Family-friendly pubs – fish finger-fuelled soft-play pandemonium or calm, welcoming haven for a post work pint? You may think the two are mutually exclusive propositions, but a visit to the Eastfield Inn, Bristol will prove you wrong.
The Star Pubs & Bars venue has won several national awards for its family-friendly business model, including being crowned Most Family Friendly Pub for the third time at the most recent Star Pub Awards, yet just 50 per cent of its business comes from families with children.
Landlord Graham Anderson and his partner Sharon Stanton run the pub alongside bringing up their two young sons Dainton and Quinn. But they put the success down to a business model that takes into account that family doesn't have to mean 2.4 young children.
"A family pub doesn't just mean bring the kids. It also means a place you'd be happy to bring your dad for a pint in the evening," Graham says.
"Families will create business during the day for you, but by 7pm they will all be gone – bar the odd group with an older teenager – so you need to create custom in the evening as well."
Large groups of drinkers on a big night out would jar with the family vibe though, and so Graham and Sharon don't set out to attract this crowd, aiming instead at smaller groups of older diners and couples.
"We are very careful about the promotions we do in order to achieve that," he explains. "For example, we wouldn't do a burger and a pint deal but we do run a popular 'Two main courses and a bottle of wine for £30' promotion during the week."
There's also Wine Wednesday, a Cask Ale Club and pub staples such as a pub quiz every Monday, regular live jazz nights and comedy evenings. The old skittle alley, which acts as the soft play area for most of the time, also gets reconverted back into its original form for the pub's skittle clubs.
"Using the space as flexibly as we can is something we realised we needed to do early on," Graham says. "The front of the pub is intended as a more grown-up space, so we've no toys or high-chairs visible there. As you move into the back you'll see more child-friendly areas, culminating in the soft play space. That means people are naturally drawn to an area without us having to enforce segregated spaces."
Within the child-friendly spaces there's plenty going on – music classes run by Sharon, as well as arts and crafts, a parent choir and an after-school drama club during daytime hours. There are also jigsaws, puzzles, books and toys to keep kids entertained over a meal and rabbits, chickens, ducks and play equipment in the garden.
"We want to create a nice, calm atmosphere," says Graham. "This isn't somewhere that kids run around screaming – the emphasis is keeping them seated with their families and for that, they need to be occupied. That makes it more welcoming for everyone."
It's not just a case of investing in a random selection of toys, however.
"We have learned that some toys just don't work. We invested in a Lego table, for example, but the pieces went everywhere and the really good bits went missing quickly. The other mistake we made early on was to think that we could get away with buying domestic-grade play equipment.
For example, we went through several climbing frames before we invested in a proper commercial one, which was a much more expensive way of doing it than just spending the money in the first place." As part of the drive to keep kids calm, The Eastfield Inn doesn't sell some of the more sugary kids' drinks, offering instead cartons of apple or orange juice ("we used to sell a wider range of flavours but those are the two best sellers by far," Graham explains) and there is an emphasis on healthier kids' meals.
"We've found there's no point doing anything too unusual on the kids' menu," he says. "The best sellers are always fish & chips and the burger. But we make sure it's all made fresh from the same ingredients as adult meals and each meal comes with at least one vegetable – peas with the fish and carrot sticks with the burger. They don't always get eaten, but the parents appreciate it."
Fun for all the family
The result is a pub that all generations can enjoy at the same time, a proposition that has been so successful Graham and Sharon were able to open a second site a year ago. "It's only a mile away but there's such a glaring gap in the market for this kind of pub that we are able to run both using the same model," says Graham.
"When we are fully booked here we can direct people there, and it also gives our regulars a change of scenery. So far it's working really well."