at the moment, maybe making our own boxes.”
He admits the takeaway isn’t a financial solution or replacement for the business, and says he is not doing it for the money, but rather to keep the business in the public eye and, hopefully, act as a springboard if restrictions are relaxed and they might be able to reopen the pub’s extensive garden space for trade.
The pub is also delivering meals to local residents who are shielding at home, with Annear employing his children and their bikes to deliver hot food to customers who are at risk.
Local suppliers have also backed the pub and he’s teamed up with a local vineyard to offer wine at reduced prices. Annear said: “Sharpham [Wine] contacted us and gave me a great price so I’m selling their wines at £4.50 a bottle, whereas normally we’d sell it at £25 each.”
has also discovered another side line that has spun out of a relationship with a local farmer. Normally, Annear has a partnership with the farmer who breeds a herd of Ruby Red cows for the pub. He agrees to buy a whole carcass each month and they use the meat across the pub’s extensive menus.
However, shortly after lockdown, the abattoir that slaughters the animals for Annear gave him a call. “I thought we’d caught them all,” he says. “But the abattoir called me and said ‘what do you want to do with this 320kg Ruby Red we’re hanging for you?’.”
To solve the problem, Annear has now created a meat box scheme where the carcass is broken down into primal cuts, vacuum-packed, and the forequarter meat is used to create pies and casseroles for the boxes.
The scheme has proven such a hit, Annear has now resumed working with the farmer and abattoir to put more cows through and is gearing up to do more meat boxes.
He explains: “There’s a bit of work involved in that and we’re having to invest in vac-packers and things like that but it’s fine and it’s helping to keep the pub on the map. The people ordering from us are all locals who use the pub, so yeah, it’s keeping us in the game.”
Development plans derailed
Another thing the coronavirus has derailed for Annear and his family were their plans to develop the business off the back of their success at the Great British Pub Awards and ongoing recognition from several national newspapers.
During winter Annear and the team had been working hard to develop the business with a £60,000 investment into expanding his kitchen facilities and also adding a sixth bedroom to the accommodation operation above the pub.
He says: “We started that work in November and we’ve been doing it bit by bit without closing and it’s about 90% finished. We wanted to get ready for a mega, mega summer. We wanted to improve our infrastructure to cope with the expected increase in volume this summer.”
Despite all this, Annear hasn’t given up hope. He continues: “We are where we are, and we’re trying to remain positive rather than be totally negative about the situation. We’re trying to keep things going so when we reopen we’ve still got good contact with our regulars and the pub is ready to go.”
He’s also hopeful that the Government might relax the lockdown, which will enable him to operate some sort of distancing service in his sizeable pub garden, which he’s busy preparing and planning for.
“We’ve got a lot of space there so, if we get the go-ahead, we can easily separate people by two metres outside, we’ve got a great garden and I can even use some of the car park and people can walk to the pub.”
One area he’s also positive about is his relationship with his landlord, Greene King.
He praised the company for its handling of the situation from his perspective with regular communication from his BDM and also emails from director Wayne Shurvinton.
He says: “The communication has been good from the outset. They’ve been hugely supportive, not financially, but as supportive and communicative as they can be. I’ve just been speaking to my BDM and they’ve got an emergency fund set up and it looks like they’re going to be helping certain sites on a pub-by-pub basis.”
He’s now discussing his rent position with the company and, because his pub does not qualify for a grant, he’s hoping for a favourable outcome.
So, while Annear’s best laid plans may have been derailed by the crisis, he is proof that by staying positive, you simply can’t keep an award-winning publican down.