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March 2024

Here is Jerry's latest article about The Druid, written shortly before the planned opening... 

Will The Druid Inn make it?

I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. I’m writing this in my study on 5th March and will be posting it on the web site soon. We are now only a few days away from the opening of The Druid, which starts with the principal test day which we call the builders’ party, currently planned for Friday the 15th March.

The builders’ party is not only fun for the team who have put The Druid Inn together but also tests the systems and allows staff to run their first live session. We run the pub just as if all the invited guests were regular customers; they find a table or settle in at the bar and we provide them with whatever they want from a fully stocked pub with everything running as it’s supposed to. All “sales” are rung into the till as normal but no one actually pays for anything.

We will follow this with a second test day, with people from the local community, as we feel a lot of the staff need the confidence that will come from these exercises. We should then go “live” on Monday 18th March.

I don’t know what we’d do if this testing revealed a major failure, perhaps the IT misfires or we’ve buggered up the cellar lines or we’ve got the energy calculations wrong and everything keeps tripping out. Naturally all these things are tested as we go along but they don’t get properly stretched until the place is full. I don’t want to tempt fate by saying it’s unlikely but, unless fate gets the hump, it’s unlikely.

So, why have I got butterflies? I’ve done this many times before so why feel nervous about this one? It’s not so much the pub I’m worried about but what’s happening out there in the big world. There are three things in particular – staying at home versus going out, the bad economic environment and competition.

Let’s start with whether people want to go out as much as they did. In this changing world people carry their entertainment around with them as well as having their homes made streaming savvy but I surmise that the basic human desire to spend time with one another is unlikely be extinguished. It is after all human nature, so I suspect pubs will always have some sort of role to play as they have done so for thousands of years. Even if everyone takes to wearing headsets and disappearing into their own little worlds they will have to emerge at some time and must then surely want to interact with their fellow human beings. If they don’t then I hope the first bomb drops on my head.

A more pertinent question for me is how often will people want to go out? I grew up in a world with no personal computers or mobile phones, television was in black and white and there was only one channel. By the time I was a teenager, admittedly with better television by then, and wanting to go to the pub (obviously I waited until I was 18), pubs were an essential part of life and I needed them to meet my friends and especially to meet girls. Pubs were my social life. There were different pubs for different occasions, the drinking pubs, in a variety of locations for different times of day and us youngsters would go to pubs in Chester for early doors, perhaps moving to the suburbs or out into the country later on. Our parents and their friends would go to chicken-in-a-basket pubs in the country and we might go too, perhaps with a girlfriend when we wanted to be on our own.

Nowadays most people use social media and don’t need to be out and about to catch up on the gossip. They don’t need pubs to meet potential love interests either, indeed they seem to be hesitant of using them to do so. And staying in is not as dull as it once was. In my day no one would deliver food to your house and although you could go out and bring it back yourself the choice was limited, generally poor Chinese and Indian or excellent fish and chips. You can now get a wide choice of takeaway food, albeit still mostly fast food, delivered to your home at the drop of an app. Booze for home is cheaper than it has ever been and readily available, indeed you can have that delivered.

So what does the pub do that will tempt people to spend more going out than they would staying at home? Firstly, we do everything for you; there’s no cooking or washing up, all you have to do is turn up and sit down. Secondly, we have better food than you would mostly be able to get delivered, especially as there are no nasty additives, as almost everything is made freshly by us. Thirdly we have a huge choice of both food and drink which is very welcome when there’s a group of people together with varying tastes, or even if you’re on your own and want to try something different. Fourthly we give you a very pleasing place to be – warm and cosy, clean and comfortable. Finally, you are surrounded by other people enjoying themselves, some of whom you might well know. It’s a sociable place. So the struggle commences – we are trying to tempt you out while supermarkets and Deliveroo are trying to get you to stay at home. My fear is that they have more clout than I do but my hope is that people prefer the greater pleasure of going out.

