“All pubs are community pubs to some degree, but some serve their community better than others.” CAMRA Campaign for Real Ale

There are so many reasons to feature Gary and Andrea Searle at the Salthouse Bar and Restaurant in a Humans of Clevedon post, but it was their involvement in the community and all the facilities and activities they offer to the community that was the catalyst for this post.

If I frequently refer to CAMRA, it’s because they are considered one of the most respected, successful consumer organisations across Europe. Founded by four real ale enthusiasts back in 1971, today, they represent beer drinkers and pub-goers across the UK.

CAMRA’s view of a community pub is very definitely how I see the Salthouse “a licensed hub which encourages social interactions and puts something back into the communities it serves”.

When I asked Gary and Andrea to describe their customer service philosophy, their answer mirrored this view.

“We listen to what customers say and want and go out of our way to resolve any issues or concerns; we always try to be understanding and give people what they want; we’re warm, helpful, friendly and approchable………….. We try and keep the place alive, and there is always something to look forward to……..we love hosting and supporting the different community groups.”

As a set of guiding principles which underpin their social interactions and are reflected in the Salthouse staff behaviours, you wouldn’t be going far wrong with these, and they are principles that serve them well – no matter the day or time you go into the Salthouse, they are always busy.

It was good to hear that the staff are as fond of the Salthouse as the customers. Dee, the Manager, JP, the Head Chef, and Sandi, the Assistant Manager, have been with Gary and Andrea since day one and are very much part of the Salty (as it’s known by locals) family. They were also keen to mention Pav, the Assistant Head Chef who has been with them for a few years, as well as Sophie and Richard who manage the bar between them and do a great job. Another person very worthy of mention is John Dempsey who helps out now and again and was described by Gary and Andrea as “an absolute star”, loved by the customers.

Gary and Andrea are very grateful to have such a loyal, hard-working core team, particularly when the hospitality industry is suffering from record shortages, but like other hospitality providers in Clevedon, they have ongoing vacancies.

According to a joint survey by UKHospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping, and the British Beer and Pub Association,  staff shortages in the hospitality industry are reaching critical levels, causing nearly half (45%) of operators to cut trading hours or capacity in order to cope, costing the sector £21bn in lost revenue and causing an estimated £5bn loss in tax for the Exchequer.

The survey also shows that staff shortages are forcing one in three businesses in the sector to close one or more days a week. Recent ONS figures show sector currently has a record 174,000 jobs available and is experiencing 83% more vacancies compared to March-May 2019, which is the most recent comparable period.

CAMRA maintains that a good community pub is inclusive, aims to appeal to all sectors of society, and provides an environment where everyone should feel welcome and comfortable. Does it sound familiar? It does to me.

When I asked Gary and Andrea if they targeted a particular demographic, they were adamant that they didn’t. They described themselves as being very inclusive, “… .we’re open to all and cater for all.” I wasn’t surprised by their answer because on the occasions I have been up there recently, I could not identify either a specific age bracket or social class. The number of local groups they support is impressive and, according to CAMRA, is the hallmark of a good community pub.

This list is by no means definitive, but it will give you an idea of just how inclusive and dynamic they are: live music, open mic nights, quizzes and bingo are regular events. They also sponsor and support a darts team on an ongoing basis, and they sponsor the Clevedon Bowling Club annually. They raise funds for several charities. The one that caught my eye recently and started me thinking about a blog post was the lovely Halloween event they staged for children and the Halloween Rock n Roll Bingo, both in support of the Clevedon Dementia group. They put on targeted events or support many charitable organisations in Clevedon.

The Salthouse put on two major festivals a year – the first is Winterfest in January, in aid of MARLENS. This community-focused, volunteer-led charity is responsible for cleaning and maintaining Clevedon Marine Lake. They also fundraise for improvements to the lake. Gary and Andrea’s relationship with groups who use the lake, such as CLASS (Clevedon Lake And Sea Swimmers), and the Model Boat Club,  is well-known, and these groups have free use of their Conference Room. They are also the go-to place for lake users and visitors to the Salthouse Field and Skate Park who injure themselves or are looking for lost property.

The second festival, which is very popular, is the Annual Reggae Festival Sunfest in September, which is a wonderful day out for all the family with top-notch bands and DJs, delicious Caribbean food stalls, market stalls and much more.

Mental health awareness events also benefit from Gary and Andrea’s backing, the most recent event they supported was one organised by We Are Aware, a non-profit Community Interest Company in North Somerset raising awareness of mental health, well-being and suicide prevention through groups, activities and events. The event in question was a Mental Health Awareness walk along Clevedon seafront on a Saturday in October to mark October’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

In the new year, there are plans for a Social Drama Club – The Salthouse Players who will organise events such as Murder Mystery Evenings and fun drama events around food that sound exciting and are sure to be very popular.

Market research conducted by CAMRA into what influences pub users in their choice of pub concluded that those offering community activities enjoyed a greater footfall and a higher percentage of ‘regulars’ of whom there are many at the Salthouse. ‘Regulars’ are very much part of what Andrea calls the Salthouse family, choosing to celebrate life events such as births, weddings and funerals and taking great pride in being part of the family. One of the regulars, Danny Brown, whom everyone stops and chats to, even has his own seat and Stowford’s cider is ordered in specially for him!

