Banburyshire pub owner writes inspiring piece - The Covid Diaries - life during the Covid-19 pandemic

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A Banburyshire pub owner has written an inspirational piece on the impact of the coronavirs ordered lockdown on the survival of his pub.

Trevor Brown, the owner of The Pickled Ploughman in Adderbury, penned the piece entitled 'The Covid Diaries.'

The government ordered a lockdown on March 23, and pubs and similar businesses were then ordered to shut to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently announced that pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers will be able to open across England from this Saturday July 4.

The Covid Diaries written by pub owner, Trevor Brown are as follows:

"I have to start this diary with a precursor.

"In the summer of 2019 after another failed marriage, I was bored. I had a successful stocktaking and consultancy business, but I was bored witless, clinically depressed and alone. For years I had been writing for BII Business magazine as “The Business Doctor”. I know, I thought, if you are so bloody clever, buy a pub again and make it a success. So I did, or at least I tried to. Timing has never been my strong suit!

"I bought The Pickled Ploughman in Adderbury. For nine months I worked too many hours, but finally I turned it around. Everyone was talking about my pub.

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The Pickled Ploughman in AdderburyThe Pickled Ploughman in Adderbury
The Pickled Ploughman in Adderbury

"Then Covid-19 arrived and everyone was talking about something else. Life, death, Wuhan, bat stew, but not The Pickled Ploughman.

"Then the PM advised everyone to stop going to pubs. I lost £10k in two weeks. C’est la vie. It was cheaper than a divorce. Then he told us we had to close.

"That evening I cried. I cried like a baby. One of my team found me alone on the terrace and handed me a scotch and ginger ale. Fevertree advertise that if 2/3rd of your drink is the mixer you need a good mixer. 90 per cent of that drink was malt whisky, and it was a 12oz Slim Jim. I drank it all, stopped crying, went back to my guests and put Vera Lynn on the music. We all cried together to “We’ll meet again”. Then we closed.

"I awoke the next day with a hangover the size of Mont Blanc and thought, “What the hell do I do now?” As a child I spent seven years at boarding school. In those years I learned, amongst many things, that self pity gets you nowhere. I needed a plan. Only snowflakes melt and I was not going to be one of those. Summer was coming.

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"Despite my hangover I decided that we would open a fruit and veg stall. We had just one pub garden bench at the front of the pub. I emptied the walk in cold room and put everything we had in stock on the bench. For eight hours I stood in the cold March air and sold nearly everything. I had a plan.

"The next day I called my suppliers and told them what I was going to do. By day four we were taking serious money. We were spending more buying supplies with Pershore Produce, Phillip Dennis and Banbury Butchers than we did as a pub/restaurant. They are all heroes in my book. The margin was small but we were still in business. We then launched the takeaway. We were getting smashed from every angle.

"I kept my chef, my sous and my GM on. The rest of the staff I furloughed. I cried again. A good waitress or barperson is a sales champion but there was nothing else that I could do.

"I have always known that pub life is not for the faint hearted. The ensuing months have tested me and my micro team to the extreme. One small bench became a 50 square metre covered stall. 18 hour days, 7 days a week became the norm – there were only the three of us. Up at 6 to get dressed. Suppliers arriving at 7. Stall service 10am till 4pm. Takeaway noon till 8pm. Paperwork and orders then followed until exhaustion deemed that my bed was the ultimate destination. Who on earth wants to be a market trader?. Pub life seemed easy in comparison.

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"In week four our fledgling takeaway business was almost derailed. We had worked hard to establish a thriving “Fish and Chip” offer. Then, without notice, M&J Seafoods refused to deliver without notice. Despite the thousands of pounds we had spent with them in the past, that was that. They preferred to supply “the NHS and care homes”. How very noble of them. I hope that they prosper in the future, but they will never supply my business again. It took me five hours of phone calls to find another supplier during which we denied many customers the chance to order because our phone was permanently engaged and it denied me the opportunity to work on more pressing issues. Bastards.