And that battle is before we start on the economics of running a pub. In nearly forty-five years of being a publican I have never known a harder economic climate. The business pays more tax now than we ever have and we get less for it than we ever have. It now seems that councils spend their time trying to work out how to charge for things. The classic is rubbish collection which was included with the rates when I started but is no longer. Or perhaps I’d like to talk to someone – oh no, you can’t do that. Mostly you can’t talk at all, some, such as planners, will do so only if you pay. I can’t talk to HMRC so I have to pay my accountant to answer queries instead. I’m harassed by tedious, ill thought-out administrative tasks from all sorts of regulatory bodies which eats up our office time and seems to be mostly concerned with covering the instigators behinds. Energy, a very big cost for us, is the highest I have known and everything else seems to be going up in sympathy. Wages too are at their highest with HMG pushing up NI and pension costs as well as massive jumps in the minimum wage. I was looking at one of my first Profit and Loss accounts from the early 80’s – wages were at 20%, now I run at over 40% which is shortly to go up yet again. The breakeven of the average pub is now so high that only busy pubs can survive.

On the other side of the economic equation, we have our customers squeezed for money like a toothpaste tube. I only have 130 staff but I can tell you horror stories of people’s mortgage payments going up by £800 per month and energy bills doubling. It’s not a time when people feel flush and even amongst our older customers who can more comfortably afford life, rising costs make them cautious.

And that brings me to competition. In any local economy there is only a limited amount of income available for hospitality. I wish I knew how much this was and how often people go out and spend it, but I don’t. What I do know is the basic demographics. I know that Wales has about 70 pubs per 100,000 people which is above the average of 58 pubs per 100,000 people in the UK. I know that Flintshire and Denbighshire together have around 200,000 adults. I know that the five villages have around 1,800 adults and that Gorsedd has around 330 of them. These are only 2011 data sets because, of course, the Office for National Statistics are over stretched and haven’t yet been able to process the 2021 census data because they are working from home and have no idea what their colleagues are thinking or doing. I suspect there are now more people in Gorsedd as it looks to me as if some of the houses have been built since 2011.

I surmise that I need around 3,000 regular customers, ranging from very regular to people who only visit 4 or 5 times a year. Heaven knows whether this is right, I have spreadsheet models in which if you alter one simple parameter you get a completely different answer. Spreadsheets can be really dangerous. Of course, I can’t have all these customers to myself; they have to be shared with all the other pubs and with other hospitality venues, which is why I devote time to trying to find somewhere where there is less competition. It’s much harder work than it was when I started with my first pub in 1981 and particularly in this part of the world, where I find myself competing with my old self in the form of Brunning and Price pubs. I have thought of moving to a different part of the country but I don’t really want to leave the area I know and love and which knows and loves me.

So there we are. I have butterflies in my stomach. You might well ask why I’m still doing it and the answer is that it gives me pleasure to give you pleasure. I love pubs and I love to make pubs you love. Let’s hope I don’t have to pay to provide them for you.

 

December 2023

Here is another article written by Jerry for the Five Villages Chronicle (website here), this time about his background as a publican, including a bit of an update on progress at The Druid Inn. This first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of the Chronicle, the digital copy of which can he found here

A bit more background to the Druid Inn and Jerry Brunning

Let’s start with why I’m a publican, something I’ve often wondered myself. I think it’s all to do with a series of early life influences. I had an Auntie Elalline, my father’s sister, who ran a small hotel in Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog called the West Arms Hotel. It was old fashioned, it had a dining room, a public bar, a lounge bar and a resident’s lounge but it was run like a large private home. Auntie Elalline was always bustling about fussing over the customers and making them feel at home, the food was excellent and the whole place was eclectic and cosy. I loved it and loved going there. As I grew older I started going to pubs myself. It was by far and away my favourite way of socialising, a small crowd of people huddled into a bar drinking beer and putting the world to rights. I couldn’t help but notice that most pubs were not well thought out. Keg beer, fruit machines, bad furniture, poor food and horrible wine. They needed to be an updated version of The West Arms with the same bonhomie and good things to eat and drink. I clearly needed to run my own pub.

