Farmer saves Lincolnshire pub from closure by taking it over

Spurred on by his own passion for good food and a concern at the lack of good-quality restaurants in the local area, Robert Oldershaw – a second generation farmer and his business partner John Grimwood, decided to buy The Chequers at Weston near Spalding, when it came on the market last year.

Not quite 12-months on, the pub, which had been failing under a string of previous owners, has been transformed, with its traditional food already developing quite a reputation.

Robert grows potatoes, wheat, sugar beet and onions on 730ha of Lincolnshire silt soil.

He is chairman of the Oldershaw Group, which encompasses the farm as well as businesses specialising in packing, importing and processing onions, shallots and garlic.

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Although he has more than 40 years’ farming experience, he admits he didn’t know too much about the pub trade before making his investment.

Robert Oldershaw

Robert Oldershaw. © Harriett Harvey

Rather than take on the day-to-day running himself, he has entrusted this task to managers Robyn Howells and William Vernon – who is also head chef – who previously worked at one of his favourite country pubs in Rutland.

They share a joint philosophy on how a pub should be run and Robert is now enjoying learning the ropes alongside them.

“I do tend to be a hands-on manager, but I don’t know too much about running a pub or restaurant,” he says.

“I’m interested to know what’s going on behind the scenes and I do spend quite a bit of time there, watching what’s happening and finding out how things are done but I’m not really in the position where I’m having to juggle two businesses or split my time between them.

“I have every faith in my managers – they are excellent at what they do, but I have found there are practicalities and experience from managing the farm and businesses which can be transferred to running a pub.

“Things like looking after the maintenance of the building for example – if something needs doing which perhaps the chef or the managers might not know about, then John and I can step in, to get the right people to do the job at the right price, leaving the others free to concentrate on what they are best at.

“There’s the financial side too. All our offices are in a neighbouring village, so that side of the pub business – the wages and bills – can be looked after by our staff who are already doing those jobs on a daily basis.”

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Robert believes the key to the pubs success to date is the development of a series of smaller menus with all the food cooked fresh on site and sourced locally wherever possible.

“Personally I know what I like, and we’re going for quality over quantity here,” he says.

“The main issue presenting itself to us at the moment is that some people feel they should be full for £6.99 – our food is coming in fresh daily, it’s not frozen, so it does cost a little more to do it this way.

Chequers blackboard sign

© Harriett Harvey

“The set menus are of the same quality as the rest of the food, but if f you’ve had three courses, you’ll feel comfortable rather than bursting.

“We make everything ourselves wherever possible – except the ice-cream and the sausages, which are still sourced locally.

“It all helps reduce wastage as everything is fresh. Obviously there’s an abundance of fresh Lincolnshire veg on the menu – the beetroot for example comes from just up the road. Wherever we can source things locally, we do.”

Through the busier summer months the pub has been serving between 280 and 300 covers a week and trade is building all the time. It’s hoped turnover will eventually reach about £380,000/year.

Given the state of the nation’s declining pub industry, the British Beer and Pub Association estimates the number of pubs in the UK has fallen 19% from 60,800 in 2000 to 49,433 in 2012. Robert was extremely keen to save this one from closure.

“There has a been a public house on this site for the past 150 years.

“Sadly, pubs aren’t what they used to be in any shape or form; food is now what keeps them going, not the bar.

“When you can buy four cans of lager for whatever from the supermarket and sit at home and drink them or pay £3.30 for a pint of lager in a pub, well, people are choosing to do the former,” he says.

“It’s had a big impact on the pub industry. We wanted this place, and in this area, we didn’t want to see another pub close and be turned into housing developments and flats.

“We’re trying to fill a niche and stop people leaving the district when they want to go out on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Food and drink at the Chequers pub

© Harriett Harvey

Even though village pubs are not the watering holes they once were, The Chequers is still trying to entice customers back by offering something a little different on its bar.

Familiar names like Fosters and Carling might be missing but more unusual drinks such as Black Cow Vodka – made purely from milk – and locally brewed ales are taking their place.

“There’s no conversation in pubs anymore,” Robert adds, “We seem to have lost that thing of people sitting at the bar to have a chat, but the bar here forces that a little bit.

“People usually ask for a pint of Carlsberg or Fosters, but we like to get them to try something new – and start that conversation.

William Vernon

© Harriett Harvey

“We have ales on all the time, and are changing them every couple of weeks so there’s something different.

“We like to support our most local microbrewery and we also serve more unusual drinks rather than mainstream brands.

“John and I had an inkling we wanted to run this sort of pub in south Lincolnshire.

“It’s something we’ve been discussing for the past 15 years or more. There are very few competitors, with one or two exceptions, while most of the pubs in this area cater for a different type of trade – to feed, rather than dine.

“If you want to go anywhere comparable you have to get in the car and drive for almost an hour.

“Weston is a village that has a lot going for it – there’s a population of about 2,000, it has a church, thriving post office, a garden centre, and a newly opened farm shop and café; it needs to have a pub too – it’s the hub of village life and we need to keep it that way.”

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