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How do you Transform a Failing Pub into the Thriving Heart of Village Life?

 January 26, 2023

Richard Silkstone, landlord of The White Swan in Kippax, West Yorkshire, gives us the low-down.

In 2019, Richard was happily retired after a long and varied career when a call out of the blue drew him back to the hospitality industry and the village of Kippax, near Leeds.

“The White Swan, a pub I knew well, was failing and the landlord wanted me to come back and try to turn it around,” he explained. “I was under no illusions that it would be a huge challenge, but immediately knew I wanted to take it on, for the sake of the village. I wanted to make it the best pub in the area – more than that, a focal point for the community.”

True to his vision, Richard and wife of 35 years, Vicky, soon set about transforming the pub’s tired interior. “We ripped it apart and started again” he said. “The idea was to create a really slick interior that also felt cosy and welcoming. Still a village pub, a local, but with style.”

 Bar staff image  Bar staff image

Refitted throughout and with its new look complete, The White Swan reopened in November 2019, serving everything from local beers to cocktails, and offering a diverse new menu designed by Richard, a trained chef.

“We are really happy with the way the overhaul turned out. It’s not just the decoration or the way we’ve made snugs with seating that curves through the main room, which is beautiful, it’s the details, how we present things, the glasses we use, how the bar looks. Our menu sets us apart too. It’s really drawn from my own experience, both in the kitchen and travelling, and everything is made with quality ingredients that I source from all over the country.”

Just months later, however, Richard was forced to close the doors as COVID-19 swept the country, and The White Swan remained shuttered for the best part of two years. Not to be deterred, however, Richard put the unexpected downtime, and government grants, to good use.

Those two years saw outbuildings converted into a Mediterranean restaurant and deli, and, since the pub re-opened, both have proven popular with locals and visitors alike. In fact, with The White Swan itself busy most days, Richard has achieved his goal – giving Kippax the thriving community pub it deserves and, with 14 staff, its largest employer.

However, according to Richard, the secret to that success is not just in the décor or the range of food and drink on offer. It’s about the people and the experience.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve seen it all and I know what it takes to succeed in this business,” he said. “It’s not a case of ‘if you build it, they will come’, you have to give people a reason to visit and keep coming back. Part of that is the events we put on – race nights, quizzes, live music, themed events like Oktoberfest. Our bingo night, for instance, is really popular, we’re probably the busiest pub in West Yorkshire on a Monday night.”

Most importantly, Richard says, he and his team have worked hard to create a welcoming, friendly atmosphere: “It’s about making people happy, making them smile with a friendly greeting when they come in. We make the effort to do the rounds talking to people, making them feel at home. That’s what people love, and what keeps them coming back, they love the atmosphere and the community spirit.”

In fact, it is that community spirit that gives Richard the greatest sense of pride and which has been the most important aspect of The White Swan’s revival.

 Bar staff image  Bar staff image

“What we’ve done for the village and the high street gives me the biggest sense of satisfaction,” he explained. “We’ve brought people back together. There are people coming in who haven’t been into a pub for 20 plus years, new people come into the village and say, ‘This is spectacular’. That’s why you do it and the reward is we are packed most nights, the restaurant is fully booked, and the deli is busy from 8.30am in the morning until close.”

It’s not all plain sailing, of course, particularly in a tough trading environment for the hospitality sector, though Richard has been able to use his experience to avoid some of the issues affecting other pubs.

“We’re not tied to a brewery, so I’m able to shop around to keep prices down, and my energy prices are fixed, so we haven’t seen a massive rise there,” he said. “Hiring people is particularly tough, but we look after our staff and the whole family is involved, so we are fairly stable in that sense, even if I’m still working much longer hours than I would like.”

There are other risks to the business of course. The chance of slips and falls, accidents or injuries affecting staff or customers is ever-present, but Richard knows he can rely on insurance to protect the business if the worst should happen: “We do everything we can to prevent incidents, the place is spotless, we have CCTV and clear signage, and everything is checked regularly to make sure we’re compliant with our licence.

“But you never know. I had someone try to claim £100,000 after a fall, but the CCTV cameras clearly showed we were not at fault, so it was dismissed. But I also know that, if the worst did happen, I have all the insurance cover I need to protect us financially. It’s something we have to have, it’s peace of mind because no matter how hard you try to maintain a safe, secure environment, you can never completely rule out something going wrong.”

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