The Bull Inn has been at the heart of the village of Limpsfield in rural Surrey for hundreds of years. But when the pub went up for sale in 2017, locals feared it would be snapped up by housing developers. Director Adrienne Bloch tells Neil Gerrard how she helped set up the community enterprise that has acquired the Bull Inn and kept it open
At the end of 2017, however, that all looked like it might come under threat. Having already lost amenities like shops and restaurants to the march of progress and the relentless inflation of property prices, the village saw the freehold pub go up for sale after the previous landlady called it a day. But it wasn't some unloved, spit-and-sawdust boozer on its last legs. It remained popular with locals as a gastropub, suggesting it still had plenty of potential as a hospitality operation. That meant that despite its hefty £800,000 price tag, the property garnered plenty of interest. Worryingly for the locals though, that included developers likely to want to close it to the public forever.
One local resident who recognised the pub's value to the local community and wasn't prepared to see it go by the wayside was Adrienne Bloch. Fortuitously, Bloch has a background in project managing equity fundraisers in historic buildings. Her day job involves managing, designing, building and financing projects, and while she no longer works on buildings in the hospitality sector, her time working for Croydon Council meant that she helped reinvent the likes of Addington Palace, which has become a well-known wedding venue, and Croydon Airport.
Bloch resolved to set up a community enterprise to buy the pub and help safeguard it for the future. "We just felt that we didn't want to lose our last bit of village and we didn't want to lose the place where people can go and meet," she explains. "It is a stone's throw away from where I live and I feel passionately about sustainable communities and new ways of investing locally in things that are important to locals."
So she set about building a team of fellow directors on the project, launching a company called Enterprising Limpsfield, which was the vehicle used to acquire the pub. Each of the seven directors possesses skills that complement the rest of the team – financial, legal, and so on. None of them is a restaurateur or publican, however, which meant the board decided to employ two local hospitality operators on a consultancy basis.
"It was quite important for me, being from a professional project management background, to build in that capability and resilience from day one," says Bloch. "Rather than being an amateurish community pub-saving operation, we were very much about creating a unique, high-end experience that would be successful in the longer term as a commercial entity."
When it came to raising the money to achieve all of this, Bloch and her fellow directors decided to conduct a private fundraising exercise using crowdfunding platform Growthdeck. They garnered support from 280 investors, many of them local, who between them have put up £1.3m to purchase and completely refurbish the pub. Enterprising Limpsfield sought the advice of restaurant design experts, as well as enlisting the help of Bloch's friend Lisa Lloyd, an antiques expert who appears on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow, who used her contacts to scour the country to find unique and quirky objects to reinforce the pub's independence.
It wasn't just cosmetic changes though. To ensure that the Bull Inn fitted with Enterprising Limpsfield's vision for a sustainable business offering fresh, local food, the kitchen has been completely refitted and, just eight weeks after the official opening on 1 November 2018, a second phase of additional external cold storage was added. "We have had to build in much more capacity because we have been so successful so far. Our cold store is massive and our freezer is minute, which is really different to a lot of pub chains," says Bloch.
The age of the building has, of course, thrown up some challenges. "We have to work within some of the constraints of an old building. We may have steps where we would have wanted flat access and the kitchen could always be bigger, but that adds to the experience," she says. "You probably wouldn't design an environment like that from scratch, but we have had such great feedback about it."
The building also brings with it features that can be turned into assets. Not only has a private dining room for 12 people been added upstairs, but Enterprising Limpsfield has also converted an old grain store into an external bar, installing one of the old bars from the pub. The aim is to make an external area for the summer that draws in walkers and cyclists.
More than just a pub
Enterprising Limpsfield's vision for the Bull Inn is to act as a hub for the local community, based on some very modern role models. "We don't really see it as a pub. We see it in a much more modern context, as an envelope where things happen, and we enjoy good food and drink," says Bloch. "If you think about WeWork and how it has transformed offices – with food and drink while you are at work – or Soho House, they cater to growing trends for people who want to live and work in their local communities. So we started to think about how we could create not just an excellent venue in terms of the aesthetics and food and drink, but how we could be flexible about the space and the way it is used."
A major part of that approach means a strong focus on events. Within the first few weeks of opening, there was a singing evening led by a talented young singer, as well as a gourmet game evening that introduced locals to high-quality local suppliers in the area. Bloch hopes to produce a compelling series of events in 2019, many of them educational.
"Because our vision is about a more holistic, experiential venue, we are really thinking about how food identifies communities, cultures and punctuates dates in the diary," she says. That means experiences based around dates like Mothers' Day and Burns Night, but also less conventional occasions like global science festival Pint of Science, which takes place in May.
"If you start thinking about all the chemistry in cooking, there are some real opportunities to link food, produce, technology and innovation, and develop that thinking beyond the obvious. There is also a lot of science when it comes to the production of wine and beer, and that gives us the chance to get people to think about the fact there is more to a career in hospitality, with a lot of opportunities and a lot of fun too."
Jessica Hurren, general manager of the Bull Inn, says that everyone is proud of the community investment – "it's a great example of local people coming together with a common goal" – and highlights that customers are now coming from beyond the immediate locality.