And so I founded Brunning and Price in 1981 and bought my first pub, the Bell Inn at Outwood. Outwood is in Surrey and you might think it strange that a boy from Wales, living in Chester should suddenly skit off to the other end of the country to open his first pub. The short explanation is that my brother Bruce was already down there. He had built a Squash Club in the grounds of The Copthorne Hotel near Gatwick and it was a roaring success. My wise Mum thought it would be sensible to buy my first pub near Bruce for moral and material support, the most attractive part being Bruce’s supportive bank manager. So there we have it – I ended up in the small village of Outwood in Surrey the proud owner of the Bell Inn.

At first I thought I’d only ever have one pub. I remember someone asking me “what’s the plan, Jerry?” Plan, plan – I’ve bought a pub and now I’m a publican, I’ll run it until I retire and then sell, surely you don’t need any more of a plan than that. I ran The Bell for three years, loving every minute of it and it provided me with everything I needed on a day to day basis even though I wasn’t making much money. The bank were making a lot more than I was. I’d also become business savvy. I’d discovered spreadsheets and developed philosophies on business. I surmised that a small pub company was the best way forward, so I decided to sell the Bell, pay off the debt and take on some brewery tenancies. I’d have some capital to invest, rent would be considerably less than the interest I was paying and I now had a strong house style which I knew would go down well with customers in other areas.

I was able to secure the first tenancy, the Fox Revived at Norwood Hill, before I sold the Bell. That gave me some time to set it up and get it contributing before the income stream from the Bell was cut off. The following year I took another tenancy, the tiny Great Eastern in Brighton and the following year another one, The Black Jug in Horsham. I also had an exciting project in the pipeline that had been brewing for a few years, The Old Harker’s Arms in Chester. It was an empty basement in a canal side warehouse owned by Martin Taylor, a local antiques dealer who I had bought furniture from. Martin had been very patient in allowing me to get planning permission to convert it to a pub and then to go through a rare and difficult process to obtain a new alcohol license. I eventually got both and was all ready to go except – no money.

At the same time as all this was happening, I took on Graham Price. He started in late 1988, part time to begin with, while he was in the process of selling a hotel he and his father owned. Graham had worked for me in 1981 as a barman during holidays while he was a student and I’d kept in touch with him over the years. I was and am a great admirer of Graham – he has an excellent work ethic, picks things up quickly, pays great attention to detail and can make things work. He’s also good fun to be with and loves pubs. I was sure we’d make a good team and this was indeed the case. In 1989 I sold him 20% of the company and that was it, I had my first partner and we were a team.

At about the same time I was introduced to Jonathan Russel at 3i plc. He had a peppercorn fund to invest, that is to say small amounts of money for small companies. Jonathan really liked our pubs and realised that our problem was security. The high street banks would not lend to us as the tenancies we owned were not assignable, so they couldn’t sell them if the worst happened. JR offered to lend us the money we needed unsecured in exchange for an option on 20% of the company. We had a deal.

So things were looking up: I had three tenancies, a lease on a new pub in Chester with planning and a license, I had a top quality partner and we now had the money to make it all work. By the end of June 1992 we were up to 5 pubs.

We did what I think is our best work in the next 10 years while we had youth, enthusiasm, experience, sound finances and, perhaps above all, an economy that wanted us to do well. We built The Grosvenor Arms in Aldford in October ‘92, Pant-yr-Ochain in Gresford in August ‘94, The Armoury in Shrewsbury in March ‘96, The Dysart Arms in Bunbury in May ‘97, The Cross Foxes in Erbistock in June ‘98, Glasfryn in Mold in June ‘99, The Corn Mill in Llangollen in June 2000 and Pen-y-Bryn in Colwyn Bay in July 2001.

