“It’s definitely a lifestyle choice and not just a job,” says Sian Smith, licensee of The Bull Inn – an historic Fuller’s-owned pub and hotel in Sonning, Berkshire. After almost 30 years in hospitality – and 23 as a publican – Sian has kept up with consumer habits, withstood downturns in the economy and adapted to ever-changing food and drink trends.
But one thing that has remained constant, she says, is the importance of engaging with her clientele. “It’s the biggest part of my job. You have to know a little bit about everything in order to hold conversations, so people aren’t just sat on their phones at the bar.
“It could be with Bob, who is having a pint of Peroni at the bar; or Jim, who I haven’t seen for a few days because he’s been visiting family in Newcastle, so I’ll ask him about his trip. Being able to do that en masse with regulars is a skill.”
Located in a village with an estimated population of 1,600, The Bull has a tight-knit clientele –and also attracts local celebrities including George and Amal Clooney. “As a licensee, you feel protective of them,” says Sian. “You don’t want anyone to bother them. It’s about having that level of respect for them [as] they’re out with their family or friends, in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable.”
From the front line
The 47-year-old, who took over The Bull in 2016 after running pubs in Surrey, Hampshire and Gloucestershire, says no two days are the same.
She is used to being an early riser – which is good, because breakfast for those staying in the pub’s rooms starts at 6.30am. “I sleep with an out-of-hours phone beside my bed; if someone walks through the wrong door and sets off the alarm, that’s me up and out… It can be long days.”
Sian works alongside her husband, Jason, who is head chef. “We’ve worked together since I was old enough to work behind a bar. I think it helps that sometimes one is in the kitchen and the other is out the front,” she says.
Sian leads a team of 25, from kitchen staff to bar cellarmen. “I couldn’t do this if it wasn’t for the people who support me,” she says.
And they’ve supported Sian as she has reacted to changes in the market; for example, the shift from three-hour, alcohol-soaked business lunches to deals being hashed out over single courses and soft drinks.
“We’ve had to flex our menus to capture different people. Five years ago, we maybe had one vegan dish, but now we have vegan starters, mains and desserts,” she explains. “Even in a little village pub, people want to know what craft beers we have and they don’t want just Gordon’s gin.
“People will look for quality over price, but they still want value for money. It’s our job to cater to that.”
Pub landlords should avoid serving poor-quality beer and permitting boorish behaviour if they want to retain their clientele, campaigners have warned. On Thursday, i reported how a poor pub experience puts off drinkers from returning, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). Last year, 18 pubs closed every week. Camra’s national director, Ben Wilkinson, said: “One bad pint of cask ale can put someone off for life, but perhaps we’re less ready to consider the equivalent risk with pubs.”