How has 2020 changed people and pubs?

‘This certainly wasn’t in the business plan we presented last Christmas’

Incredible support: 'As we sit in tier three and unable to open for the foreseeable, we’re grateful that we’re still in business'
Incredible support: 'As we sit in tier three and unable to open for the foreseeable, we’re grateful that we’re still in business'

Related tags Freehouse Pubco + head office coronavirus Beer

Publicans Jonathan Carter-Morris and Marc Hornby received the keys to their new pub on 9 March – less than a fortnight before the UK’s first national lockdown. Here Marc reflects on taking on a site during a pandemic.

We were excited, full of enthusiasm and had our opening night planned for Friday 13 March – we all joked that Friday 13th would be lucky for us!

The Virgins & Castle is the oldest pub in Kenilworth, with records dating back to 1563 as it resides on the old high street just a few hundred yards from Kenilworth Castle that Elizabeth I once stayed at.   

Owned by Everard’s Brewery, we were offered the pub after a series of interviews, business plans and presentations just before Christmas 2019. 

The pub was being run for the past 20 years, serving traditional ales and beers along with Filipino style food. We had a vision to bring out all of its great Tudor style, decor and features. We wanted to reinvigorate the food menu with classic, traditional and freshly prepared pub food. We sourced ingredients and products locally and we engaged our community with our new brand and a promise of an exciting year ahead.

On 20 March we were told we had to close our doors, sit and wait.  This certainly wasn’t in the business plan that we had presented last Christmas.

We also run an external catering business called Caviar & Chips. As co-founders we met at business school and started the business together in 2017. The premise was, let’s create a great place to work and let’s do the right thing by our clients and guests. We set up a values-led business applying all that we had learnt at business school wanting to buck the trend for what it’s often like in the world of hospitality.

Our first week of trade of the Virgins & Castle was brilliant. The community was incredibly supportive and just as shocked and surprised as we were when we had to close our doors so early in our journey.

We did want we knew best and gathered our team together and talked it through (over Zoom of course).

Mark Hornby

One thing that we’ve learnt this last year is that you can’t communicate enough with both your team and with your guests. Our team were furloughed, but we looked for lots of ways to keep communicating and being supportive. We had a focus on wellbeing and set up initiatives to support everyone who worked for us so they felt reassured that their jobs were safe and that we had a road map.

For our guests, we’ve really thrown ourselves into the community. It goes without saying that when we were able to reopen in July that we did so safely and we tried to create a space that was comfortable, relaxed and just like going to the pub – even though you couldn’t stand at the bar. 

We ran new initiatives like Eat Out to Help Out and extended that into September. We set up work from pub desks, introduced a breakfast menu and quiz nights as we started to implement the plans we had set out just before Christmas 2019.

We supported our local environmental group, Plastic Free Kenilworth, to reduce single-use plastics.  We set up apprenticeships in the pub with our local college. We provide free meals to our local Covid-19 support group for the most vulnerable in our community, and we prepared free school meals supporting Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child poverty. 

Going into lockdown two, we did much of the same, anticipating a reopen in early December.  

By this point, we had increased the size of the team by a third and now with 40 people working at the pub.  

This was going to be our first Christmas in the pub and we’d put up all of the festive decorations and created new festive food and drink menus.  

As we sit in tier three and unable to open for the foreseeable, we’re grateful that we’re still in business. 

The team are all still with us and we have incredible support from our guests and the community of Kenilworth.   

Our four business values are to be guest-led, collaborative, positive and creative. This last year has meant we’ve needed every one of those values to full to keep us going.

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