Nearly one year on from Storm Desmond, a Lancaster pub still has a completely free menu to anyone who needs it - and even those who don't.

When Storm Desmond paid an unwelcome visit earlier this year, it inspired one pub to completely change its outlook.

The Robert Gillow in Lancaster was hailed as a local hero after feeding and sheltering those who had been victim to the floods. 

Now, the pub still serves only free food, available to everyone.

“It all started with the storm,” explains licensee Mark Cutter, who set up the scheme. “People were struggling to get home because of floods, they couldn’t get over the river, so I said to the police to send them here. Then the power went out for three days.”

“We used candles and foil blankets, but when the power came back on our freezer had defrosted, so we decided to cook everything in it and give it away.

"That’s when we realised people always needed meals, regardless of the floods.”

By teaming up with an organisation called Fareshare, which saves good food destined for waste, the pub can intercept food from supermarkets that would have been binned.

 

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Mark has been a publican since 2011. He runs three sites around the area and is soon to put his name to another two, but that’s not all.

He is a trained lawyer and social scientist, a wine merchant and a freelance lecturer in his free time. If you can believe he has any.

He’s a self-confessed workaholic, but says his business aims are to make the world better today than it was yesterday.

“We don’t know what ingredients we will get until it arrives. My guys get the deliveries, figure out what to make, and if we have anything excess we send it off to other community projects and schools. We hand it out to anyone who needs it.”

The pub offers food from midday until midnight daily.

“It starts with pastries and breakfast and there is always hot food and mains,” he explains. “I had a big joint of beef so we did a free roast dinner last Sunday. We’ve also done salmon with samphire and new potatoes and vegetable curries.”

A Michelin star is not Mark’s goal. Instead he wants to banish stigma around poverty, and reduce food waste.

“This is free for everyone, so those who really need it can eat without any stigma, and that’s the most important thing. There might be someone who is down to their last five-pound note, but they can enjoy a meal with everyone else.

“We get a lot of homeless people who come and have some food and a soft drink, and they send us thank you notes. They can be sat alongside business people who are drinking Champagne, and it just all blends together, there are no boundaries between customers. It is all about social inclusion.”

 

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Not only are the locals feeling the benefit, but the pub has seen an increase in turnover by around 20 per cent. Mark even says that before they offered a free menu, the kitchen actually always lost money.

But despite efforts to help others, Mark is also a victim of the floods himself.

His other site, the Juke Joint, was submerged in two-and- a-half metres of water thanks to the storm and is still unusable.

But his free food scheme has meant he could transfer staff to the Robert Gillow pub and even employs more chefs to help.

“There are extra customers in the pub now, but the interesting thing is it’s a real positive to create social improvement. People can come in here, get food and go home, and this means they are not wandering around town causing problems, it has created a feeling of community.”

Customers who can afford food can give back to the scheme by buying a “suspended soft drink”. This means people can pre-pay at the bar for a hot or cold drink for someone who needs.

Is Mark is the Mother Teresa of Lancaster? Or Superman in disguise? Possibly, but he summarises his efforts in one clear statement: “In the time of politically enforced austerity, businesses need to step forward and fill in the gaps of their community.”

 

Get involved

Think your pub could benefit your own community in the same way?

How to source food

Find community groups, contact Fareshare or local businesses, and use your own pantry.

How to finance it

Use profits from the bar, ask paying customers to donate via a “suspended” coffee or meal, have a collection tin.

Why try it

Combat social exclusion, reduce food waste, remove stigma about food poverty.

 

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