Mark Gordon, General Manager of the Kings Arms in Bagshot, worked tirelessly to ensure his pub remained a community hub during the pandemic. He even took on some very special roles...
I threw myself into working for my local community
Our pub is at the heart of the village here. It’s a Hungry Horse, but a wet-led pub, and everything that happens in the village happens through the pub. The first sign for me that Covid-19 was affecting us was when I noticed a lot of customers taking their drinks outside – and it wasn’t even that warm in March 2020. Bookings for Mother’s Day were very low too, and when Ireland said it was going to shut down for Paddy’s Day I knew things were serious.
Despite all that, we were really shocked on the night the government announced pubs were to close: we couldn’t believe it was happening so soon. We shut the bar at 10pm and let the place empty organically rather than chuck everyone out at once, because it was rammed.
I work here with my wife. We’ve been here 10 years and three of my eight kids work for me. Most of my team of 42 have been here for over seven years. We work together and play together, so that night we were here until about 2am.
We just wanted to be sure we closed up properly. It wasn’t until everyone had gone and the pub was empty that it sunk in. We knew it would be OK, because the messages from Greene King were so reassuring. My phone beeped nonstop with messages from colleagues in other pubs and we all felt confident. The message that stuck with me was, we’ll get through this together. A month or so later we started losing people to Covid.
My best friend had lung cancer and all her treatments stopped because of the virus. She caught Covid and that was it. We lost about 15 customers – it was a very sad and uncertain time. A lot of the team are quite close to our customers, so it hit them hard. We tried to meet weekly for a walk and a chat, which helped.
To help me get through it I took my usual Friday night Pub Landlord’s Quiz online by doing a Facebook Live, with about 300 to 400 people joining in. It kept the pub front and centre of people’s minds and I really enjoyed the banter. People couldn’t come in, but they could call us if they needed anything because the team put their numbers out on social media. We had quite a lot of late-night calls – often people just wanted someone to talk to. We’ve also got a lot of older regulars, so we rang them regularly to check on them.
And then my mum passed away in December, and it knocked me for six. I felt like I wanted to do something positive. Usually around that time I would visit local pubs dressed as Santa. Obviously, that was a no-no in 2020, but a friend told me her nephew was really ill and could Santa call to cheer him up? Of course, I did it, and thought that there were probably a lot of kids missing out due to the pandemic. I posted on Facebook to see if anyone wanted a free Santa video call and ended up doing 109 calls, spending eight hours a day on camera. It kept me going through some dark days.
I also thought about those who were unable to travel or see loved ones and would spend Christmas Day alone. I set up a GoFundMe page where you could buy a dinner for a relative or pay it forward and buy for a stranger, and we raised just under £3,000 in 10 days. On Christmas Day my chefs gave their time for free to cook 158 Christmas dinners and I had 45 volunteers delivering. It was a community coming together.
I kept the pub front and centre of people’s minds by going online
I’m a local councillor and was part of a task force providing support for those in need, so I was getting a lot of Covidrelated queries from people. I’m also involved with a charity which did shopping and took hot meals to those in need and delivered medication and dog walked for people who were shielding. As the pandemic wore on, I realised there were many struggling financially, so I set up a collection point for food donations and started volunteering at a local food bank on Sundays.
The pandemic gave me time to grow as a person and realise the importance of doing things for other people. No one missed buying things during the pandemic – they missed connecting with others.
In 2021, our year may have begun in April when our pub reopened for outside trading, rather than January, but we started with a bang. Nick Mackenzie paid us a visit, we won a We Care award at the Pride of Greene King Awards and experienced record-breaking figures on reopening. Every single table was booked, profits were up 30% on 2019 and we enjoyed the second-highest week’s takings since 1936. We had a lot of reasons to feel proud.