Moffat’s Black Bull Inn is 452 years old and licensee Janie Seaton who bought the business back in November 2018 with husband Mark says that it has seen off worse things than COVID-19.
She said, “The Black Bull has survived wars and plagues and it will survive COVID-19. I see myself as the current custodian of this wonderful pub and all its history and links with Robert Burns and I feel that I have a duty to make it as COVID-proof as I can and that’s exactly what we have been doing. Customers still look forward to going out and there is less on offer in the leisure sector which another reason why we must all work doubly hard and compliantly to beat this.”
A former journalist and originally from Grimsby, Janie is friendly, open, and naturally curious. Husband Mark who Janie describes as “caravanning royalty” has nothing to do with the day-to-day running of The Black Bull, which also has 15 rooms and around 20 staff. Mark is MD of Chichester- based leisure company Cove UK and he also owns three caravan holiday parks in Scotland – Three Lochs Holiday Park, Lagganhouse Country Park, and WigBay Holiday Park.
The couple originally met in the mid-90s while working in sales for Bourne Leisure Group Ltd, the parent company of Haven Holidays, Butlins, and Warner Hotels, and of which Mark’s father is one of the founders. Their paths crossed again in the early 2000s, which is when they got together. Janie and Mark had a brief foray into property development but returned to the holiday park industry, starting their own business with a caravan park Craigielands Holiday Park in 2008 now known as Moffat Manor in Beattock, which is when they first fell in love with the area.
Ten years later they got a phone call from the previous owner of The Black Bull asking if they had any interest in taking a hotel off his hands. They said yes and got the keys in November 2018.
Janie comments, “I had a clear vision of what I wanted – a traditional Scottish pub with an upmarket boutique hotel that had a cross- customer universal appeal.“But as any operator will tell you, finding an individual who can affect your vision is difficult so I had to do that alone. Previous management regimes I’d worked with had not been the right fit for me or the hotel and it was always very challenging to get my plan for the hotel realised.
“I employed a manager who was running another hotel in the town at the time, so I knew him personally and I knew his work. Plus he’d worked at The Black Bull back in the 90s. This allowed me to split my time – I was here for half the week and he was there full-time. I will typically work a 12- hour day and that includes working behind the bar, cleaning tables, and talking to customers to continually get their feedback of course. I love it.”
Janie didn’t hang about when it came to adapting the business back at the very start of lockdown. She explained, “We started to adapt our outside space from April to suit and work effectively amid what I could see were changing times which would lead to a greater emphasis on outside socialising. It is now capable of accommodating 1-metre social distancing.“In lots of ways we are the perfect shape for social distancing, the environmental health officer even said so on a routine visit. We have three separate areas – outside, the bar and the restaurant.”
Janie made the wooden tables and chairs smaller for 1 metre social distancing by literally chopping them in half and repainting them, erecting what looks like a Pagoda-style wooden frame over which covers can be thrown, pained exterior walls, and she added a BBQ. There’s a big black bull statue nestled in the corner.
She added, “I also ripped out a whole line of restaurant booths as soon as we got the place and let the booths on the opposite wall remain so that this would give us greater flexibility in terms of seating larger parties and this also lends itself very well to social distancing too of course. I also repurposed the upholstery from the booths on the antique chairs that replaced them. “
She opened the hotel to keyworkers during lockdown and she still gets a lot of bookings from key workers now that are in the region on business. As for its main clientele, it is a stop-off point for those travelling further north as well as for walkers and cyclists and dog walkers. The Black Bull is extremely dog-friendly.
And what are Janie’s thoughts on a second lockdown? “If there is another lockdown we will be OK. We will just adapt. You have to. There is no point in resisting this. People came out and supported us and for that, I am truly grateful and we owe it to people who want to go out and enjoy a meal in safe and clean surroundings to provide them with exactly that.”
Janie’s noticed that customers are expanding their drinks repertoire since lockdown because being table-bound means they can look at a menu and consider new options rather than making their usual bar- call.
She said, “I always wanted to build this business around bistro- style dining in a cosy atmosphere where good wine, fine malts, and a choice of gins were a given.Customers can now take their time to think about what drink they want and try something new. We have seen a shift toward drinks that people can share, like wine by the bottle, and gins made with an array of garnishes and I am building up my gin collection. We are also selling many more craft beers and work closely with Lowland Brewery in Lockerbie. We used to sell rose by the glass or Sauvignon Blanc but all of a sudden people are now ordering Malbec, Rioja and I have had to triple the amount of wine I order every week.”
She was also able to bring eligible staff back from furlough and their collective hard work has paid off because the pub just did the best sales since Janie bought the freehold. Said Janie, “Last week saw the best weekly sales since we opened and the hotel at 100 per cent capacity and we shouldn’t be returning such figures in September- they are more like typical August levels. My friends own The Balmoral Hotel in the town and they too have seen a real upswing in business in the last few weeks.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing and Janie decided to close the pub which also has 15 rooms and 20 staff at the start of the year in what is generally considered to be a fallow period for the trade in Moffat, and while she would have closed for the winter anyway, she wouldn’t have refurbished some of the rooms and laid new carpet had she known lockdown was coming.
She said, “We were closed in January of this year because as anyone will tell you. Moffat is traditionally quiet at this time of year, then we opened weekends only during February and this allowed us to do a mini-refurbishment. We then fully reopened in March only to be shut down two weeks later when we went into lockdown and I had to furlough all of the staff. Would I have refurbished had I known this? Absolutely not.”
In light of all of these ups and downs, would she consider look at another pub in the future and once things start returning to normal again? She said, “Mark and I are both business-minded people, but I also think emotionally and it would have to win my heart as the Black Bull has done and that is not easy.”
As a former journalist, and she worked on the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and Target, for five years. “I did a lot of the reporting on the hospitality sector and interviewed some early 90s pop stars. Right Said Fred. Remember them? They played Cleethorpes Pier in 1991 and I remember his rider was Red Stripe and chicken legs.”
She has combined her love of writing into always doing PR for the pub, like doubling the pub’s Facebook following during lockdown as well as never missing the opportunity to promote The Black Bull- like the branded face mask she wore on the day we met.