Monday, 13 March 2023

Here to stay: an interview with Black Boy Inn owner John Evans – part 1

The Black Boy Inn has been part of the very fabric of Caernarfon for 500 years – and for twenty of those, it’s been owned and managed by John Evans.

To celebrate John’s two decades at the Black Boy, we asked him to tell us how much things have changed in the half a century he’s been involved in the hospitality industry, and where he sees the industry – and his involvement in it – heading in the future.

This article is the first in a series.

John’s career in the hospitality industry started when he was just 11 years old, when he had a job ‘bottling up’ three pubs in the mid-Wales village of Dinas Mawddwy.

“In those days you didn’t have so much draught beer; more bottles were sold than there are today,” John explains. “This was in the days of Jubilee Stouts, Guinness which was in bottles only, and Double Diamond, which was the main beer sold.

“One of the pubs I used to work in, the Buckley Arms, had a hogshead of beer in wooden casks, and I had to make sure they weren’t leaking. I had a little hammer, and went round the gaps, tapping something in to stop the leaks – I don’t know what it was but it might have been lead!”

After leaving school, John considered a career in the Royal Marines, but changed his mind when they wanted him to join up for nine years instead of three. “I was meant to have signed up for three years when I reached the age of 16,” he explains. “But on reaching the final document to sign, the government had changed the length of required service to nine years. I backed out – or so I thought…”

Around this time his father bought a hotel, which became very successful, so John forgot about the Navy and joined his father to work at the hotel until he was 21. By then his father, who had previously been a haulage contractor, decided to go back into the garage trade, buying the Gwalia Garage at Caeathro, Caernarfon.

Meanwhile, a surprise visit from two naval officers a year after John had backed out of joining up gave him a bit of a fright. “I was in the reception hallway at the hotel,” he says. “This car came down the drive, two naval officers got out and asked for me by name. I can tell you, I was really worried about what I’d signed a year ago! But they said they were just checking if I wished to continue with the naval career. Obviously, I said no – the hotel was very busy by then.”

John remembers that in those days – before holidays to Spain became popular – the roads in mid and north Wales would be “chock-a-block” in the summer months. His father’s hotel put on entertainment, and it was not unusual for the place to be heaving on a Saturday night, with 700 customers in attendance and not a bouncer in sight – just John’s father and the staff.

When his father’s hotel was sold, John , who was by now married to Chris , worked on a farm for a few months with a relative – but the hospitality industry still beckoned, and before long they  bought a pub in Llanilar. In the five years John and Chris ran the Falcon Inn, it became “a very successful village pub,” he says, “with four darts teams, two pool teams, cricket, football, you name it – it was all there, and for the first time food was served at the inn.”

After selling the pub to join his father at the Gwalia Garage, after three years the pub trade beckoned once again. “I was speaking to my wife one night and she said, ‘do you realise in the last six months you’ve only been home three complete nights?’ I then decided it was maybe time to go back to the pub trade!”

John and Chris took on the Newborough Arms in Bontnewydd, where he and his family spent 22 years. In that time they did a lot of renovation work at the pub, eventually winning the Tetley Quality Pays Award for having the best cellar in the UK. They also introduced a good food menu at the pub, eventually serving up to 400 meals a day.

But loving the industry as he did, one pub wasn’t enough, and before long John and Chris had a portfolio which included the Red Lion in Porthmadog, the Paris Wine Bar in Dolgellau, the Gaerwen Arms in Gaerwen, the White Lion in Bala, and the Bull in Llangefni.

John’s strategy was to invest heavily in refurbishing the pubs and making them very successful, before eventually selling them on. The only real exception was a small, old-fashioned pub in St Asaph: “It didn’t really work for us, but we tried it. It didn’t work, so we put it on the market.” Meanwhile, he also bought a ‘big development spend’ pub in Caernarfon, The Harp, and together these pubs traded under the heading of Welsh Historic Inns.

In time, most of John’s pubs were bought by Scottish and Newcastle, a brewery which he says was quite active in this area at the time. John and his wife kept the Bull in Llangefni and the White Lion in Bala, and at this time – in 2003 – they also bought the Black Boy Inn in Caernarfon. Before long, John had also sold the Bull and the White Lion, this time to S A Brains, for whom he had agreed to work two days a week.

“Suddenly the credit crunch in 2008 happened,” John remembers. “The company plan [at Brains] at that time was to have what they called ‘a pot on every bar in Wales’ of a Brains product, which was a great idea. But they were trying to run it from Cardiff and to my mind that’s too far away, because Cardiff is further away from us than London, in travelling time. They were sending electricians etc up to this part of the world so their costs would escalate.

“They also bought Halls of Holywell at that time, and they were looking at about three or four hotels in this area, around which I was involved with discussions with them, but it all fell flat. Brains retracted, and they held on to the White Lion and the Bull, but they sold off Halls of Holywell.”

John laments the loss of breweries in the years since the credit crunch. Brains transferred some of their outlets to Marsdens, who joined forces with Carlsberg to become one brewery or retailer. What’s left is the smaller brewers, like Purple Moose in Porthmadog and Cwrw Llyn in Nefyn; but, as John points out, the ‘middle ground’ has been decimated by breweries joining forces.

“A lot of the decline stems back to the beer orders, which the government brought in, which stopped brewers owning their own pubs,” John explains. “What you’ve got now is property companies running the pubs rather than brewers. And that’s quite national; they’re on the stock exchange trying to make as much money as they can.”

These days, the whole industry has changed, John says. “The brewers used to look after their pubs better than the property companies are now, because they had a double-edged game. Their property portfolio, their brand was good, their products would be sold in those outlets, so they had to have good managerial staff and tenants. Whereas now, anybody can run a pub, as long as they’ve got the money.

“I have a friend who worked for one of these big property companies and was a top performer, but he packed it in because he couldn’t live with himself after a young couple took a tenancy on and lost all their money. These [property developers] don’t care; you’re just a tenant /lease holder. If you do well they put the rent up when they can.”

Thankfully, John and his wife escaped such drains on resources as paying increasing rents to greedy property developers.

“Luckily, we went down the freehold route many years ago,” he says. “We did think of going tenancy, and there’s very few owner-run free houses. You get pubs saying free house and it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. In the old days ‘free house’ meant the chap who was standing behind the bar or in charge of it was running it and he owned it, but that’s not the case now.  You’ll hear somebody say that ‘somebody’s bought that pub’, but they haven’t actually bought it, what they’ve done is bought the lease.”

So now a ‘free house’ just means you’re not tied to a particular brewery?

“Yes. The whole industry has changed. It’s nothing like it used to be at all.”