So far in these pages we’ve featured a maître d’ and a concierge – rather splendidly I think you’d agree – but this month we thought we’d leave the gilded ballrooms and vaulted hotel lobbies and take a look into that most humble and vital of British institutions, the pub. And what better publican to let us behind the bar for a look around than Josh, who some of you will doubtless recognise as one of the perennially smiling faces behind the bar at The Old Bookbinders in Jericho.
Your family have been at the Bookbinders since 2011, in which time it’s become a local landmark – what’s been at the heart of your success there?
When we opened in 2011, the pub had actually closed down, and once we reopened it our neighbours really rallied round to ensure we were welcomed. We are very fortunate in that Jericho is such a wonderful and varied community. You have artists living alongside doctors, people who have lived in the area for 60 years living alongside houses of students that rotate yearly, and all this is sat right upon the canal with its ever-moving community of boaters. This all plays out fluidly and harmoniously and really makes Jericho a thriving and bustling place to be. I think, too, that due to it being our family business, my parents and I have always been continuous faces behind the bar. I think in the day and age of people turning their backs on corporations people appreciate seeing a familiar face in a pub.
What have you learnt about people since your time in hospitality?
Working in this industry certainly opens your eyes to all walks of life, and I think that’s more apparent in pubs. People use pubs for many reasons, and patrons are always more than willing to share their stories with the humble bartender. We’ve had our fair share of customers that we’d rather not return, but for the most part I think people appreciate a good place to come and relax.
The public house was once the regarded as a sort of community centre, a place where events were celebrated, losses were mourned, gossip was shared, and meetings were had. As drinking habits changed and pubs started to close, a lot of this was lost. Pubs became much more dining-focused, and a lot of personality was lost, but in recent years we have seen a tide turning where people are coming back to the pubs as a general meeting place. And this spans generations, which is wonderful to see. We’ve witnessed weddings, funerals, first-dates, break-ups, council meetings and planning sessions, which all goes to show how versatile a space can be.
What’s it like working with your family?
I’ve grown up working in the family business of catering so to me it’s no different than I’ve ever known. Of course I would be lying if I said it was always plain sailing, as emotions tend to run higher than a normal working relationship. With family members you find yourself saying things you’d never normally say to a boss or colleague, and it has been known to turn into a row. But there is a huge amount of passion and pride in working together towards something, and I think it’s amplified when doing that with your flesh and blood. My father, Michel, has run restaurants in Oxford for 45 years, and did more of the same back in France – what he doesn’t know almost isn’t worth knowing – so working together with him I know we’ll always be in safe hands.
Do you think that the way people use pubs has changed in the last few years, and if so, how did that inform your takeover of James Street Tavern?
Oxford is a very small city, but the different areas are worlds apart from each other in atmosphere. I grew up on Cowley Road and it was a vastly different area in the early 90s than it is now! It has become much more student-orientated in the last 10 years or so and that is reflected in its amenities, especially its bars, and the way they are used.
We were looking for a new challenge, something at total odds with what we had at The Old Bookbinders, and the James St. Tavern presented itself as the perfect candidate. The pub needed a lot of work doing to it, but we could see a potential there to open up to a new side of Oxford, and to have such a wonderful garden space available to us was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up on. The way the James St. Tavern is used is totally different to The Old Bookbinders, but we are very fortunate that we still manage to bring in a wide section of the community.
That pub, like so many in the country, was in real trouble of going for good – what are some of the challenges facing publicans and what can be done about them?
We have all seen the figures and read the stories of pub closures up and down the country, and although it is slowing down it doesn’t seem like it’ll be a problem that’ll go away any time soon. People’s drinking habits are changing and the traditional pub model can be seen as somewhat outdated these days. Things like changing food offerings, showing sports, or having a varied events timetable are all things that can seem challenging to implement but can really boost a business. When there are so many options for food and drink in a city it is important to diversify in order to keep people from getting bored.
Rising rents from private landlords and then the business rates that go alongside them are problems faced by every business owner, not just publicans, but we are fortunate that we are much more able to adapt than many brick-and-mortar businesses.
How have you sought to engage with the communities in Jericho and Cowley?
In Jericho we have created a lovely space for people to congregate and spend time with friends and loved ones. It has its own natural warmth and charm that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. We have lived there now for eight years so the community really are our community and neighbours. We help with local events and try to get involved with community issues as much as possible.
This being our first six months in Cowley we are still getting to know our locality, but we have developed some wonderful relationships already and look to build on those as much as possible. There were a few neighbourhood concerns when we were first developing, which is only natural for a late-night venue, but we have worked together with the council, the local police force, our neighbours and other bars nearby to create a safe and comfortable space for everyone.
And of course, we wouldn’t be able to do any of it without our wonderful teams of staff. They are the people our customers see on a daily basis, and who we rely on to help carry forward our ethos. We have amazing teams at all of our pubs who we encourage to talk openly with customers to help create a welcoming environment.
What’s your favourite part of being a publican?
Being a publican really is a lifestyle! When you open the doors you’re inviting people in to your living room. We have truly made real friendships through our pubs, in both colleagues and customers, and I would say that is the best thing about this job.
Let us know what you’ve got going on over the Christmas period.
In both The Old Bookbinders and The Crown of Stadhampton we are running a truly scrumptious Christmas party menu throughout December (not just for office parties!) which is a real buzz in the run up to Christmas. The James St. Tavern is continuing our weekly timetable of events, and we have a ‘Winter Garden’ set up over our old carpark – an extension of the pub, if you will, in case the garden gets a bit too chilly to handle! And with our beautiful log fire it’ll create one of the cosiest spots in Cowley.