Since 2011, The Lord Northbrook in Lewisham has transformed from a dive bar into a family-friendly local. ELL spoke to new manager Chris Kelly, who oversaw the transition.
Two years ago and under old management, The Northbrook – as it was then known – was an infamous watering hole in Lee.
Toilets with cracked floors that allowed patrons to see down into the cellar earned the pub the Newshopper’s ‘South East London Grotty Toilet Award 2011’. The same year – and less amusingly so – The Northbrook was named the Newshopper’s ‘Worst Pub in South East London’.
Regular punter, Michael Smith, 84, has lived in Lee for 10 years and remembers The Northbrook: “It was a poor, rundown pub…a dump – but it was cheap!”
New manager of the pub Chris Kelly, 31, reflects on his first impression of the pub: “It was just horrible. It was a bit like something you would see in Life on Mars; John Simm and all his police friends sitting in here, drinking Guinness with Jameson chasers.”
But after “half an eggy pint of beer”, Kelly started to see the pub’s potential. Using his background in food and hospitality, Kelly renovated the establishment to fill a “niche” in the area.
Emily Hassal, assistant manager of The Lord Northbrook, agrees: “The area was crying out for somewhere relaxed and family-friendly. A lot of people don’t just want a cheap boozer.”
Kelly’s immediate concern “was the actual state of the pub. If a place looks like a sty, people will treat it like a sty.”
The pub’s interior was transformed into a “friendly and welcoming” environment and renamed The Lord Northbrook. Patrons now enjoy craft beers and products from small local breweries. The back was extended to provide a dedicated food area. Fresh, local suppliers are sourced to serve “contemporary British pub food with a bit of a twist.”
On top of the “friendly atmosphere and quality products”, Kelly says that vinyl/ukulele-jam/board-game nights have given the community “a reason to come here.”
Punter Benjamin Cross, 26, an architect from Lee says: “They’ve taken the quintessential pub feeling and used it to their advantage – it’s a nice place to be. People are interested in a place that has an affinity to where they’re from. It’s a local pub with local food.”
But the community does more than just contribute to profit: “If you can get a community of people who will take ownership over [the pub], it can become self-policing. People don’t want their pub being messed around with.”
The manager refers to drug problem the pub had before his tenure, when “an old crowd” frequented. Kelly says his new approach was surprising to some: “Everyone is welcome, but there are rules: no drugs, no fighting, no drinking ‘til you fall to the floor.”
“It’s taken a while to get past the reputation of the old pub… it’s still growing.”
Undeniably, pubs are having a tough time in the current market and most are fighting for survival rather than success.
Kelly says the tax parity between the pub industry and supermarkets is a major issue of concern. “There is a tendency to demonise pubs, as the on-trade which gets people very drunk and then just kicks them out onto the street.”
He says that, although supermarkets allow people to buy alcohol for the fraction of the price, they “don’t offer any supervision.”
“The government could do more to recognise places that are running a sensible operation which sells booze and cares for people… and are community led. The fact is, just because you sell alcohol does not mean that you’re a detriment to your society.”
“People need to understand that pubs are an important part of our culture. Running a pub is a proper living and there is money to be made. But you don’t necessarily hear about that side of it.”
While the British pub industry may be in decline, The Lord Northbrook is a welcome break in the pattern. Kelly has demonstrated that “if a pub is a good operation, it will work” and succeed.
When the Newshopper returned in 2012, just a year after Kelly took over, they gave The Lord Northbrook a “glowing review” and awarded it the ‘Golden Pint award for best pub in South East London’.
The Lee community also appreciated the new face of The Lord Northbrook. Their votes alone led to the house being awarded Shortlist’s Pub of The Year Award 2013.