Gardeners World

Paul Silcock, landlord of the Gardeners Arms, on changing times since the pandemic

This article first appeared in the August-September 2022 edition of Oxford Drinker magazine

It’s been two years since his column has appeared in print, well, I think it’s been two years, time has been weird hasn’t it? How have you been? So what’s changed in the world of pubs in the last two years? 

Everything and nothing, it would seem. I’ll try and clarify that a bit for you. What I mean is that while we are still a pub, doing the pub-like things of serving beer, cooking food and offering a social scene for our customers, we no longer do bar service, which has had some expected and unexpected effects. 

The biggest expected change? The grumblings of a certain type of customer who cannot fathom this idea of sitting down and having a beer brought to you. That somehow the pub-going experience is brought low and moribund by not being able to pick up the pint glass from the bar yourself. 

Oddly, this isn’t usually from the more traditional pub-goer either. It tends to be twenty somethings that do the most complaining. Maybe they just think they’ve got more energy and don’t feel in need of as much of a sit down as the rest of us? Generally everyone else has rather embraced the change. I always hated standing in a queue behind someone who has just spent five minutes waiting to get to the bar, only to have no idea what they would like to drink. I don’t want to be mean, but you’ve had five minutes to make up your mind! If you don’t know what you’d like to order by now, tough — go to the back of the queue and let people who do know what they want get their order in. 

Paul Silcock at the Gardeners Arms in Plantation Road, Oxford. It used to sell up to four cask ales but now sells only two

As a landlord you do get called a host of unflattering names during your career, but I think the majority of insults have come since the introduction of table service. Honestly, I thought I had a pretty wide and deep expletive library before, but I’ve learnt some new ones in the last few months from people who just cannot wrap their heads around something that everyone in Europe has grasped for years. They also feel a need to wave their hand about as they leave, which I have no idea about.

The biggest unexpected change? A definite decline in cask ale sales. I don’t know if this is due to an actual shift in drinking trends, if keg has become much more popular during lockdown (and it’s entirely possible that craft beer clubs really did boost people’s appreciation of this style of brewing). Personally, I think cask ale drinkers choose not by brewery, not by ABV or original gravity, not even by style of beer, but by pump clip. I long suspected this, beers with the most eye catching pump clip, an amusing pun based image say, or just a good picture of a dog would always be strong sellers (Seriously, beers with dogs on the pump clips sold well).

The true upshot of this though is that I used to be able to comfortably keep four different cask ales at all times, and not have to ever worry about any of the beer turning because we’d sell it quickly enough to always keep it in good condition. But now I’m down to just two cask ales, and I can’t really see that changing in the foreseeable future given what the till tells me about sales figures.

Yep, there’s another unexpected change — I got myself one of those new spangly tills that lets you do all sorts of clever things and prints out reports giving me a breakdown of sales over the week, or the month. It can probably do my tax return as well, but the manual was thick and I didn’t read that far through it. On that note however it is worth giving a quick mention to Tap Social, whose Time Better Spent is not only the best-selling product on the bar but also the most incorrectly ordered beer in history.

“I’ll have a Time Well Spent please.”

“Pint of Time Spending please.”

“I’ll take a Spending Spree.”

“What’s that IPA you sell? That one by the Tap Dancers.”

These are all mis-orders for Time Better Spent that I’ve had. It’s like Time Better Spent is not so much an actual title, as just a vague suggestion of some words that might have a distant relation to the beer in the cellar. But still, big seller, big.

So why are we sticking with table service? It’s not just to be different. It is a decision based on business. The simple fact is you can get a beer quicker by sitting down than trying to queue at the bar. In This Pub. 

When we are busy, and in the summer months that’s pretty much always, we would have a queue from the bar that ran around the pub, because the bar is pretty damn small. Like three people wide small (not because the staff were slow, which they weren’t). It was always a continual battle to keep the queue moving, so that new people who walked into the pub on a busy shift wouldn’t walk straight out again believing it would take forever to get served.

We had a major problem for a pub, that the bar itself was a bottleneck. Which means table service is not a simple one cure for all, as pubs with sensible sized bars are clearly better staying with the tried and tested bar service. As I’ve banged on about before, variety is a necessary spice of pub life.

And so, what else have we learnt from the last two years? That’s an easy one. 

Investment in the garden proved wise, especially during trading restrictions

You don’t want to be running a pub during a pandemic, especially during the lockdown bits. You alternate between fear of financial bankruptcy and boredom, boredom waiting for the Deliveroo machine to ping and give you the joyless task of taking the food order from the bar to the kitchen, and then sitting back down again. We survived the lockdowns thanks to being able to offer food service through takeaways, but as I’m the bar side of the business I did feel more than a little surplus to requirements. If it wasn’t for the hygiene reasons you could have trained a chimp to do my job. Oh, and you also wash your hands a lot. A LOT.

Importantly though, we made it through the pandemic, as did thankfully a lot of other pubs in Oxford. In fact, we did good compared to many other towns and cities. We are still here and trading and looking forward to seeing you all again. Provided you can cope with table service. It’s quite easy, you know. Just sit down and we’ll do the rest.