March 9th, 2015 | Posted in: Features

The Keys in St Andrews was named the 2014 Sunday Mail Pub of the Year. Susan caught up with owner Claire Nicoll to find out more.

When readers of the Sunday Mail first nominated The Keys in St Andrews I have to admit that I had never been there. But knowing that the bar was on the small side I sent along some mystery shoppers and asked for some feedback. Everyone of them loved the bar. They raved about its customer service, the warmth of the welcome, the cosiness of the bar, the range of whiskies and generally the feel good factor. I had to see for myself, of course, and took myself off to St Andrews. I too couldn’t fault it. Although I was no sooner in the door than Claire’s dad, Stuart clocked me.

So what sets The Keys apart? Why did its customers vote for it so overwhelmingly? It has to come down to the fact that it is family run for the past thirty-five years, and of course to Claire. Talk about a glass half full. She positively bubbles over with good spirit. (no pun intended).

Claire’s mum and dad originally bought the pub with a hotel (next door) with an uncle in 1979 (he who also owned the Abbotsford in Kirkcaldy). But the couple bought him out a year later, and went onto to sell the hotel in 1981. Says Claire, “They got an offer they couldn’t refuse, but we kept the pub and the flat upstairs.”

She continues, “My mum was thrown in at the deep end. When I was young my earliest memories are of mum working. She worked all the hours, and she loved it. My dad handled the accounts and the buying but it was my mum, Carol, who was the face of The Keys.”

When Claire left school she could have gone into the pub, but instead took herself off to Aberdeen initially to go to college, but an attractive job offer when she was only 17, allowed her to earn enough money to buy her own flat. Says Claire, ‘I really enjoyed my time there.” However five years later a call from her mum came at the right moment.

She explains, “My mum phoned to say that she was looking for a new full time person and would I come back and work alongside her. It was the right time. She was my mentor. Everything I have learned I took it from her. She had a great attitude to life, she never got upset, and even when she got ill with Motor Neurone Disease, she never complained. She mainly worked at nights as she got older, which allowed her plenty of time to play golf, and have a quick one at The Jigger.”

So why does Claire think the pub has been such a success for so long? She tells me, “My mum was great and gave everyone a warm welcome. I’ve carried that tradition on, and since winning the award we try even harder. It has definitely raised our game and we have to keep the standards up. I am always encouraging my staff to go one step further when it comes to customer service.

“We are lucky in that we own the freehold and we are not burdened by a huge rent. That allows us to keep our prices reasonable. I hate putting them up, and I rarely put our beer prices up. Sometimes, obviously I have to, but I don’t like doing it. Our regulars always notice.” She laughs, “When my dad was running the pub he would put the prices up and go on holiday, and the staff left behind always had to apologise for the rises, and by the time he came back two weeks later folk had got used to the new prices!”

She continues, “It’s always very quiet in St Andrews in January – the students are away and there are no tourists. In fact for three months of the year here there is not much going on. I wish the local council would lower the rates, they are high here. You can make money in the summer, but there is not much to attract women to the town. There are plenty of places to eat and drink, but clothes shopping is not well catered for. So when the men are playing golf there is not much to attract women out.”

“Generally speaking we have locals who come all year round. And we have got a lot more locals since winning the award. Some people didn’t realise we were here. In fact a 23-year old recently came in, and although he lived locally he hadn’t been here before. I’m delighted to say he said he would be making it his local from now on! He said to me that he couldn’t believe that it had been there all the time and he hadn’t come in.”

She continues, “Of course not everyone will like what we have to offer. Our décor has hardly changed over the years. Although we do tweak it. I’ve put in a new carpet recently and I am always adding to our range of whiskies. We’ve not more than 130… and I like buying them at auction when they are a wee bit different. It’s nice to offer customers something they have not had before. If a customer asks for something I will always try and get it. I also try to buy locally and I love the guys at the Eden Brewery. I’ve now got their Clock brew in and it is very popular and their gins are doing very well too. Folk love local brands.”

This year Claire is looking forward to The Open coming. She says, “It will be huge. But it is hard for us because we are only a small bar, and we only have four staff. It’s busy, busy, busy. And the atmosphere in the town will be electrifying. I’m sure everyone will get a turn. However people do forget that the golf course is closed for a month before hand, so you need the extra business The Open brings in. But over the whole summer we get an array of visitors from caravaners to caddies as well as our regulars. So there is a lovely atmosphere in the pub.”

In fact she tells me, “99% of the folk that come here love it. Obviously it’s not to everyone’s cup of tea because it is a traditional pub. But there is not much we can do about that. We are what we are. But what we can do, and what we always try to do, is make our customers feel as welcome as we possibly can. We do have wonderful staff, and we do try to ensure that the pub is the same happy place it was when my mum was here.”

I’m sure Claire’s mum Carol, is looking down, and saying…’That’s my girl!’”

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