Arriving early to the interview shows a glimpse of Matt Todd in work mode as he carries in boxes of pumpkins ready to be washed over with Lolly the sign writer’s punky paintbrush, “it’s our Halloween specialty, last year we even did some Bowie pumpkins!”. Looking round The Wonston, Lolly and Matt have left traces of their creativity in everything, from the acrylic cat coming through a fake flap on the front door, to Matt’s sand blasted chairs “the originals that have been here for forty years, they’re just lighter this way, less oppressive”.
“The life of a landlord isn’t about what’s done during trading hours and the best free resource I ever had is me”. Knowing he was quite handy, Todd decided to “do the ‘doing up’ during the day” and work to a model of restricted trade hours, which is the first of Matt’s laws of the landlord, helping him find an ideal balance between work and life. “The second rule is that my wife Lisa would never become the Landlady”. At Matt’s side, Lisa is also busy with a successful business as a music teacher, conducting singing lessons from a home studio down the road (the third rule, living away from the pub). Finally, the forth rule, a lesson learned from a retired landlord who took Matt on as a mentee, saying to work for five or six weeks flat out and then have a rest, “he had a rest from the pub and the pub had a rest from him, when he was back he saw things with fresh eyes and was invigorated”. That is a luxury that comes from having a freehold, “I’ve got oxygen, I can breathe, it’s my own world”.
A customer four and a half years ago, Matt took the keys and started trading that evening, “the community had fallen out of love with the pub”, spending the first six months making the pub look loved and well cared for. “I went through the process of putting a community bid together, we fell about £60-70k short, which was the true test of the locals, would they come up with the last bit to make it happen?” After re-mortgaging his house, Matt made sure he had everything in order to hand it back to the community he saved the social hub for, “I’d never pulled a pint before, but there was still beer in the barrels! I signed up to the BII and you helped me get my ducks in order”.
By the time this article comes out, the New Year’s WOSCARs will have been awarded to customers, The Wonston Arms’ version of the Oscars which includes categories like “Best Pub Dog and UDI – unidentified drinking incident, if someone bruises themselves walking home… you can’t hide in this parish”. Taking the peoples’ vote, Matt had the idea to film any award winners who couldn’t be there on the night, “Live from Andover!”, while Lisa sets up her champagne and prosecco bar by the bay windows. It’s morsels like this that all feed into “The Wonston Arms Show”, “we want to create something for our customers to feel a part of”.
With a background that has always been centred around the customer experience, Matt often refers to his role in The Wonston as “selling happiness”, “I absolutely set out at the start to make this a social gathering space, driven by the community. We want to bring older people out, some get picked up to come here because we’re known for being a friendly place”. Influenced by American customer service Matt prides himself on saying “everyone who comes in through that door gets said hello to, everyone who walks out gets said goodbye to and in-between, all the customers talk to each other”. Even the way the furniture is set out, with sofas facing tables, creates an atmosphere that encourages conversation.
Influenced by holidays to the Far East, Matt didn’t want to change his wet-led business model and instead turned to the idea of bringing in weekly pop-up street food vendors. “I didn’t want to change the environment too much, people mill around happily talking to each other rather than feeling like the tables are screwed down”. The phone never stops ringing, “we don’t take reservations, there’s plenty of space! People come in expecting to do what they normally do, to book a table for six and to eat, but that ain’t really the model at The Wonston”.
The Wonston Arms feels like the place to be, but also like you’ve never left your front room. It’s exciting but familiar, and Matt is the greatest showman: “the role of ‘Landlord’ done correctly is a respected one - within a village there’s always the doctor, the vicar and the landlord”. In taking on his latest role, Matt went from customer to “Landlord!” overnight, but still manages to get to the other side of the bar. “I’ve got Stuart who’s a retired policeman, once a customer, he now works behind the bar with me which allows me to take off the uniform, go home and have a shower, and come back as a customer”.
A doctor, a landlord and a policeman all walk into a pub... and together they created The Wonston Arms.
What was your first experience of a pub?
I remember pubs in the 70s that were really successful because they were only open a certain amount of time, people went in and socialised and went home. My dad worked hard, he was a Doctor, and he would go to the pub on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon, it was a treat to go with him. If I’d done my homework and behaved myself I’d be allowed a packet of crisps! The pubs were always packed.
How did the BII help you when you took on your new role as landlord nearly five years ago?
I used you as a resource bank, certainly to help me find out what to do as a licensee. The industry news via INNfocus and BII News are helpful because I like being inspired by seeing what people in the industry get up to. It’s a resource I used to feed information into the business, so I can make a judgement and decide what I’m going to do.
What do you do to relax?
I like sea fishing but I haven’t done anything over the last year or so because of the rush with the award. Winning the Campaign for Real Ale award means we’ve been busy! Not manic busy, but people want to visit to experience a part of CAMRA. I just love being here.