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Adam Holland, MBII

The Puffing Billy & The Blue Ball Inn

In the picturesque outskirts of Exeter, The Puffing Billy (first listed in 1878) has finally found a strong identity with St Austell tenants Adam Holland MBII and partner Charlotte Bowden. Speaking just before news of the pandemic came to fruition, BII’s Eleanor Kirby sat down to talk to Adam about being savvy with outdoor spaces and evolving with the community.

Walking into The Puffing Billy it is clear there’s a theme running here. “We had so many people asking ‘why is it called The Puffing Billy?’, we realised we had to bring forward a strong identity. Supposedly, the myth from a customer is that her Great Grandfather Billy used to be the landlord and he was fond of smoking a pipe”. We are glad then, that Adam and Charlotte stuck to the heritage of the Victorian steam train that hangs from the sign above the entrance.

So well thought out, authenticity spans from a decal on the wall that reads “Caution this engine is hot” beside the cast iron wood burner, to black and white photographs hanging in hallways depicting commuters from the 1950s. Adam even sourced Great Western Railway toilet roll holders.

Being tied to St Austell, Holland demonstrates what’s on tap with finesse. “As a brewery they are second to none. Their selection, range and expertise when it comes to brewing is fantastic.” 

In tandem, Holland and Bowden also run the Blue Ball Inn. Being closer to the rugby grounds in Sandygate, Adam was quick to notice it offered a different sort of dynamic. “The Billy is a restaurant with a pub, with food accounting for 70% of our intake, and Blue is a pub with a restaurant. We’ve been known to bring in £10-12k gross on match day, and while we have Guinness there, here we have St Austell’s black mountain Mena Dhu, which people absolutely love”.

As we sit to chat, the background soundtrack takes us from “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, to “Come on Eileen”, to “Say a Little Prayer”. Music strikes a chord both on and off duty with Adam and General Manager, Theo, who reminisce about seeing Stormzy and Tame Impala at Glastonbury as they clean and lay tables.

“We have a children’s playpark opposite which is an absolute gem to use for village fetes and about 3-4 acres at the Blue Ball. One of the locals came to me and asked if we could turn our outdoor space into a mini festival for about 200 people, we’re going to use that as a tester”.

Adam’s knowledge of the local area is rich, it’s clear to see that he and Charlotte pin pointed The Puffing Billy for its varied mix of community connections. “We’ve got the Exe Estuary Trail nearby, so cyclists often pass through, Haldon Forest is great for mountain-biking, and there’s a local lido as well as the Estuary. That’s something you notice in Devon, everyone’s so relaxed”.

Trying to carry some of the West Country calmness with him, Adam says has deleted most apps on his phone leaving just text messages and phonecalls. He can’t escape the suite of software he praises for helping running the back office with a little more ease.

“We use 5 different types, from accountancy software, touch screens, labour controls and table bookings. It really helps me drill down on my KPIs, we did 45,000 covers last year, I know my average spend is £28 per person and that 50% of our bookings are tables of 2”.

With both parents in the industry, it’s no surprise Charlotte and Adam’s daughter Isla (7) has offered up ideas on how she can run the two venues. “At one of the village fetes, we set her up with a little sweet stall, just to show her how to make profits. Unfortunately I think she ate them all!”

“I started washing dishes when I was 14 and completely got the bug when I was 16. After training with Brend Hotels, whose standards are very high, I got an opportunity to work at the Langham. I’ve worked for an airline, in clubs, and been working in pubs since I was 30, so fourteen years.”

Preferring pubs for their informal dining and the opportunity to impart your passion for it with customers, Holland was preparing to welcome a new Head Chef at the time of our interview. “I did my NVQ Level 3 just for fun, so I am a trained chef. I love that you aren’t going to be judged if you want to experiment with fusions in pub”.

“People come to pubs for food they don’t cook at home, you’ll always have a burger, steak and pies on the menu, but it’s important to experiment and have a specials menu that utilises the best produce. A good chef will be on the phone to suppliers first thing, negotiating prices and working out how best to utilise what’s on offer”.

Returning to the area from London, it’s clear to see why Adam is so enthused when it comes to menus. “The West Country has some of the best produce in the UK, we have mussels that are from down the road here, we have fish from Cornwall, some of the best dairy herds, beers, cheeses, everything is on your doorstep”.

Listening to our interview again “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees plays as we say our goodbyes, and with all this talk of bountiful produce, we’re longing now more than ever to walk under the swinging sign of The Puffing Billy again.

As we look towards reopening businesses closed during lockdown, Holland’s wealth of ideas when it comes to hosting events is sure to coax customers out from their nests. Here are some of his tried and tested ideas:

·         Gin Tastings

·         Meet the Brewer

·         Themed Fusion Menus

·         Pie Week, Spice Week

·         Garden Parties with live music

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