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Rob Willoughby, MBII

The Stag

Nearly twenty years at The Stag in Maidwell, Northampton has given Robert Willoughby an enterprising spirit and confidence to venture into opening a coffee shop to run alongside. The BII’s Eleanor Kirby caught up with the seasoned publican to talk about adapting to modern trends in a traditional setting and the profitability of a cup of Joe.

Well placed to catch walking groups steaming through Northampton, The Stag is a traditional pub that concentrates on plentiful plates and staff that are happy to engage with their customers.

“It’s a rural country pub, and as long as I’m here it always will be. The furniture is traditional, the style is traditional and its vision is traditional. We tinker around with the presentation, but tradition runs through The Stag’s roots from start to finish”.

Rob’s work ethics are the soil that support these roots. In search of a fresh challenge in 2001, he came to the pub with a business partner (who left in 2006) and had to work hard to lift it out of the ground.

“The pub was very run down, but my eyes quickly extended to the bigger picture. Looking back, we’ve come a long way with things, there’s a sense of togetherness between my staff because they see how much I’m putting into the business. I, in turn, respect their hard work”.

Whether it is heading out to pick up supplies himself, or putting in hard graft in the kitchen, Rob is on top of keeping his margins healthy.

“I read an article recently that opened ‘you have to shop smart to survive’ and you really do. Whether it’s a pint of milk, bitter, lager or a bottle of wine, you have to reach out to the places that can deliver the best product. Going to the shop takes me away from the business, yes, but it also gives me a chance to see what other people are doing”.

Noticing the growth in customers consciously trying to drink less, the coffee shop extended his offering to sweet treats, rich coffee and new clientele.

“It’s running alongside the pub, it truly has got some legs! We had to try and connect with healthier trends and vegan or vegetarian lifestyles and wanted to offer a different type of product. We looked in the area and saw that coffee shops were very popular, there is a lot of passing trade but also drivers searching for a break – not necessarily a drink!”

Adding another business to the mix was a well thought out venture, with Rob quickly clocking onto the fact that the profit margin of a coffee shop is unrivalled, versus the finances of investing in shop fittings for a village shop (an earlier idea).

“The more coffee I sell, the happier I am. With a business model set up on selling 50 coffees a day, enough to pay the rent, the maths of it was quite simple. We’ve also invested in a coffee machine which will take nineteen months to pay for itself, but we’ll have a valuable asset at the end of it”.

Being thrifty was key to the whole operation, with a supportive grant from Pub is the Hub (a healthy sum of £3,000) forming the foundations, and family connections that meant a lot of savings were made.

“We took an eco-friendly angle, we recycled a lot and saved from skips. The only cash investment was for equipment, carpeting, flagstones and the coffee machine itself – that’s where the guts of the money was spent”.

Rob’s father, a retired accountant, is also into recycling and has put in a lot of hours making sure the pub and coffee shop are well maintained.

“I got a call when he was on the South Coast in Christchurch, ‘there’s a café closing down, he’s shutting the doors and leaving everything behind, do you want it?’ It was a no-brainer, all we had to do was hire a van!”

A family affair, Rob’s sister does all the marketing for the pub, and now café, but his staff also have access to posting and they are actively encouraged to share offers and stories if they want to.

“We sent out a post the other day encouraging people to make bookings with a 20% off voucher on their next visit; it encourages staff to think about different ways to inspire visitors. I look at social media like a family tree, if you’ve got 900 followers, you’ve got 900 opportunities to tell your story and introduce new products”.

Setting up a community base, extends far beyond the coffee shop as a space to meet friends.

“We put a small book exchange in last week, so people have things to read. We’ve employed someone in the village, she’s an apprentice and is part of our journey. It’s so positive to see her learn more about service, talking to customers and realising trends in the industry”.

With the public house occupying the site since 1766, surviving the industrial revolution, two world wars and a name change (formerly, The Goat), The Stag is sure to thrive with his horns intact for years to come.

How has the BII helped you?

In the time I’ve been a member with Pub is the Hub this year, I’ve used the helplines on two or three occasions. My mind was put at complete ease yesterday on my twenty-five minute conversation with the BII’s CEO, Mike Clist, about leases. That phone call was worth its yearly fee, on its own, he spoke very honestly and openly about my predicament and said I was in a strong position. When my membership is due to expire I’ll renew it - the helpline alone woke me up a little bit.

I can’t ask for anything better than your communications every Monday. There’s content I can engage in, I can click on links, call straight in and receive advice that makes me feel loads better.

What’s your first memory of a pub?

A box room pub in Tenby, South Wales! There was a table in the corner with two drip mats, one of which I had my eye on, and a bottle of coke with a straw and a packet of crisps. Kids weren’t allowed in pubs in those days and a bottle of coke was a complete treat – it was an expensive commodity and wasn’t something you’d have in the cupboard at home.

I can still smell the ale, the beer spilt on the floor and the cigarette smoke – it all sticks with you so clearly.

[Other box out, not part of the interview]

Are you looking to find out more about the work that Pub is the Hub do?

Quoted from Pub is the Hub: “The pub should be the centre or hub of community life and can also provide essential services beyond the usual drinks, food or entertainment. Pub is the Hub are a not for profit organisation of specialist advisors for communities and licensees who are thinking of broadening their range of services.”

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