‘Masterstroke’ that’s reviving local pubs

Published on June 5, 2013

By Matt Wright, founder of Great Food Club

Left: The Greyhound, Newcastle-under-Lyme, after the Project William scheme

In 2006, even before the financial crisis struck, The Greyhound pub in Newcastle-under-Lyme was boarded up and looked as inviting as a January dip in the Trent & Mersey canal. What do you think it’s like now? A vandalised shell? Tesco Express? Block of flats? In fact it’s a thriving real-ale house with nine hand-pumps decorating the bar, a good selection of ciders and perries, and a fine reputation for its traditional Potteries oatcakes.

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The Greyhound, before Project William

In 2009, The Rose and Crown in Chesterfield was in a bad way. The beer was almost undrinkable, the interior was tired and customers were absent. Its future looked bleaker than a Peak District peat bog in a downpour. Now it’s regularly packed with beer connoisseurs and pub lovers who like to relax in the rejuvenated bar and choose between the eight local ales.

You’re probably sensing a pattern, but here’s one more, slightly different this time: in 2011, the Pool Table Supply shop on Pershore Road in Stirchley, Birmingham was another high-street casualty – boarded-up, sad and empty. Now it’s a well-supported artisan community bakery and cookery school that hosts regular pop-up events such as burger and noodle nights and a breakfast club.

More than 20 other examples, each with their own unique rags-to-riches story, could be listed but instead it’s probably best to explain why these impressive turnarounds are happening all over the Heart of England, during the worst recession in living memory.

The successes have sprung from two of the most progressive and exciting food and drink schemes operating in Britain, both pioneered by Leicestershire’s Everards Brewery and known as Project William and Project Artisan. The former – launched in 2007 and named after Everards’ founding father, William Everard – involves the 160-year-old family-owned brewer teaming up with craft-beer producers to open real-ale-focused pubs. Project Artisan, launched in 2011, is the name given to the brewery’s collaborations with artisan food producers to create business opportunities.

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Inside the revived Rose & Crown, Chesterfield

These projects are impressive for two reasons. First, they are transforming failing or closed pubs (and shops) into thriving real-ale houses and food businesses – 26 in six years so far, the 27th is coming soon. Second, due to investment from Everards, the schemes are allowing up-and-coming artisan food and drink businesses to grow and thrive in ways they couldn’t have achieved alone. And all of this is to the benefit of everyone: Everards – which is profiting from the projects – plus the partner businesses and the customers: a genuine win-win-win.

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Everards’ most celebrated ale is Tiger Best Bitter

So how do Projects Artisan and William work? Let’s return to Chesterfield….

Chris Radford runs Brampton Brewery in the Derbyshire market town. He describes Project William as “a masterstroke”. Chris says: “I heard about the scheme a few years ago and just picked up the phone to call Everards and find out more. Within a couple of days, Everards representatives had met me to explain how it worked.”

What they told Chris was that Everards would like to buy a pub, refurbish it, hand him the keys and allow him to run it as Brampton Brewery’s own brewery tap. Chris could sell all his own beers through the pub and run it as he saw fit. In return Brampton Brewery would pay rent to Everards, permanently serve Everards Tiger from one of the eight handpumps, and buy all keg products from the Leicestershire brewer.

And that, in a nutshell, is how Projects William and Artisan work: Everards purchases a suitable property, works with the handpicked partner business to make it fit for purpose, and then allows the tenant to run the refreshed building as their own property while offering business support. It’s simple and ingenious. And when the formula is right, it pays off for both parties.

The meeting in Chesterfield eventually resulted in the rejuvenation and opening in 2009 of The Rose and Crown one mile from Brampton Brewery. The pub has done so well that two further Project William-Brampton Brewery inns have followed – The Tramway Tavern, not far from The Rose & Crown, and The Brunswick in Derby.