"Life continued apace. I was always looking for what we could sell on our stall that nobody else could supply. The obvious opportunity presented itself when the country decided “en masse” to become lockdown bakers. Flour and yeast were what they needed and I was going to provide it! Hours were spent sourcing supplies. We learned that there was flour to be had but only in 16kg sacks. By the end of lockdown my chef/sous had bagged in excess of a tonne of flour into 1kg plastic bags. I am pleased those years that they toiled at catering college paid off (not)! We could not get dried yeast for love, nor money, but converted the bakers of Banburyshire to the joy of fresh yeast. We sold over 50kg in 25g cling film parcels. I felt like a drug dealer at times. Whilst I have no personal experience I am told that they looked like a dealers “wraps." What the hell, I was taking, and, making money.

"At his juncture, I have to mention that I am not some latterday Thenadier, the “Master of the House” from Les Miserables. Our prime objectives during lockdown were to stay in business and to serve our community.

"In the village of Adderbury, our nearest neighbour of any size is Katharine House Hospice. From the early days we set out to ensure that those dying from Covid-19 or from any other cause could at least die with dignity and with compassionate care. We matched donations £1 for £1 in the first three months of lockdown. As I write we have raised, as a pub, and as a community over £2,600 for the hospice. We also delivered hundreds of meals free of charge to elderly and housebound people. Proof if such were needed, that pubs have always, and will always, be at the heart of the community. I am truly humbled by the generosity of our customers but we need to move on.

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"Many years ago when the smoking ban began, I penned an article for the then wonderful BII Business Magazine which I started with an adapted Darwinian quote, “It is not the fittest of the species that survive, it is those most adaptable to change." I believed it when I wrote it, I believe it now.

"A brief encounter on our stall with a customer known to everyone in Banbury as “Sam the Flowerman," raised the chance of us becoming, in the short term, a supplier of plants. All the garden centres were closed, and we were open. Opportunity knocked. Through Sam we found a local nurseryman with thousands of plants but no garden centres to sell them to. We quickly set up a deal. In the next month we sold over 1500 bedding plants and 150 bags of compost, Eat you heart out Darwin we were on a roll.

"For the same magazine, possibly in the same article, I entreated publicans not to regard their premises not as a pub but as an asset to be “sweated” for all the hours that you can. You have a car park, get a carwash set up, you have a spare room, rent it out to a hairdresser, you have a kitchen, someone wants a food production base. Rent rates etc. are paid by the year. You need, if you can, to earn 24/7. The Covid-19 lockdown reminded me that this as true now as it was then.

"From the start it was obvious that lockdown, like love, would probably not last forever. When Rishi Sunak threw £25k at my business I could have taken a holiday, banked the cash or bought a new car. What did I do? I spent it.

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"I blew £8k on a revamp of my outside drinking area, £10k on an interior refurb/kitchen improvements, £2k on Perspex screens and the remainder on a marquee and improved car parking.

"Am I mad? Well, possibly I am, but probably not as barking as some of our customer queries during lockdown, the best of which ran:

“Do you sell flour?”

“Yes, we have self raising, plain and bread flour”

“Ahh. Can you bake with any of that?”

“Hello, I hear that you sell plants?”

“Yes we do.”

“OK it’s my daughter’s birthday next week. Do you have a Venus flytrap?”

“You do know we are a pub don’t you and we don’t, but have you tried Wetherspoon’s?”

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“All your fruit and veg looks lovely especially the pineapples, melons and grapes. Do you grow them yourselves?”

“Yes, of course we do.”

“What cheeses do you have?”

“We have brie, camembert, feta and halloumi.”

“Are they local?”

"In the last few months I have alternated between being a quasi Greg Wallace, Dell Boy, Ronald MacDonald and Harry Ramsden – not quite what I had planned in July 2019.

"We open again as a pub/restaurant on 4th July. I cannot wait, but can I still pull a pint? I may shed another tear or two, but it’s OK not to be OK.

"Time will tell whether I have been a busy fool or not. Good luck everyone – it will be a bumpy ride but if we all think Darwin, I suspect that pubs will be OK!"

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