Monday, 15 May 2023

Here to stay: an interview with Black Boy Inn owner John Evans – part 3

John Evans has been in the hospitality industry for five decades – two of which as owner of the Black Boy Inn in Caernarfon. During this time he’s witnessed many changes, from how pubs are run and staffed to the pub’s changing role in communities.

In part 1 of our three-part series of interviews with John, he reminisced about his early career. In part 2, he talked about the changes in the industry over the years he’s been a part of it.

In today’s article – the third and final part of the series – we’ll hear more from John about how the pub trade has changed, and why he thinks the Black Boy has done so well in an industry that’s becoming ever more challenging.

To read part 1 of the series, click here. For part 2, click here.

If you’ve ever glimpsed the Black Boy through the old archway that links Cei Banc to Stryd Pedwar a Chwech, you’ll no doubt have admired the pub’s exterior for its character and quaint beauty. It’s a picture postcard scene, which draws visitors from all over the world – many of whom book a stay in one of the inn’s 47 rooms to experience north Wales hospitality at its finest.

Inside, the pub is no less atmospheric; there’s a real olde-worlde feel to the place, and if you didn’t already know that ghosts are as at home here as the living, you’d probably suspect it. What’s more, the Black Boy is also a popular spot – for locals and visitors alike – to eat a hearty and delicious lunch or dinner.

John, Chris and their team have clearly invested a lot of time, effort and cash in the place. But as we’ve seen, it’s not always been easy.

“At the moment it’s very difficult because of staffing issues,” says John, “and also the fact that after covid, nobody within this industry that I’m aware of will actually guarantee ‘this is what we’ll do next month’, because the business is changing every day. But we know long term that we will get through.”

The challenges are many, and John recognises that they’re not too dissimilar from those faced earlier in his career.

“Of course, you’ve got the prices going up now, dramatically – food is up 20% or whatever – and we’ve changed menus recently because we know we have to, otherwise we could say we won’t be here,” John explains, with an air of having been there before and weathered that particular storm. “In the late 70s when I was in Aberystwyth, prices were going up every three months, and you had to decide which way you were going because if you didn’t, you’d end up with no money left in the kitty at the end of the period.”

But change doesn’t frighten John, and it never has. Reinvesting in the business is a key strategy that he’s taken with him from pub to pub over the past fifty years.

“Every year we’re painting, renovating – we’ve just done a renovation of the rear during covid. And we’ve got other plans afoot for the future,” he says, enigmatically. “We’ve always been good at sympathetically investing… well in my belief, we’ve always worked well with the local council and planning officer, and they’ve been extremely good to us within the Caernarfon area.

“I think the only one we’ve ever had issues with was in the Snowdonia National Park, because their rules are slightly different. But I’ve got to admit that Gwynedd as a whole, and Anglesey… we’ve always had a meeting with them prior to doing any renovation and been careful how we do it.

“I remember in Aberystwyth, during a planning change. We renovated a coach house at the back of the Falcon Inn at Llanilar, and we needed to change the door position. In those days you had to go to court to do this. I rang the Clerk of the Court and he said, ‘just pop down with the plan, John’. Went down to the Clerk of the Court’s office, he said ‘go round and see the police sergeant or inspector on the desk next door and then go to the fire station and come back’, and that’s what I did, and it was agreed and finished with, and I didn’t have to go to court. There’s no way you’d be able to do that today. And I also had a letter from the court as a character reference when I left to come to Caernarfon. The Clerk of the Court in Caernarfon said that was the first time they’d ever seen a Clerk of the Court give a character reference!”

Keeping the premises maintained and attractive is a challenge John has kept well under control in his long career, with barely a bat of an eyelid. Something harder to control, however, is the costs involved in running a hospitality business – an issue that affects everyone in the industry with barely an exception.

“The problem now is that if you’ve got someone that’s coming in to get a pint on the bar, you’ve got all the heat and lights on, the person’s wage behind the bar, the wear and tear on the carpets etc, whatever it is, so people begrudge or feel they’re not getting the value for money,” John says. “But they’re not buying a pint; they’re buying an experience and the building and whatever else it’s supplying.”

If people’s wages don’t go up in line with the cost of living, they’ve got less money left over for leisure activities like eating out and pubs, and that has a knock-on effect on John, who then has to put his prices up to compensate… where does it all end?

“I don’t know, and I wouldn’t like to think, to be honest,” he replies. “I think the Black Boy will be here because we’ve managed to diversify. We’ve got an equal share of wet, dry and accommodation. But I do think it is concerning…

“I remember doing my training in Birmingham in the 70s and you had beer tankers delivering to pubs – well that’s unheard of today – and to clubs etc; Conservative clubs, Labour clubs, they’re all disappearing but they used to be extremely strong. I think the answer with the wage is that people have more different things to spend their money on these days. Your car, your Sky, all these other expenses that didn’t exist forty years ago.

“It’s twenty years since we’ve been here, and before that it did have a good reputation, and it’s moved with the times – we’ve got bedrooms here with small kitchens in them which have been very popular. Every room here is a different shape, different size. We’ve had Chinese people staying here, in a group – one was measuring their room to make sure it wasn’t bigger than next door! That’s what makes us unique, we’re not an out of the box, standard type of place…

“I’m maybe a little stuck in my ways, as I still believe if you charge a fair price for your product, people will come. If you try and undercut you’ve got to be cutting corners somewhere else; you can’t do it, because there’s nobody unique out there who has got a secret formula to make these places work. And one thing I’ll say about my pubs – I’ve always felt that yes, we sell alcohol, but I don’t feel we push alcohol. We’re not there to get people drunk. My view is they come in to have a conversation with someone else that they wouldn’t normally talk to.”

Certainly the Black Boy has a very friendly atmosphere – it’s a real home from home.

“Yes, I try to get the staff to carry that forward,” John agrees. “That’s what I always felt with village pubs. If you were a newcomer to anywhere, you’d go into a pub, and my rule always was if you were a woman on your own, would you walk into that bar? And if you wouldn’t there was something wrong. I learned that in Llanilar, actually. People came up to me on the night I was leaving, and they all said ‘we have no problem walking in here on our own. We never felt it was a men-only domain, you always said hello and you always said thank you when we left’. And those are the most important things in running a pub, I believe.”

And as for the Black Boy Inn itself, John plans to stick around for a long time yet – but the only thing he’ll tell me on this occasion about the Black Boy’s future is that “we’re more about the quality or development of – and retaining – the Welsh language and culture within this town of Caernarfon.”