‘I cried’: Family who bought pub with life savings just before pandemic reflect on difficult year
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
A family who left Carmarthen and ploughed their savings into a village pub the summer before the Covid pandemic have thanked the community for their steadfast support and friendship.
After a grim year, Laura and Andy Jenkins are back doing what they love – serving and socialising with customers at The Farmers Arms, Llanybri, Carmarthenshire.
The couple have now opened a small village shop in the pub car park after noticing how hard it could be for elderly residents to do their weekly shop during lockdown.
But there have been tears and soul-searching along the way.
Reflecting on a whirlwind year and a half, Mrs Jenkins said: “I have no regrets. I’m gutted the whole Covid thing happened, and there have been times when me and my husband said, ‘We can’t do this any more.’
“Financially it’s been the hardest thing we have done. But what we’ve had is that satisfaction of helping others. It feels so good.”
But she admitted that another lockdown, not that one is on the horizon, might cause them to reconsider.
Prior to the pandemic Mr and Mrs Jenkins lived in Johnstown, Carmarthen, with their four children.
Mrs Jenkins, 28, worked long hours as a hairdresser while her husband was a tyre fitter, frequently attending night-time call-outs.
When he suffered complications from a minor injury, resulting in a loss of strength, the couple began to contemplate a change of lifestyle.
Mr Jenkins, 43, had run a pub in the Valleys several years ago, and the idea to head in that direction took root. The couple went pub-hunting, but were keen not to move far from the Carmarthen area.
Mrs Jenkins said: “The first one we tried fell through. The Farmers Arms was the second choice, but it was the better choice.
“It’s in the centre of the village and has these old characteristics, like slate floors and deep window sills, as well as a modern element.”
It had, however, been operating as a Thai restaurant, meaning a revamp was required.
Mr and Mrs Jenkins bought the lease, drew up a business plan and, with the help of friends and family and reps from food and drink company Castell Howell, reopened The Farmers Arms in the summer of 2019.
“It took all of our savings,” said Mrs Jenkins, who recalled working on her birthday – August 2 – for all the right reasons.
“There was a fantastic turnout,” she said. “Everyone knew it was my birthday. They had a cake and sang happy birthday.
“It’s one of those villages when you sneeze at one end and someone the other ends knows.”
News of the emerging pandemic fed through in the winter of 2019-20, and Mrs Jenkins vividly recalled the moment on March 20 when Boris Johnson said pubs, cafes and restaurants had to close.
“We were doing our fish and chip special,” she said. “I looked at the telly and thought, ‘Oh my God.’
“We got a round of drinks in for everyone. I stood at the end of the bar and cried.”
Casual staff were let go, and Mr and Mrs Jenkins applied for furlough and other Government support. Mrs Jenkins said they missed out on certain hardship relief because they hadn’t been trading for long enough.
She kept in touch with the younger staff, with a WhatsApp group set up to keep morale up. The pub did Friday and Sunday takeaway food during the lockdowns, adding a Saturday evening option as well.
When she did her weekly shop, Mrs Jenkins often got requests for items from local residents who felt vulnerable and isolated.
“I said to my husband, ‘Let’s do something.’ We had a summer house, and got an upgraded one from my mother and father-in-law.”
And it was this that became the village shop. A local electrician and retired carpenter lent their skills, two fridges and a fridge-freezer were installed, and a planning application was submitted to the county council three months ago.
In a planning statement, the couple said: “Our community is small, with a large percentage being over 60 years of age. Many do not drive and particularly within the current climate, find it difficult to travel on the bus to Carmarthen, in turn, these members of our community are going without, something that my husband and I want to stop from happening.”
Llansteffan and Llanybri Community Council supported the application, and Carmarthenshire planning officers have now approved it.
It stocks fruit and veg, pasties, yoghurt, eggs, bacon, milk, pizza, ice-cream, tinned goods, newspapers, and a small selection of alcohol, among other items.
The pub and shop now employ five full-time and four part-time staff and, with indoor and outdoor hospitality open again, normality of sorts is resuming.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporter Service while hosting the first coffee morning in months for elderly customers, Mrs Jenkins said:
“One of the reasons Covid was difficult for many people in the village was that they’re elderly and alone.
“They want to talk to people, and they’ve got so much knowledge and experience.”
She added: “Lads and girls used to come in and play pool, and they would de-stress.”
Referring to the reopening of pub, she said: “It’s not about selling alcohol, it’s seeing the difference in people’s mental health.”