Chris explains why Project William has been so important to his business: “Before linking up with Everards, like many breweries our size we were relatively successful and our beer was selling well locally, but it was difficult to finance buying a pub we could call our own. Project William gave us a route to market and a security net that meant we could run our own pub without spending £300,000 or more. As a small brewer you have three main problems: selling beer, getting the money from selling the beer, and getting your casks back. Having your own pub solves all three issues.”

In the wider context of the UK brewing and pub industry, Chris believes Project William has been a game-changer: “Five years ago many of the big pubcos were laughing at Everards and wondering what they were doing working with these upstart microbreweries who were nibbling at their profits. They saw us as a threat but Everards saw us as an opportunity and said, why can’t we work with these breweries to benefit of all us? Now, five years on, the bigger players that were laughing have also started to work with the smaller breweries.”

And, rather wonderfully, the benefits of collaboration are spreading: Brampton Brewery’s newest Project William pub in Derby, The Brunswick, contains a microbrewery. Brampton Brewery has allowed this to be run by a separate business – a young up-and-coming brewer called James Salmon, who produces beers under the name of Brunswick Ales. So Brampton Brewery, inspired by Project William, now runs its own collaborative scheme.

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The Brunswick in Derby

One of the people behind Projects William and Artisan is Stephen Gould, managing director of Everards. He says the seeds of Project William were sown in 2002 when Everards bought the Dead Poets Inn at Holbrook near Belper and The Brunswick in Derby. “These were successful pubs because of the eclectic mix of beers they offered,” says Stephen. “Turning them into Everards-branded pubs that sold Everards beer and not much else would have been daft, so we were looking to deliver range and variety to customers, an authentic local offering that matched a particular pub’s location.”

Fast forward to 2006. Everards were experiencing “market frustration”. Stephen says: “We wanted to acquire new pubs but our targets were being bought by larger pub companies at prices we weren’t prepared to pay. So we went back to the drawing board and looked at market trends. We saw that lots of new breweries were springing up, partly due to the 2002 introduction of Progressive Beer Duty and partly due to a growing demand for local beer. We also saw that lots of pubs were closing. We started questioning whether these failing pubs were really dead or, if run in the right way by passionate champions of craft ale with good local knowledge, they could they be re-ignited?”

The answer to the last question has proven, in many cases, to be a firm yes, with Project William unlocking the potential of several pubs that had previously been written off. And more are in the pipeline.

As Everards’ MD points out, the key to the project’s success is working with the right people – in his words, “passionate champions of craft ale with good local knowledge”. Keith Bott, co-owner of Titanic Brewery in Stoke on Trent and chairman of SIBA, is one such person. Titanic pub The Greyhound in Burslem was the first Project William pub and Keith is now working to open his eighth pub, another Everards partnership.

“If Everards opened a pub in Stoke-on-Trent on their own, why would anyone visit?” says Keith. “They don’t have a strong brand presence in the Potteries and despite their expertise and experience, lack genuine local knowledge in that particular geographic area. So it makes sense to team up with someone who does have those attributes. The great thing about Project William is that it really is a win-win. Everards makes good money from it and it also helps our business to grow.”

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Another Project William-Titanic Brewery pub – The Royal Exchange in Stone – before it was brought back from the dead

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Today The Royal Exchange is a thriving ale house

But it’s not only the choice of partner business that’s crucial to the scheme’s success. It’s also Everards’ attitude and business philosophy, says Keith: “Everards seem to have an in-built paternal instinct and are genuinely helpful. Once you’re working with them, the support they offer in terms of running pubs, marketing and brewing is exceptional. They are open, honest and transparent. We’re thrilled to be working with them and to continue to build on our strong relationship.”

As an example of the sort of working relationship Keith has with Everards, he explains how he approached Stephen Gould to run The Sun in Stafford as another Project William pub. Everards, after studying the figures, told him his balance sheet would actually look better if he took it on as a freehold. Keith followed the advice and it’s been a success. “It’s that kind of honesty and transparency that allows Project William work,” says Keith. “In my opinion, other larger breweries have tried to operate along the same lines but haven’t really grasped the transparency, fairness and honesty that’s required.”

