I am really beginning to appreciate this unavoidable downtime as it is providing me with long periods to reminisce and reflect and seems to have given me the writing bug again. During a spell of uninterrupted long distance memory gazing this morning I was revisiting my time as a pub landlord a decade or so ago. I have had some Frank Sinatra playing in the background all morning as it was a favourite on the old duke box and certainly helps to jog my memory back to the pub days in a way that only music seems to. I embarked on some quite fantastic life lessons during this time and thought it would be good to share more about this period in my life.
I first got into the pub trade in Oxfordshire around 2009 as I was looking for a new lease of life having suffered such a traumatic experience with the Post Office fiasco and then working in a dead end job as an IT support guy. With a lack of any kind of capital, I had started looking for low investment businesses as a way out and with my customer service background I felt a pub would suit me. There were a lot of warning signs that this might not be a good decision as the 2008 recession had just hit and pubs were closing down at an alarming rate of about one per week. I ignored the noise though and proceeded to look at them as opportunities and found my first opportunity on my door step in my own village. The Swan Inn had been used as a film set for midsomer murders and was your typical quaint and quintessential English country pub.
We are certainly blessed in my neck of the woods as most of the pubs around here are rural destination pubs and my thinking at that time was that those that were wet led (mostly drinks trade as The Swan was) probably just needed a better food offering, a lick of paint and an improved atmosphere to get them moving forward again. It was with this belief that I stepped out of the shadows…
The Swan Inn was a small drinking pub with a long bar at its centre and a very small kitchen literally on the reverse of the bar. With these obstacles in mind, I had the idea to develop a Tapas style menu as it would be a differentiate the pub from what others had to offer in the area and could easily be served considering the capacity of the kitchen. It all started really well and the pub was busy as I had been given some good coverage in the local press and the general consensus was that the food was good.
I was happy to regularly report excellent early trading figures to my landlords (Greene King Brewery) and on the back of that I was approached to help try and salvage another local pub which was about 5 miles a way in a village called Tackley. The remit was that the landlord had gone rogue and the brewery incentivised me with an offer of a rent free period so I took it upon myself to step up to take on a second pub while still in the honeymoon period with the first. The decision I made was one that I would later regret but at the time I was so driven that had you even suggested to me that this might not work or that I might have bitten of more than I can chew… I would have probably bit your head off. Naturally, I exasperated those who had my interests at heart and were close to me.
“A Father-of-two has taken over his local pub to save it from the threat of closure. Bal Gill, 31, has relaunched the Gardiner Arms in Tackley, near Kidlington, because villagers were worried the pub was going to be sold.”
During this period in my life, I spent most of my time as my extroverted self as I played the role of the eccentric landlord and was always trying to keep the punters happy. This was difficult as although I was skilled as a servant of the people and was good at engaging them, making them feel welcome and creating an atmosphere… Inside I was really struggling with poor mental health and had growing financial problems as my working capital had nearly all dried up. The problem is when you are wearing a mask for too long you become detached from your true self as you are living as a persona and this led me to become a very conflicted individual. In my off duty time I exasperated those around me and imagine I could have been exhausting at the best of times. I found it very hard to relax and was always pretty wired so would be snappy, defensive and not really someone that you would want to spend time with. Looking back now I can see that had I ever stopped to think and reflect I may have noted that my mental state was mostly manic and I was making impromptu business decisions carelessly from this detached perspective rather than being strategic and applying any real thought process.
I made a decision to appoint a manageress to run the second pub and despite a good few months trading, the business started to decline rapidly. I constantly had issues with staff there and this caused me a lot of headaches. For some strange reason over a period of time, I went from being the guy that saved the pub from closing to being the enemy of the villagers. I think in hindsight, the manageress became too closely involved with village life and I got painted as the outsider and this was the core of the problem. During this period, I had began drinking heavily every weekend as a form of escapism but consequentially would spend most of my weekdays nursing prolonged hang overs and trying to battle the stresses of poor trade. The bills kept piling up and the sales were declining.
There were one of two things that could have happened at this stage as I could either have closed them and caved in to another failed chapter in my life or I could try and keep going and see where this journey takes me…. I chose to keep going and in a matter of weeks stumbled across a quite unique opportunity to take on a third pub which in my opinion was far better than the two I had. A good friend and regular at the Swan Inn had informed me that the pub was going to be made available shortly and with his assistance I managed to setup a meeting with the brewery. The pub is idyllic and sits on the top of a hill in Otmoor and is renowned for its amazing views and the fact that it was regularly frequented by C.S. Lewis and Evelyn Waugh amongst others. Everything about this opportunity seemed different and looking back I think it was just the right place and the right people coming together at the right time. Our team was fantastic and we hit the ground running.
“I would like to think, gourmet that he was, that Waugh would have approved of the pub as it is today, now a Brakspear’s tenancy held by licensee Bal Gill (pictured – he also has The Swan at nearby Islip, where food is in tapas style). The beer is still good (as Rosemarie and our neighbour Paul discovered over lunch) and the food, from Mark’s kitchen, is surely better than it has ever been.” Christopher Gray, Food Critic, Oxford Mail.
Like a child with a new toy, I quickly lost interest in the other pubs and started to plan an exit strategy. This was no easy task as by all means as pub chains tend to have you tied up into long term agreements but thankfully with a little persistence I was able to get out with minimal debt accrued. I then ran the The Abingdon Arms for what was a mostly successful period of around 4 years and I still look back on the time fondly. It was a really vibrant village and the pub was much loved in my tenancy with clientele from far and wide. I think the lesson here is that I had to go through the failures of the other two to find this opportunity and that always sticks with me.
In all my years as a publican, I never actually stopped and took any real time out to ground myself and I am certain this contributed to my mental ill health. I remember one particular period where I had one day off in two years and looking back I honestly don’t know how I did it. Internally I was a mess but on the customer facing side I still always greeted everyone with a smile. These days I take more comfort in my introverted self and I cherish my quiet time. When I go for my long walks I can still see the pub on the horizon from my current village but it really does feel like I am worlds apart from the person I was in that chapter.