Thursday, 15 April 2021

Couple to leave pub over fears for post-covid trade

Couple to leave pub over fears for post-covid trade

THE landlords of a Watlington pub have decided to move on after more than a decade.

Andy and Louise Stokes arrived at the Chequers in Love Lane in the summer of 2010 but have now decided not to renew their lease with Brakspear as they feel the coronavirus crisis has put too much pressure on hospitality businesses.

Mr Stokes, a chef, said he and his wife were “incredibly grateful” to both the community and to Brakspear for their support but they believed the time was right to go.

The couple are planning to re-open the pub when the government restrictions allow outdoor service on April 12 and then their five-year lease runs out on July 25.

Mr Stokes, 56, said: “We are going to give it our best shot over the next couple of months and I hope to see our customers again, once they’ve had their jabs, to say our farewells.

“Although we may have struck a deal on our lease prior to any pandemic, our decision not to continue has been accelerated by the circumstances.

“We are getting towards the latter end of our career and having not technically been involved with an active pub for more than12 months, it seems to be the right time to call it a day and come away from it.”

He spent 17 years at the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden before taking over the Chequers, which is a 16th century building.

Mr Stokes and his wife made improvements when they arrived, including refurbishing the pub kitchen and clearing the garden area.

“We were given the opportunity by Brakspear who offered it to me,” he said.

“I loved the initial challenge because the pub was in a bit of a sad state and we just got stuck in.

“The garden was so overgrown that you didn’t even know it was there and we ripped the kitchen out.

“We had to do so much work but through lots of toil and sweat we built the business back up and we got a name for ourselves.

“We are a busy pub and what we’ve done to this pub over the last 11 years is absolutely massive.”

The couple, who have three grown-up children, Abbie, Matt and Alex, would regularly hold charity quiz nights and other events. In 2012, they won an award from the Campaign for Real Ale.

When the lockdowns were imposed, the pub offered takeaways on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Mr Stokes said: “We’ve been doing takeaways right the way through. We started off just doing the one night a week and now we do two evenings and a Sunday roast.

“But all that has done is helped to pay the bills. We haven’t actually taken any money for the last 12 months. Everything that we’ve done has just kept our heads above water.”

Mr Stokes said he was worried that building trade back up after the covid restrictions are eased would be tough.

“It was hard enough before,” he said. “I fear that it is going to be tougher to re-open now and it is projected that the prices of food and drink will be going up.

“If I was in my mid-30s and I’d taken out lots of loans to get a pub going and then I suddenly got hit by a pandemic like this, I would be really worried.

“You would just have to continue and I feel for people like that now. Their hands are tied and they haven’t got the choice we have to call it a day.

“I can’t fault the Government with their grants and I get frustrated when people dig at them.

“We’ve had two or three big grants in and the furlough scheme, which have been brilliant, but they are going to want their money back at some point and I think that will be in the form of higher taxes.”

The Chequers remained closed in December, even though it could re-open, as the couple were still concerned about the virus.

Mr Stokes said: “We were under pressure to re-open but we made that decision and I am happy we did.

“Now people are saying it was the right thing to do. You don’t always get things right, but when you’ve been doing this for as long as we have you have a good idea.”

The couple, who live just around the corner from the pub in Sycamore Close, have not yet decided what their next step will be.

Mr Stokes said: “I will get part time work here and there and I will do what I want to do.

“I hope to do all the things I’ve never done before. I want to enjoy myself because there is so much I want to do and see. My job has been my life up until this point.

“It has been rewarding and hard but it is our time now. I would like to thank our customers from the bottom of my heart for their continued support over the years.

“We hope we’ve given them everything that we possibly could because that’s what we’ve tried to do. We also made lots of friends.”

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