The opening of a new community café at the George in Bethersden, Kent, is helping to bring local people together, creating new ways for them to connect and bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘popping to the local’.
The pub’s general manager Bee Lewis said the pub is a great place for guests to meet new people. She added: “It’s not just seen as a pub – it’s a great venue for the village to have, and the village has certainly felt alive since the pub has reopened.”
The vibe, she said, is “welcoming and friendly”. The space caters to those working from home, guests looking to catch up over coffee and cake and dog walkers, to just name a few. “There’s a lot of loneliness within villages where people do get isolated,” said Lewis, so the café creates a space locals can come out for a chat.
Young parents will also be welcomed, with colouring activities available for kids so they can have a respite.
Since reopening the site, commercial manager Alex Withington said the pub has broadened its appeal, and created a space for social connection that was missing during the pandemic.
The George Café, which launched a month after the pub reopened as a community enterprise, provides an opportunity for people living alone, mothers and toddlers, families, and groups to meet and socialise in a relaxed environment and welcoming space.
A selection of games and puzzles is available for children to play with and there is a secure garden area with outdoor games for when parents and carers want to enjoy their coffee or tea and cake outside on the pub’s terrace.
Local residents and home-workers are also being encouraged to bring their laptops to take advantage of the super-fast Wi-Fi and work in the comfort of the café.
The café was opened with the expert help and a Community Services Fund grant from Pub is The Hub, the not-for-profit organisation that helps pubs to diversify and provide essential local services.
The George Café also supports local suppliers including Bloss coffee and Pluckley tea, with delicious cakes provided by some of Bethersden’s home bakers. There are plans to extend its trading hours later in the year but it currently opens Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 4pm.
“You can’t beat homemade cakes,” said Bliss. There’s one particular baker named Barbara who Lewis dubbed the “Mary Berry of the village”. She added: “Everyone knows her cakes come in on Wednesdays, and they look fantastic. They are works of art.”
An initiative to support local artists is also being launched, giving them wall space to displaying pieces which are also for sale.
Tim Tempest, regional advisor at Pub is The Hub, said: “This pub is truly at the heart of its community. This café will become a focal point for villagers to come together and provide an opportunity for more social interaction in this rural area.”
This is echoed in feedback left by locals. One recent visitor wrote: “We are so pleased that it is becoming the focal point of the community again and the ‘go to’ meeting point for people.”
And what advice do the staff have for pubs thinking about launching cafés? Focus on serving really good quality coffee and cakes, said Withington, and keep adapting.
“We’ve always been really open to anything we haven’t got perfectly right,” he said. “We think we’ve got a lot of things pretty good. But there’s always stuff we can learn, [so] keep talking to your customers to see what’s working and what’s not.”
Lewis added: “If you don't diversify, you get stuck behind. There’s so many pubs shutting down at the moment, you have to think outside the box and look what your quieter times are, what you can do to get different people, and spread your wings further than perhaps just pulling pints.”
The George reopened in May 2023 as a wet-led pub, focusing on drinks-only as the kitchen needs additional work. Refurbishment of the kitchen is now on-going, and the team is currently recruiting for a new chef and will be launching a new menu with a view to starting a restaurant service later in the Autumn.
While the first priority will be on the food offering for the pub, there is also the potential to open the café earlier in the day to offer a simple breakfast service, such as bacon or sausage rolls, including take-away.
Withington explained: “Despite our rural location there is good footfall through the village including a number of people on the way to work.
“As you can imagine, this could hugely increase the café turnover and profitability – we’re just not at that stage yet given our small scale and the need to increase the supporting team at the pub first.”