Then we had a little break for a few years, a consolidation, before starting again with The Combermere Arms in Burleydam in July 2004, The Fox in Chetwynd Aston in November 2004 and the Hand and Trumpet in Wrinehill in February 2006.

In 2007 Graham and I discussed selling. The reasons behind this decision are for another day but sell we did. Then I sat at home for 10 years, watching Midsomer Murders. I missed the pubs terribly and so when the beautiful Swan at Marbury came on to the market I couldn’t resist, and this little company, Pubs Limited, was born. Shortly after I bought the Black Bear in Whitchurch, then the Hare in Farndon, then the Henry Potts in Chester and now the Druid Inn, making five in all. Why I don’t know, I can only assume it’s because I still love pubs.

So the Druid is making good progress. We have completely stripped out the pub, all the wiring and electrics have gone, all the fixtures and fittings, soft furnishings and furniture. In effect we have a lovely clean building to start again. The truth is we are hardly changing the layout at all. We’ve moved the Ladies and Gents upstairs but will keep a single loo downstairs for those who find stairs tricky. We will completely redo the back of the pub, creating more of a courtyard with plants than the garden that was there before. It’ll be a smaller version of what’s behind The Black Bear in Whitchurch.

We have bought some lovely turn of the century (1900 that is) floorboards of close grained pine and also some pitch pine board for the floor. We also have reclaimed quarry tiles for around the bar. We have bought, mounted and framed nearly 300 interesting images. We have all the furniture, my usual brown furniture, despised by many but loved by me. Apart from that I think old customers will be surprised at how much is the same – it’ll just all be in good nick.

Watch the website (druidinngorsedd.co.uk) for more information. Or maybe that Facebook thing.

Cheers,
Jerry

 

September 2023

Below is an article written by Jerry Brunning about The Druid and our plans for it. It was originally published in the Autumn 2023 issue of the excellent Five Villages Chronicle, the website of which is here. The digital copy of the complete issue can be found here.

The Druid Inn

Well at least the Druid has been saved. So many rural pubs are just shut down and left to decay before being sold off as houses and you don't need to look outside the Five Villages to see the evidence. But The Druid is now secure as a pub and will serve it’s community for many years to come or until the Senedd bans them.

I imagine that you'll be wondering what sort of pub we're going to give you and, when asked, I usually say one I'd like.

I've always used pubs as places to meet and socialise. I want a pleasing, comfortable building, quality food and drink (for me interesting cask beer, decent red wine and classic dishes done well), kind staff and reasonable prices. I want the building to be clean and in good order with everything working most of the time. I want to feel safe. I want it to be somewhere I can use time and again because I know I like it and I know what I'm going to get. I don’t want to be entertained in my pub, in fact the opposite, I find people trying to entertain me distracts from the pleasure I get from just talking with the people I'm with. So I don't like gaming machines, pool tables, dart boards, television, music, quiz nights, pub football teams or anything else that tries to interfere with simple socialising. I just want the pub to be the same pleasing place every time I choose to visit.

Why the Druid? Well it's simple really - it's a lovely village and a lovely pub. Practically a pub needs to be in a good location vis-a-vis potential customers and the building needs to be one that will respond to love and affection. It’s a considerable advantage if there is no competition, although competition seems to follow me. Gorsedd is in a proper settled community, the surrounding villages are charming and of an ilk and none of them have a pub. It has drawbacks - it's small, the garden faces north and does not have views and there's no gas in the village but apart from that I think we can make it work. It’s charming now but when I stand and stare at the building I can't help thinking it must have been even more charming before the first war. There would have been truly outstanding views out over the Wirral and on to Liverpool, you might even have seen a few tall ships, while Gorsedd would have been a quiet rural community. It must surely have been a truly spiritual place. I think that spirituality still lives in the fabric of the village.

