When they took over The Golden Ball two years ago, Chris Buckley and Rebekah O’Connell transformed it from a local boozer into a social pub that’s right at the heart of the local community. Their plan is simple: create a space where there’s always something happening.
Chris and Rebekah ran a restaurant in Manchester before moving to Longton, just outside Preston. Hospitality is part of their DNA. ‘Prior to running our own restaurant business in Manchester, I worked at a Wetherspoon’s,’ says Rebekah, ‘and Chris had been a Manager for The Restaurant Group. When the tenancy became available for The Golden Ball, we had to take it. We knew Longton well, Chris had grown up around here and he had even worked in The Golden Ball when he was younger!’
‘The pub used to have a lot of dark wood with TV sport and pool tables. It had a loyal group of customers, but some people in the village wouldn’t set foot in the place. We felt it should stand for more,’ says Chris. ‘We lightened the decoration and introduced mis-matched furniture and interesting objects on the walls and shelves to make it more homely.’
Getting our drinks right
‘We want to make The Golden Ball into a space that everybody can use. There are 4 pubs in town as well as takeaways and restaurants, each has their own merits but nobody had embraced the sense of community that we knew the area needed. Vicky Duffy, our general Manager, and her team understand our vision completely. Before we reopened, most of our customers were beer drinkers and although the pub served food, it wasn’t known for it.
I remember we introduced a new range of gins and nobody had seen balloon gin glasses before. It was great to walk in and see men in their work clothes sipping gin!’
‘Other drinks have changed too,’ says Rebekah, ‘we made the decision to drop some of the beers that regulars were used to in favour of more premium brands. Also, our wine list was upgraded offering better choices with more taste, rather than standard wines you could find anywhere. We always make sure our staff are extremely well trained so they can recommend drinks with confidence. There’s a potential embarrassment factor choosing a wine you don’t know, but if the team knows our products, they will guide people and interact with them too. We’ve had a lot of compliments about our drinks and although some people were not enthusiastic about changes at first, it says a lot that they visit us more often now than they used to before – and they continue to buy drinks from us!’
Bringing people in
‘From the start, we wanted everybody in the community to become involved. A pub is all about social interaction so we felt we should make a space that belongs to all. Our function room is a great help in this – it’s become a public forum that’s used by everybody. Where most pubs would charge for hire of their rooms, we rarely do. They help to bring people into the pub and they aren’t obliged to buy from us when they are here. Of course, many do, but even if they go home without making a single purchase, we think of it as a long-term investment, they’ll come back again if they had a good time and they trust us when they do.’
‘The same idea works on an individual level – most of our events are free to enter too. We make money from our food and drink sales, the rest is all part of the fun and a reason to visit our pub.’
‘By adding value to a visit to the pub we rarely have to discount our food or drink and we have special menus for kids, over 65s and even for dogs!’
‘One of the first events we staged was for the Royal Wedding, we decided to have a celebration and used our projector screen to show the whole thing live. Like so many of our ideas, we were not sure how many people would turn up. This happens a lot. Providing we have not spent a fortune, we operate with the philosophy of ‘open it and they will come.’ We needn’t have worried – the event was far better attended than we had even dreamed of. People who had never been to the pub before dressed up for the occasion and the place was packed!’
‘We realised that the locals wanted something they could get involved in and have since gone on to run monthly craft sessions on what we call ‘Super Sundays.’ The idea is to invite a specialist over to demonstrate their craft and teach others how to do it. Painting, knitting, flower arranging – they’ve all happened here! Sometimes places are limited which means pre-booking, but we quite like just seeing who turns up on the day. Super Sundays are also the time we hold our dog walking sessions and we’ve had as many as 35 dogs (and their owners) come for a walk. We cover up to 8 miles in a session (we’re not kind to them), but at the end, everybody knows each other and they often stay for a pint.’
‘This May, we held our first Spring Fest, with workshops, dog competitions, face painting and even a slime workshop for the kids! Word got around quickly and attendance was amazing, it really brought everybody together.’
Catering for kids
‘We have two children and it’s surprising when you realise that pubs rarely look after them properly. Our function room doubles up as a cinema where we show a film and offer free hot dogs too. And we have learned that kids’ entertainers are great for tiring everybody out so that they are well-behaved afterwards.
‘When you run a pub, there’s a temptation to think you can do everything yourself. Sooner or later you get caught up in day-to-day business and even if your intentions are good, you don’t do things properly. We used Emma Golpys as an external advisor when we ran our restaurant business and we continue to work with her as she is great at taking our ideas and running with them, doing much more than we would ever accomplish ourselves. She has helped establish the pub in the hearts of the whole village and ensures that we continue to be the place where there’s always something going on.’