When you operate a pub in a village your biggest critics are the locals and your biggest supporters are also the locals. It seems like the two new landlords at the King’s Arms in Fenwick have made a very good impression if the feedback I have been hearing is anything to go by. When I told Gareth Kelly and Mikey Lennon this over a coffee, they were quick to tell me how helpful the local community had been, and had nothing but praise for the many individuals that had gone above and beyond to help them get open – from helping with the decorating to trimming back the trees in the beer garden. Says Mikey, “They have been brilliant.”
In fact, as I listen to them they can already name more locals in the village than I can, and I have lived here for 14 years, so they are obviously off to a great start.
As I look around the pub I can see the subtle differences but what I notice most of all is how clean it is, and the aroma of freshly prepared food. And of course, there are customers… it is great to see the pub busy again. It has been a while!
The pair took the pub over just before lockdown and operated if for a few weeks without the food, but put on entertainment. Says Mikey, “Before we took it over I came out on a spying mission and there were only nine people in on a Saturday night, but when we took it over right away the weekends were heaving. We just did the basics right. We didn’t rewrite the rule book just put on some decent entertainment, presented a decent range of drinks at a decent price and cleaned the place – in fact, we had cleaners in for three days and we painted every surface.”
Then came lockdown. But although it wasn’t welcome, the two explain, it has allowed them to ‘reset’ the Kings offering.
Explains Gareth, “Before we took over, the kitchen hadn’t been operating so the pub hadn’t been doing food, and it had become more of a drinking pub than a pub for everyone. Village pubs have to be all things to all people so we knew we had to get the food offering up and running as soon as possible.”
Despite the fact there has been no income for the last three months, the two weren’t able to furlough staff, but they did manage to get a grant. Says Gareth, “We have used part of this to set the kitchen up because there was nothing there, and the rest has kept us afloat in the intervening weeks.”
The Kings now boasts two chefs, one from Gin 71, and the other from Devonshire Gardens, and a KP. They are also on the lookout for a sous chef. Gareth says, “There is no point doing food if we are not going to do it well. We are serious about it. Although we’ve not done food before, I am a bit of a foodie and we have been inspired by lots of places we have visited in Glasgow.”
Although the two may be new to food, they are not new to either the area or the licensed trade. In fact, Gareth’s dad owned three pubs – two in Kilmarnock – The Braehead and Papa Bz, and one in Stevenston – The Lonsdale (the latter is no longer there). He tells me, “I grew up in the pub game and opened my first pub called Barco when I was 21 in John Finnie Street. I sold it just as the smoking ban arrived and for five years ran a licensed shop instead, called Kelly’s in Samson Avenue. When I sold that I took a year out before venturing back into the trade. I leased a venue again in John Finnie Street and decided to open a nightclub called Bakers.”
Although Bakers may have started out as a nightclub, when Mikey came on board in 2011 it quickly evolved into becoming Ayrshire’s top music venue.
He explains, “I got to know Gareth by chance. I was a band manager and music promoter and had booked a well known Glasgow band to play a gig locally, then the venue folded on the Wednesday and we had them on Friday and I needed somewhere at short notice, so I asked Gareth if I could borrow his nightclub.
“The night was a great success and the two of us saw the potential to turn Bakers into a music venue. To begin with, it was only one night a week, but we thought, could we do this more often? Ayrshire had a vibrant music scene so we decided to take a punt into music promotion.”
That punt was a success for the duo. As well as branching out and running gigs elsewhere it allowed them to take Bakers up a notch. In 2017 they moved premises to Fowlds Street, and the bigger venue allowed it to evolve into the biggest music venue in Ayrshire.”
Mikey says, “It went from being a 150 venue to accommodating 300, and it was then a two-man operation and I helped manage it. (He was also holding down a job at Aldi’s where he was a retail manager). He says, “We were friends before becoming business partners and we do think along the same lines. As we got older the nightclub side of things became less attractive which is why Gareth decided to move Bakers on earlier this year.” But as Gareth explains it didn’t go to plan. “I was in the process of selling the lease on before the virus happened, and I am just coming out of it now.
Gareth had his eye on The Kings for a few years but he hadn’t been able to take it forward, then his dad saw it was up for lease on the Heineken website. He says, “When I knew it was available I said to Mikey if we manage to get it will you come in with me?”
He continues, “I remember when Eric Brown had it, it was a great pub – people travelled for miles to eat at The Kings. It was a real destination pub. But over the last few years, I think it has been under-appreciated. I think it is a sleeping giant. We want it to be a destination pub. We want people to come from near and far to enjoy what we have to offer.”
Mikey chips in, “We will be going the extra mile. I think Ayrshire is stuck in a bit of a time warp when it comes to food and drink. Pubs generally offer the likes of Cajun chicken, crepes and tempura, with three white and three red wines, a house vodka and pink gin, but we want to take that further by introducing some great wine and include wine and food pairings and whisky tastings. We don’t want to go full pelt and be top-end gastro, but we want to be as good as we can be and our new menu will help.”
But as Gareth says the boys want to get the balance right. To begin with, the menu was created so that it could be served outdoors in their large beer garden and their new terrace – but their new menu, which will change for lunch and dinner, will be on stream from mid- August. Weekends will still be for the pub lovers – with food being served but not all night.
“It’s a fine balance keeping the drinkers and the diners happy but consistency is also important. A lot of people haven’t been here before, and many haven’t been here for a while so we need to make sure our offering is consistent. The minute you drop your standards your customers lose trust.”
The two say they have lots of plans but due to the current situation will be running the pub much as it is now until Christmas. Due to the lack of cash, they have literally been running the pub with the help of family and friends with the two of them putting in 100 hour weeks. They are in the pub at 9 am and there until closing and are happy to do any chore going. They are certainly hands-on.
Says Gareth, “What we save we can spend on stock and some new furniture. But we couldn’t have done it without the help of my family and Mikey’s daughter. We don’t really have staff here, we have a team and we bounce ideas off each other. Now that we can see the patterns building and bookings steady we can start offering contracts to extend our team.
“A lot of other folk helped too from the community Jamie, Craig, David, Julie, Rick … the list is endless. I really don’t think there is another place like Fenwick. Everyone has been amazing. We are also busy building up relationships with other local businesses. I firmly believe we can all thrive off each other, so are striving to re-engage with everyone. But we will do it our way.”
Mikey adds, “They usually say that you can’t please all the people all the time, but we are going to have to do that in Fenwick. What we offer may not be for everyone, but we will do our best. We also want people to travel to The Kings, and when we are allowed entertainment again we will put it on every weekend. The success of the business will depend on attracting old and new customers.
“There is young, medium and old in this small community – and we have to appeal to all demographics. Dogs are also welcome, but we have a two barks and you are out rule, just like they have at St Luke’s in Glasgow.”
Gareth concludes, “We are certainly hands-on here. It’s important especially with a community like this which is very close-knit – they take a personal interest in the pub and it is very close to people’s hearts. People like to put a face to a name. If something happens to this place people take it personally.”
But the last word goes to Mikey, “The phrase ‘you don’t get a second chance at a first impression’ rings really true, so we are trying really hard to create a good first impression. I think we have done pretty well at that to date.”
I think he’s not wrong.