In 2010 Everards launched an evolution of Project William, called Project Artisan, which took the same basic principles as William and applied it to food businesses. The first successful example of Project Artisan has been the launch of Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School in Stirchley, Birmingham. Here, Everards purchased a closed high-street shop in November 2011 and turned it into a cookery school and bakery run by Loaf founder and passionate baker Tom Baker.

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Tom Baker outside Loaf Bakery, Stirchley

And from the Loaf launch sprang another exciting Project Artisan initiative: the Church Inn in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. This historic pub had been struggling for many years but is now being revitalised by Everards and partner business, Soul Food Project. Founded by Birmingham resident Carl Finn, Soul Food Project are a team who cook dishes inspired by the cuisine of the southern US. After collaborating with Carl – a friend of Loaf’s Tom Baker – Everards bought the pub from Admiral Taverns and will have spent in total £500,000 on a major overhaul, working with a Jewellery Quarter-based design firm and a Black Country building company. Working with Carl and his Soul Food Project, the aim is to turn the Church Inn into a thriving and exciting city venue that serves high quality, exciting food alongside cocktails and locally brewed real ales. Soul Food Project, which serves its dishes in a handful of city pubs, has made a name for itself locally and knows the Birmingham market well, so Everards are again working with a partner who has an excellent understanding of their own patch.

Carl Finn says: “In partnership with Everards, we looked at about 40 sites in everywhere from Sutton Coldfield to Solihull. Then the Church Inn came up and the price was right. The Jewellery Quarter has the fasting-growing population in Birmingham, so it felt like a good move. Everards are great to work with, have a good reputation throughout the industry and seem to have positive relationships with everyone.”

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The Church Inn, Birmingham, before its rejuvenation

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The Church Inn today

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A view inside the new Church Inn

Project Artisan represents new ground for Everards, so why has the brewery decided to move towards food? Stephen Gould explains: “Project Artisan was inspired by the success of Project William and some macro trends we picked up on. There’s been a decline in graduate employment, plus a growing number of people disillusioned with their careers and wanting to set up their own food businesses. Also, among customers there’s a growing demand for localness and authenticity.

“Project Artisan helps our licencees [Everards owns over 180 pubs] discover the power of local sourcing, too – we’ve created a Project Artisan training course where licensees can learn all about it. And strategically, Project Artisan creates a point of difference between us and our competitors – it’s important to innovate to stand out and attract the best people.”

In addition, Project Artisan fits in with Everards’ ambitious relocation plans: their aim is to build a multi-million pound food and drink park over 13 acres on the outskirts of Leicester within the next three years. It will include a state-of-the-art craft brewery, offices, a pub, a multi-purpose visitor centre and space for events such as food and drink festivals. Other like-minded food and drink businesses would be encouraged share the site. “We want to attract neighbours on the site who have high quality food and drink credentials,” says Stephen.

The once-boarded-up Greyhound in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the almost-written-off Rose and Crown in Chesterfield, and the previously-empty high-street shop in Stirchley show just how much can be achieved by working together intelligently, fairly and honestly. Project William and Project Artisan are underpinned by one thing: collaboration. They are about teaming up to the benefit of all and playing to each party’s unique strengths. They are resulting in the boards coming off the windows of derelict pubs and shops, eye-sores being turned into assets to local communities and new places launching where producers can showcase craft beers and artisan foods. That’s got to be worth a locally brewed beer or two to celebrate.

Matt Wright
The author:

Matt lives in Leicestershire with his wife, two kids and dog. He is passionate about British pubs, slow food and home brewing. He founded Great Food Club (originally as Great Food Magazine) in 2010 after being inspired by local producers near his home town of Melton Mowbray - Britain's 'Rural Capital of Food'.