From failing boozer to winner of the biggest pub prize of them all, Wonston Arms Landlord Matt Todd tells us how he did it.
If Matt Todd had kept on walking he would never have gone into the Wonston Arms, let alone brought to it one of the most prestigious prizes pubs can win.
He and wife Lisa had moved to the Hampshire parish as a base for her work in the music business and his in sales and marketing in the mobile phone industry. Eight months in, they had yet to set foot in the pub.
Matt picks up the story: "We were walking the dog and someone in the pub garden, who still drinks here to this day, said we should get the dog a drink and he'd buy us one.
"It was August Bank Holiday and there were only about four people in. We spent about five hours in here. Everyone was really nice and this pub felt special. The community welcomed you with open arms."
The couple became part of the regular crew and it wasn't long before Matt was spearheading a bid for a community takeover to keep the pub open. They fell £75,000 short, so Matt, who had not so much as pulled a pint, let alone run a pub, decided to chuck his savings at the project and do it himself.
Running the tiny freehouse as wet-only and only opening from 5pm during the week (all day at weekends) in a village of just over 1,000 residents would look like madness to most. But then entrepreneurs see things others do not.
Matt continues: "The beer was always good in here. My ambition was to keep the pub going and generally see if I could make this wet-only freehouse model work. I had to and we have made a community-driven meeting place with a wet-only pub."
Beer has remained at the very heart of the offer. Two handpulls has become four, with The Wonston rotating around 40 different regular casks from Hampshire and beyond. He also freshened up the keg offer and recently introduced a real cider.
But it would be doing The Wonston a massive disservice to label it purely a drinking den. The tiny lounge pub is packed with character and wit, and always has something different going on.
There's the fish & chip van that comes on Tuesdays, the tie-up with a curry house to provide food on Fridays, the charity mornings where regulars run the pub as a café, and the 24-hour rowathon that the pub hosted.
Spirit of inclusivity
Then there are the 180 gins that Matt says has helped the pub establish a female customer base.
"I do feel humbled and chuffed because my ambition was to get women in here. They are happy to come in now and they are happy to come in by themselves."
He has done it through hard graft – up until this year he had no members of staff – and also by embracing new technologies.
"Word of mouth has been huge and the amount of time I have spent on social media every day has also made a massive contribution in growing the business," he explains.
"Google has been a big part, as has working with TripAdvisor to respond quickly and to actively encourage people to share their experience here. I believe people see social media as word of mouth."
Beyond keeping the pub running, Matt had an eye on getting the pub into the Good Beer Guide but never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that judges would see fit to name it one of the best in the country.
They did though, praising how it has become central to its community.
Matt continues: "It doesn't feel real because nothing has changed in here. It was never part of the journey. Being the best little pub in Hampshire was our aim.
"It's not an award you enter. This award happens every day of every shift, any of the 200,000 CAMRA members can come in here and judge you."
But already the pub is seeing the benefits of winning, with people travelling from further afield to sample the delights of a pub that is now establishing itself as one of the best in the country.
The Wonston Arms, Wonston, Hampshire
Award: Camra Pub of the Year 2019
- Watch what happened when Inapub joined Matt Todd and his regulars on a Wonston Arms fishing trip