The modern-day Druid Inn is a typical example of a pub that has not had investment for a long time. It’s tired and shabby and needs its socks pulled up. So that’s where we’ll start – sorting out the fabric of the building so that we don’t have to worry about it again in my lifetime. We can't do everything so the pantile roof and strangely sculptured plaster work will, I think, have to stay. The flat roofs will need replacing, the fireplaces opened up and the fire surrounds rebuilt. It needs rewiring and replumbing, it needs a new kitchen which will probably be our biggest expense. The loos need renovating and refitting. All the floors need to be renovated with a combination of tiles and floorboards. Then we’ll need to furnish it, put our pictures in and then add the tech that today's business needs. I don’t want the pub to be flash or garish or unusual or unique, I want it to be comfortable. I always tell my crew that it should be like visiting a home loving eccentric Aunt who’s gathered all sorts of strange pictures and possessions over the years. Eclectic.

Once the building is ready, or more likely at the same time, we need to get staff. This is no mean task nowadays but we have the small advantage of a stable (relatively) workforce of 130 or so souls which will hopefully reassure potential staff that we are half decent people to work for and could be a good long term bet. We'll have to train all these people and this will be a combination of on site instruction with some of the new staff going to work in our other four pubs so they can get the hang of things and teach the others. This is why we can't open too close to Christmas as it might be too much pressure for new and inexperienced staff. They’d get flustered, the customers would be impatient, I’d be upset and dogs would howl. No - we need to ease our new team into their new roles during the quieter January and February period so that by Easter we are firing on all cylinders.

Matt Marren, our principal chef, will be beavering away in the background with the process of getting the menus right and the kitchen staff working together as a team. A starting menu will have to be created, a few items on the menu will generally change every day thereafter so we will need a bank of dishes for months down the line. I like classic dishes done well but of course I’m old fashioned and we also need to cater to modern tastes – vegan, vegetarian, Asian fusion etc. which I have to say I like too if for some reason the fish pie’s not on.

Then, finally, we have to tell everyone about it. This has, in the past, proved to be a problem for me and I think it's because I don't use social media, I don't have first-hand experience of how it works when it comes to telling people what's happening. I still love local newspapers and local mags like this one. What a joy to have a decent parish magazine - "priceless" as it correctly describes itself.

1 do think web sites are important. They are the modern-day equivalent of a company brochure, but they are workaday tools for people who are largely already customers or close to being one. You can book a table, check opening times, download the day's menu, get the address, send a link to your friend. So, in the hope of getting around this hole in my knowledge, for this pub I've hired a professional who I hope will do the job of telling people about us without sounding like a prat.

One thing I should warn you of is that there will be lots of people who won't like the Druid. For a start all those people I've mentioned above who do like to be entertained. They do want to play darts and watch TV and they really like quiz nights and a pub cricket team. I sympathise with these people greatly; I often want these things too. However, I have learnt over the years that doing one thing well is much better than trying to be all things to all people. I believe people want meeting places and that's why pubs have been a success since Roman times.

The people I expect to be customers will live not too far away, will come from all walks of life but will have one thing in common, an appreciation of a good aesthetic. Perhaps a better word would be traditionalists, our customers come from every walk of life but are traditionalists, lovers of classic pubs. That sounds right to me, I hope it's not pretentious.

My one sadness is I can't see how I'll be able to regularly use this pub myself. Obviously I'll visit during the day to just to see what's happening, but I also like to use the pubs as a customer.nWith the other four I regularly pop in for a pint and a scotch egg. This one is 45 minutes from my house and there won't be any chance of getting Beth, my wife, to come and collect me if I get drawn into having a few too many. Perhaps I should get myself a driver or maybe find a local B and B. We'll see.

So, I hope many of you will become customers when we finally open. Watch this space for more news or, for those that prefer the online world I believe we have a Facebook page. If I were you I'd stick with this lovely magazine.