"We don't really have a typical customer as such," she explains. "Our customers are generally from within a five-mile radius of Limpsfield. What's nice is that we have a very diverse range of age groups, from grand- parents to grandchildren – but all love great food, drink, service and a welcoming atmosphere. As the word is spreading, we are also getting increasing numbers of guests travelling down from London and other larger towns like Guildford and Tunbridge Wells.
"Everything at the Bull Inn is special, from the design to our bespoke fresh and locally sourced menu, the use of local produce where possible and the recruitment of local people. We're really proud of all the positive feedback we've had from our customers. The important thing is that we listen to all the feedback and suggestions and keep working to ensure we're giving our customers what they want."
The recruitment conundrum
Attracting people to work at the Bull Inn is perhaps one of the biggest challenges, given its location and the fact that it is a new business. Bloch is very pleased to have secured the services of head chef Tommy Pring (see below), who previously worked in high-end London restaurants. Pring lives in nearby Warlingham and was drawn to the Bull Inn not just because the role offered him the chance of more creative freedom working with high-quality, local produce, but also because it has allowed him a better work-life balance. For many in his profession, though, the draw is still to London, while more junior front of house staff tend to join only temporarily.
"Staffing is an issue," says Bloch. "I think professionals like Tommy are deciding there is a real opportunity to do their own thing and have a work-life balance, which is more about social value. That has been the case for a lot of the senior team. But with the waiting staff, it is really difficult around here. I think that is partly because waiting isn't seen as a career, rightly or wrongly. Our waiting staff's average age is probably 20. We are developing them into the world of work as well as service. Hopefully, some of them may stay in it and end up loving it."
ding junior chefs – particularly chefs de partie and sous chefs – can also be a struggle. "We are quite rural here and yet close to London, so a lot of chefs are commuting to the top places there," says Pring. "People don't know that we are tried and tested yet, so we have got to prove that we are going to continue to cook good food and develop and mentor people."
The team are up for a challenge: "It's a new business and we are excited – tired but excited," says Bloch. "In the next year I think we are going to see that this is the start of something special."
Facts and figures
The Bull InnHigh Street, Limpsfield, Surrey RH8 0DR 01883 717469
Average spend per head £22.80
Capacity 60-70, plus up to 40 standing in the grain store and 12 seated in the private dining room (or 20 standing)
Targeted annual turnover Initially the target was £600,000 a year, but strong early trading has seen revised it upwards to £800,000
Target market Locals within a three-mile radius
Staff 25 full- and part-time
Investment raised £1.3m
Key suppliers and produce ¢ Chapman's of Sevenoaks – fish and seafood
¢ Chart Farm – venison
¢ Premier Cheese
¢ Hennings Wine
¢ Westerham Brewery
¢ Godstone Brewery
¢ Surrey Hills Brewery
¢ Silent Pool Gin
The head chef:a chance to prove himself
Head chef Tommy Pring secured his role at the Bull Inn thanks in part to a glowing reference from Mini Patel, for whom he worked at D&D London's Blueprint Café in London. He has plenty of experience in Michelin-starred establishments, following stints at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, Chapter One in Locksbottom and Thackeray's in Tunbridge Wells, both in Kent.
"I was drawn to this place because I like what they are trying to achieve here, but also for my lifestyle," he says. "And I also wanted the chance to be somewhere where I have the creative freedom to do what I want to do and to prove myself."
The menu Pring has created features pub favourites like burgers and fish and chips, but he has brought some of that Michelin experience to bear on the techniques he uses to produce them.
"We make everything fresh and we bake our own bread every morning. Instead of putting bacon on top of a burger, we braise down brisket and we put sticky brisket on it. We are trying to elevate the classic things in ways that people haven't seen before and wouldn't expect to get in this sort of area," he explains.
Nonetheless, average spend per head is a reasonable £22.80 for both food and drink. "Quality for value has really been underpinning our thinking," adds Bloch, who likes to use the term "fine food" for what the pub produces.
Saving pubs for the community
It's no secret that the past few years haven't been kind to pubs, and in 2015, they were reported to be closing their doors at the rate of four a day. But some fought back. Here are two other examples of community-owned pubs:
The Fox & Goose, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
In 2013, the local community in Hebden Bridge moved to save their local, an alehouse since the 14th century, from the same fate. They raised £130,000 to keep the pub open, with support from the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, after its previous landlady announced she was too ill to continue running it. The pub, still open today, claimed to have become the first community-owned pub in West Yorkshire.
The Ivy House, Nunhead, London
The Ivy house in London's Nunhead lays claim to being the first community-owned pub in the capital.
The Victorian pub faced closure in 2012 with Enterprise Inns, as it was then called, planning to sell to a property developer. The pub, which was part of east London brewer Truman's estate, was known for hosting musicians including the likes of Elvis Costello and Ian Dury. But local CAMRA member and lawyer Tessa Blunden helped to block the planned sale. A community group created a co-operative to raise more than £810,000, with a loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund and a grant from the Social Investment Business Group.
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