The Devon pub – operated by husband and wife team Paul and Donna Berry – that scooped a host of awards including a slot on the coveted Top 50 Gastropubs list said farewell to the last of its customers on Friday 21 July.
“We just couldn’t afford to keep going with the escalating costs and trying not to pass everything on to the customers,” Paul told The Morning Advertiser. “Also the previous debts from Covid meant it eventually just got too much and we just had to pull the plug.
“Maybe we should have done it a little while ago but the fact of the matter is you can’t trade insolvently and that’s what we were doing.”
He explained just trying to pay that Covid debt was enough to take the site under despite what he described as “massive boom” when the pub first came out of Covid and inroads were made into reducing that debt but another lockdown later and a much-needed recovery never materialised.
Paul, who also operates Spelt restaurant with Donna in the Bampton, described the cumulative hit on the Swan as “a perfect time-bomb” continued: “We never made a huge amount of money because we are always reasonably competitive and keen on our prices. I just got to the point where I thought I just can’t keep going.
“Staff were getting harder to find even though we’d always been really lucky with staff – a lot of them had stayed with us for a very long time but a point comes when eventually they will move on or retire or whatever.
“I’m disappointed. In some ways, I feel like I’ve kind of failed but it’s beyond my control now. Obviously, Donna is very upset too but she agrees with the decision we’ve made.
“In a way she’s probably glad it’s happened because I think she felt that it was going to end up probably killing me.”
Paul also expressed a “slight guilt” because he feels he became the custodian of the Swan but now there a lack of a good pub in the village now and the Swan was a place people wanted to go for a drink.
The couple had operated the leasehold of the Swan for at least 13 years and had seen it become the “hub of the village” and said it was warm and took on different atmospherics during the course of the day.
There was never a problem with the landlord of the site though. Paul said: “They were very good landlords. As an example, we were standing outside once and he’d say ‘do you think we need to paint the front?’ and the next thing he’d do is rock up with ladders and paint, and paint the front.”
Of course, the staff at the Swan have been released with most having work lined up. Paul explained: “My staff were always very good, always very friendly. I can’t take too many on at Spelt and we don’t know exactly what we will do with it.
“We may increase the opening hours, we don’t open on a Sunday currently so will probably will now.”
On the Swan, Paul added: “People would say ‘you’re always busy’ but there were days when we weren’t busy. For example, we’d have a booking for a table of six but they would only order two sandwiches. There just wasn’t enough money being spent against my staff costs on some day.
“It’s a combination of all those little things that makes it frustratingly hard.”
Satisfaction in customer happiness
Naturally, there were highlights Paul has taken away from the Swan and not just the awards the site, rightly, won.
“I always got satisfaction from the fact that if I felt my customers had a good evening or good lunch,” he said. “I did pay a lot of attention in talking to my customers as a chef-type owner but I never went out there looking for praise. I went out there to make sure they were happy.
“And then some people might say something like ‘that’s the best bit of lamb I’ve had for years’. That was always quite rewarding.
“In terms of achievements, getting into the Top 50 Gastropubs, which was so unexpected and receiving AA Inn of the Year was very special.”
The industry is clearly suffering and Paul believes one change from the Government may have helped keep the Swan open.
He argued: “I don’t think it will ever happen but if the Government brought VAT down to European levels for the industry that would be a massive boost and that would have made a difference for us.
“The pressures that have been going on with Brexit to Covid to the current state, I don’t think many people [in hospitality] are making much of a living. And it shouldn’t be like that. It should be an enjoyable industry to work in but it’s just not.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of people have fun out there, but the fun had gone out of it for me.”
For the future, the couple will put all their energy into Spelt for now but Paul is adamant he doesn’t want to “try to put the Swan into it” because Spelt is developing its own style.
He added: “The Swan’s gone, it’s history, so it will have to be new ideas from both of us now to keep it fresh and moving really because I don’t want it to become stale and boring.”