It takes a special type of publican to see a boarded-up pub that's been derelict for three years and say "there's an opportunity'.
But that is what Mike Hales thought when he saw the Railway in Bromley Cross, Bolton.
It helped that Mike was a local lad and aware of the people the pub could serve. Yet it took a lot of time and effort to turn his dream into reality. The pub wasn't even watertight when he took it on.
"In the end it would have probably been cheaper to knock it down and rebuild it," Mike says, "but if you look now, when you come through the door, it was worth it."
Star Pubs and Mike jointly refurbished the site with a clear vision – a commuter pub serving the local community, rushing around their daily lives from the crack of dawn.
The Railway certainly has a target demographic and being positioned next to a station, a primary and a secondary school, it is clear to see where the scale of the opportunity lay.
Mike explains: "There are no facilities in the station – it is literally a platform – but we have 300 commuters coming every day.
"So The Railway offers toilets, wifi, shelter from the rain, and, of course, food and drink. I wanted to have a mini-Starbucks or Costa style operation, opening at 6 in the morning, and capturing the first commuters of the day.
"Then, it would be mums from the school run from mid-morning, and the older generation, before becoming changing for the lunch and evening crowd."
After the refurbishment, one-third of the bar was set aside without hand pumps to accommodate the morning café-style offer. This allows Mike to place sugar, croissants, stirrers and other café elements onto the bar. This is cleared at lunch time.
A grab-n-go fridge full of breakfast food is adjacent to the bar, placed sympathetically into the overall design to avoid looking out of place later in the day, when the pub becomes a more traditional dining and drinking space.
There are also live train times throughout the day on a monitor, which Mike says Network Rail granted to him through access codes to its Darwin data system. The departures board was vital to create the true commuter vibe, Mike says.
"We try to have something for everyone in the offer and appeal to all commuters. So, there are bacon and sausage rolls, vegan sausage rolls, smoked salmon and salted beef bagels, as well as takeaway salads for lunch, such as prawn cocktail – and, of course, coffee and tea."
How does Mike manage to get this ready at 6am? On the day we spoke, he had come into the pub at 4am to get prepped. But this was just to set up on the first day and he is confident staffing issues won't be a problem going forward.
"We have hired a full-time barista and the food will be prepared by the chefs the night before." he says.
This way Mike, who is also a chef and sources meat from local farms and suppliers, manages the menu for maximum efficiency and minimum stock wastage.
"The breakfast menu can be made from other ingredients in the evening and lunch dishes. It is a way to move stock on without having to buy additional items."
Indeed, Mike has been a chef for 26 years, and has always had his own businesses, following a short time earlier in his career when he was a teacher. He has worked in New York and his passion for that city and American cuisine has come out in the pub too.
"I let my imagination run wild. The pub provides a journey in terms of its design. You start in Bromley Cross in the First Class station style waiting room, then, as you move through, you head to the next "stop", New York. This is also signposted in the menu, which includes chicken waffle burgers and steak sandwiches later in the day, and the salt beef and smoked salmon bagels in the morning."
And how has the offer been greeted by locals?
"It's early days, we have only just started. But the week before the early morning opening, we had commuters banging on the windows and trying to get into the pub, so the appetite is there."
One thing is for sure: commuters won't have to feel sad walking past the boarded-up pub on their way to work every day. Instead, they can step inside and grab a hot coffee. Heartwarming stuff.
Facts about the Railway, Bromley Cross
- £500,000 refurbishment – jointly funded from Star Pubs and Bars and licensee Mike Hales
- Mike visited New York stations for design inspiration.
- Alongside the commuter food offer, the pub has fish and grilled meats sourced from farms across Lancashire and Cumbria and an extensive choice of vegan dishes.
- Six cask ales on the bar – including ales from local breweries – and Mike is seeking Cask Marque accreditation.