“The Start Bay Inn has been in the family for 43 years, so I was born into it really”, Clair speaks with fondness about her childhood and how it blended into her professional life. “We liked it when we were younger because we were on the beach, we had a lot of freedom because mum and dad were working all the time. Dad was very much always there”.
Loaning me an hour of the home school timetable, Clair has her student, son Charlie, next to her who chips in every now and then: “He still is!” Stubbs father, she says, is always scuba diving and fishing for the business from their DH92 boat which is always visible from the windows of the 14th Century pub.
“I didn’t know if I was going to carry it on, but it’s hard not to when it’s such a lovely pub”, which would explain why he is still dipping his toe (or flipper) into the business, keeping it well stocked with the catch of the day - everything from Monkfish, to John Dory.
After employing a business developer to help Clair and her siblings, Gail and Stu, achieve a harmonious balance between the trio. “Splitting the business into three has made me a lot happier, we’ve divided it into manageable chunks and it has meant I’m not spreading myself too thin by concentrating on everything!”
Now, like so many in lockdown across the globe, they are having to adapt to a new way of working. “We can’t get together, so we’re having to do it all over the phone. I had to explain what was on my screen trying to fill out the online form for the furlough scheme - I thought I’d have to spend ten days on the phone!”
Thinking back to Boris’ apocalyptic announcement that pubs should close, Clair says, “we had a sinking feeling, but a glimmer of hope as financial support was being announced. In the weeks before I could sense that closure was on the horizon, it was the Government telling us ‘you’ve got a window of opportunity to get rid of as much stock as possible’.
“We just wanted our staff to be safe, we wanted our customers to be safe, and we wanted safety for ourselves too”.
Clair, Gail and Stu took the local community into consideration, with a village full of elderly residents and a carpark that was filling up due to the popularity of their takeaways, announcing full closure in the run up to the Easter Bank Holiday was the only sensible option.
“We thought ‘this could potentially be horrendous’. We realised we were attracting people to the area and we didn’t want to put our neighbours in danger. We lobbied our local council to close the beach car park too”.
Hope Another glimmer of hope came in the form of Harris Lamb, BII’s Business Rates Helpline Partners, who Clair had approached in May 2018. The Inn’s rates had been skewed due to a fire in a nearby restaurant (making trade at the Start Bay pick up, momentarily, but forever reflected in their rates) and a road closure.
“We had been cut off from our clientele through the main road, so I thought it was a good time to see if we could do something about our Rateable Value. James [Ward] is really amazing, he got in contact with our local councillor to see if they were going to be of any assistance. We started sending over documentation, figures mainly, it was all quite an easy process”.
Like so many of us, losing track amidst the daily 5 o’clock briefings, Clair and her family felt like “rabbits in headlights, wondering which direction to turn”. News of their Business Rates rebate could not have been more welcome.
“In the end we reduced our RV from £105k to £52k for the period the road was closed – totally amazing! Then James also reduced our RV across the board from April 2017 from £105k to £80k. You just can’t imagine how that made us feel! It gives us that breathing space”.
News of rent holidays until later in the year, from their brewery, Heavitree, was another welcome relief as Clair was able to prioritise paying off suppliers to date.
“It almost feels like you’re trying not to sink all the time, so when the little bits of support keep coming it feels like it’s just in time. I wrote a letter to the CEO at Heavitree, before news of the rent holiday, I was worried about paying the rent or paying the staff, it couldn’t be both”.
Not knowing whether she would need staff on standby to reopen in Summer or not, Clair’s connection to her team is apparent. “We have a Whatsapp group, it doesn’t have a funny name or anything. It started off quite jovial and I found it important to stay connected because there are some members of staff who might feel isolated”.
As a thoughtful perk of the job, Clair and Gail found a cottage to rent in the village. “Historically we have had staff living with us and we suddenly realised ‘this is getting a bit silly now’”. The sisters managed to furnish the cottage with staff paying a peppercorn rent to help with bills and food. At just £50 per week, the Start Bay team are working hard to preserve something set up to impact staff positively.
Seaside living waves in no end of positives, and with a patio next to the beach there is ample space for customers to return to the Start Bay Inn when it’s safe to do so. “We’re missing having fish and chips aren’t we Charlie? The perks associated!”
“I miss the camaraderie with the staff, and I miss the routine too. I’m realising now it wasn’t such a bad deal, especially after mealtimes when the squabbling starts, I could just sneak out and whisper ‘see ya!’ and nip to work”. Charlie makes a noise in protest of the squabbling.
“I actually quite like the feeling of coming off the treadmill, it’s nice to step off, have some special time with my children that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and feel that pining for work again.”
With the next few weeks set to offer up more changes yet, Clair feels steady knowing she’s in the right place, even if home is a little too far from the lapping of the sea near work.