The Geese & Fountain morphs into a village shop, takeaway and virtual pub. But it’s not a PR stunt and all is not rosy…

Because of their heartwarming, backs-to-the-wall response to coronavirus, there’s a danger we see pubs and other small food & drink businesses as charities, run for the good of the community. However, we should remember that they are businesses, fighting for their lives…

The Geese & Fountain in Croxton Kerrial, Leicestershire, is working flat-out to serve the local community during lockdown. But like many pubs, it is engaged in an existential struggle.

As this crisis evolves, there’s a danger we start to see pubs and other small food & drink businesses as charities. It’s an easy mistake to make when we hear about chefs cooking for the NHS and about pubs helping vulnerable locals. It feels like they’ve become part of the third sector, run by volunteers. It’s been an inspiring response.

However, as we applaud, like and retweet, there’s a danger that we forget these small businesses are not running PR campaigns. This is no game. Helping the vulnerable is admirable but doesn’t pay the bills. Turning your pub into the village greengrocer makes a nice news story, but often the pub has no choice. Money must be made and bills have to be paid, despite the government assistance.

Nick Holden, landlord at The Geese & Fountain, says: “The lockdown has been difficult and unsettling for pubs, but we’ve found ways to continue to serve our community. We have furloughed or stood down all our staff, but we intend to keep paying them if we possibly can. We want them to come back to their jobs when we re-open. We’re missing our staff badly, they are like a family, and it’s hard not to be able to see them, have a joke, and work together.”

With the help of family and locals, The Geese & Fountain has started offering take-aways and deliveries – pizzas, fish & chips, burgers, curry, Sunday lunches and other classic pub food. It has opened a window at the front of the pub for collections, turning into a village store selling milk, bread, veg boxes, flour, meat and other essentials. “We might continue with this after lockdown,” says Nick, “because our village lost its shop at Christmas.”

Furthermore, the pub is putting on virtual pub nights on Fridays, virtual pub quizzes, online darts, and is also running ‘The Great Croxton Cook-Off’ – “a kind of ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ event,” says Nick.

But while The Geese & Fountain’s response to coronavirus has been joyful, morale-building and smile-inducing, the future remains unknowable and, from a business perspective, precarious.

Nick says: “We’re worried about the future. We’ve been here nearly five years, and when we moved in, the pub had been empty for a while. We invested a lot of our own money – and borrowed from family and the bank – to repair the building and re-open. But now, just when we should be starting to show a profit and re-pay our debts, we’ve been forced to close.

“We really want to weather this storm and re-open, but we don’t know what the future holds – even though we’re grateful for the government support we’ve received so far.

“Our biggest cost – rent – is still the biggest threat to our survival. The property is owned by Wellington Pub Company, which is owned by Britain’s second-richest family, the Reuben Brothers, and at this point, Wellington says rent still needs to be paid. However, the stark reality is that there is no money to pay with. Until a solution to this stand-off can be found, the risks for pubs like ours remain high. Either landlords need to accept that rent will not be forthcoming, insurance companies need to pay out on business interruption policies that pubs took out in good faith, or the government needs to take action to bring all sides together to work out a way forward.”

So, next time you hear about a pub transforming into a village shop or cooking for vulnerable villagers, don’t brush it off as a PR stunt. Despite the warm glow these initiatives temporarily produce, this is an extremely testing time for pubs like The Geese & Fountain, and for many other independent hospitality businesses.

“We’re desperately worried,” says Nick. “We will need help even after we re-open, otherwise we face the prospect of surviving the lockdown only to go out of business when we re-open. Pubs are an essential part of British society, and in small villages like ours, they are the heart of the community. If pubs cannot re-open profitably after this, those hearts will stop beating. English village life will be changed forever.”

For more information on The Geese & Fountain, visit its Facebook page.

The author:

Matt lives in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. He is passionate about the independent food & drink sector and founded Great Food Club in 2010 after being inspired by local producers near his home town.