Many years ago, the Salthouse was Andrea and Gary’s regular; much as they loved it, they never dreamt of owning it. Then in 2006, when Top Deck, the company that owned it, ran into financial difficulties, they seized what they saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own it. 

I was very interested in Gary and Andrea’s background, how they came to be in Clevedon and what had prepared them to take on such a massive commitment as the Salthouse. The bar area caters for sixty, the restaurant ninety, the terrace three hundred and the Conference Room fifteen.

Andrea is Clevedon born and bred, and many generations of her family are rooted in Clevedon. She loves being so close to her Mum and sister and spoke very warmly about the experience of growing up in Clevedon.

Gary was born in Penzance in Cornwall where he grew up but moved here for work and a fresh start. He has family in Cornwall and would like to visit more often. He and Andrea met in 1990 and got married in 1992. At the time, Gary was working in the financial services industry. They took on the Salthouse in 2006.

Gary was no newcomer to the pub industry; growing up and in his early years, he trained and qualified as a City and Guilds Chef; he worked behind bars and in kitchens, but the Salthouse was the first pub he owned. Andrea was a care worker in Clevedon and had no such experience.

In 2018, another dream was realised when they became an independent. I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant, and Gary explained that being independent means they lease the building from the brewery and are free of a beer tie, meaning they don’t have to buy their beer from the brewery at the brewery prices. They own the business outright, and everything in it is theirs. They are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the building and grounds at their cost.

I wondered how much extra work it entailed and whether or not it was a decision they regretted. They definitely don’t regret it because, in a nutshell, no permissions are required from anyone to do anything, and they have much less admin. It’s still backbreaking work with late nights and long weekends, and it requires a vast array of skills, far greater than if you were tied to a brewery, but no, they don’t regret it for a second.

Having said that, being independent meant they had no support during the lockdown, which hit them very hard financially. They also missed their staff and customers, who missed their home-from-home pub. Post-pandemic life has also been challenging, they have had to work hard to ensure that customers felt safe and comfortable, and costs which they have been trying to absorb,  have gone through the roof.

Challenging as it has been, Gary and Andrea love their work; they are proud to be operating in a listed building of great historical interest; they love the location with its far-reaching views over the popular Marine Lake, Clevedon’s famous Victorian Pier and the Bristol Channel (you can even see Wales on a clear day); they love their loyal customers, and they love playing an important role in their local community. Important? I would say essential! As a safeguard against loneliness and isolation, we need pubs and social spaces more than ever.

Life is hectic for Gary and Andrea; they work very long hours, especially in the summer, when the terrace area is often full, and Gary has fired up the barbecue. He has help with the barbecue but loves spending time cooking and chatting with customers. We love taking visitors there because aside from being able to sit outside in the summer months, the Salthouse is dog-friendly, and there is a children’s play area that adults have sight of from the terrace. A couple of years ago, they installed an ice cream parlour selling locally made ice cream by Marshfields as well as milkshakes, tea, coffees and snacks. Abi, their daughter, has a hand running the ice cream parlour, which they plan to grow.

Halloween and Christmas are the other two peak times at the Salthouse. Halloween is Andrea’s baby, and there is no place like the Salthouse for Halloween – it has undeniably the best-dressed staff and customers in the best dressed pub in town, adorned with a host of creepy decorations in the run-up to 31st October. Busy times like this compensate for the quieter months of November, January and February.

So how does this very busy couple switch off? Andrea loves family time, particularly spending time with her grandchildren. She and Gary enjoy eating out and cosy nights watching a film. Gary is a great car enthusiast and spoiled himself with a Ford Mustang, which he loves taking to car meets. He also plays darts and is a Freemason. These are all things he’d like to do more of in the future, perhaps sooner rather than later, as a few health issues mean he would like to slow down a little.

Andrea is younger than Gary, in her early fifties and has no intention of slowing down, although she would love to spend more time with her grandchildren. They would also like to take more holidays with the family and spend time at their secret bolthole, which is not a secret anymore as Gary very kindly offers it to local people from time to time at special rates – a lovely six-berth holiday caravan at Golden Sands Park in Dawlish Warren.

Gary and Andrea have made such a success of the Salthouse, and I was curious as to what advice they would give to anyone else thinking of treading this very rewarding but exhausting path. They both agreed that it was critical to do your homework first and be absolutely sure about what you were taking on. They felt that it was a hard industry to be successful in and required many skills, such as organisational skills, financial and legal knowledge, marketing, people skills, time management skills, food hygiene and food preparation’ bar and cellar skills, and essential, the soft skills of listening, patience and kindness. They felt that they had all of these skills between them, and as the saying goes, ‘the proof is in the pudding.’

The ‘Open Arms’ report ‘The Role of Pubs in Tackling Loneliness’ commissioned by ‘The Campaign to End Loneliness’ in collaboration with Heineken and Loughborough University and published pre-Covid, describes pubs as:

‘…………a key part of community infrastructure alongside cafes, libraries, shops and community centres.’

They stress the need for pubs ‘to reach out and collaborate with local community groups and charities.’

And above all,

…….pubs must feel inclusive and welcoming. Across the research, the most prominent examples of pubs playing a social role in their local communities tended to be those that catered to a range of customers and made people feel welcome and valued.

Sound familiar?

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