“Re-opening in July, we’d worked out we’d lose £60,000 by the end of the year.”

Michal and Emma-Jayne outside The Thimble

Perfectionism

As we begin the interview, sitting outside the pub in glorious sunshine, Emma-Jayne is looking at her watch, aware that Michal has to deliver the pub’s daily meal to an elderly couple who live a few doors down. In the end it’s decided it’s better he goes before we start talking. Throughout our conversation, she pops up to receive deliveries and tell people turning up in the car park that she’s really sorry, they’re closed – which I can see she genuinely is.

Emma-Jayne and Michal’s Story

EJ: Well, normally we have the gate locked so it’s obvious. And I hate it when people have taken the time to get out their cars…

I ask her to tell me about their neighbours.

EJ: Mr and Mrs J, they’re a lovely couple, late eighties, early nineties? They used to come in once a week, but over the year we’ve been here, I’ve noticed them aging; and not in the best way, bless ‘em. I knew that Vickey had been delivering food to them, but once lockdown eased and things were getting back to normal, their sons (who live away) were struggling to get care workers. So they asked if we could feed them. Which we do, every day, at twelve thirty, although they’re always surprised when we turn up.  Sometimes I’ll worry they’ve not drunk that day and make them a cup of tea as well.

Michal reappears and I ask how they met. 

EJ: In 2013, when we were working in a big wedding and hotel venue. When I had Lily, I wanted to be with her in the daytime, so I got a job in the evenings working behind the bar. I grew up Bridport, where my mum used to have a drinkers’ pub, and hated living above it. So it’s funny that this is what I’ve ended up doing.

Lily blowing dandelions

Michal came along after a couple of years and originally we didn’t get on. He’s quite an oddball – a man of few words. Half a bottle of vodka changed my mind. Or it might have been even a whole one.

M: And it was gin.

I ask Michal how long he’s been in England.

M:  Thirteen years. I am originally from Poland, where I trained as a chef. For me, it’s the same as everywhere. I moved out from home at 14. I spend lots of time abroad. Five years in Holland. 

EJ: But you didn’t like England when you first moved here? Say where you started working.

M: I was working in Butlins. (I never do find out his feelings about it). 

EJ: Once we became a couple, three years ago, it was getting harder, working together. We could work 15 hours and not see each other, so we decided to do something ourselves.

Getting our own pub was a really big move but initially didn’t really seem it. It all felt very comfortable, especially as Michael has 25 years in hospitality, and by then I’d had eight. 

We decided to go with Palmers because Mum was with them and they’d looked after her through two recessions, helping her out with paying her rent. But initially we were looking for totally different places, according to what we could afford. It was Palmers who told us they had the perfect pub for us – not even on the list – but we’d never have considered it as it was so out of our price range.

But they obviously saw something in us and said, ‘Don’t even worry about the money; we’ll sort that out later. Just start making some and we’ll talk again, 12 months down the line.’ 

But still, it was scary at that point. We’d gone from being in safe, comfortable jobs, very well looked after and earning good money, to coming here and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t even think we can afford it.’

We moved in on the 4th June and opened on the 5th. Our first summer was busy, but we didn’t feel we’d put our stamp on everything – earned our own reputation. Then Christmas was really good, even though I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to it. It was our first where in theory we wouldn’t have to work, and we’d been looking forward to family time. But as it got nearer we decided we’d have to open – just do a couple of hours. 

And it was the most fun ever! It was just me behind the bar, so I got Michal to come and help, because there must have been 150 people, all local. And I poured myself a gin and tonic and said, ‘Cheers’ to everyone – and I just loved it. You know, it made me feel like a proper landlady. 

By February, Palmers were still very relaxed about the money, but because the bank balance was beginning to look quite healthy – we were doing around 100 servings a day – we were like, right, let’s just pay them off. So we paid a big chunk of it, and then in February we paid off nearly all the rest, plus our £25,000 tax bill. And then everything Covid kicked off and we were like, ‘Sugar, what have we done?’ Especially as they hadn’t asked. But we’re the kind of people who don’t like to owe money.

M: We had so many events fully booked. Murder Mystery Nights, all the pudding clubs.

EJ: That last week, when Boris advised everyone not to go to the pub, but didn’t tell us to actually close, was probably the worst. Because from a personal point of view I felt I should be doing my thing for the public and closing. I kept saying to Michal, this feels wrong. Every time somebody elderly came into the pub I’d go into the kitchen and say, ‘There’s a ninety-year-old lady out there, she shouldn’t be here.’  I know it was business – she and another person ate and spent £60/70 – but morally it didn’t feel right. 

We just wanted the government to hurry up and tell us to close so that the decision was made. A few pubs around Dorchester were beginning to, but we couldn’t afford to unless it was official. 

So that last five days was horrible; really quiet, because people were stopping coming in, so part of us was relieved when he finally said, ‘Right, pubs 11 o’clock tonight, close your doors.’ But he only announced that at five o’clock – we were both sat down with the laptop, ready, because there’d been a lot of leaks that it was what he’d say – and we had quite a lot of people in the pub. It was a Friday evening, when a lot of people would finish work and come in for a drink, sat at the bar. And I just burst into tears. Her voice wobbles.

Ahh, it makes me feel funny now. It was horrible, wasn’t it? We were just like, Oh my god. But then the phone starts ringing. And, bear in mind, me and Michal didn’t have time to have a conversation about it. We had family, customers calling. And I didn’t want to be rude, but we hadn’t had time to digest it and I just couldn’t talk about it.

So whoever I was working with, I was just like, ‘I can’t work any more. Can you pour me a glass of wine and I’m going to sit over there – with the locals.’ But then I was like, ‘Please don’t talk to me, please don’t be nice to me or you’ll just set me off again’. It was a mixture of relief and heartbreak.

M: I’m the numbers person, so I knew that we could easily stay closed until September. 

EJ: Especially as we’d made the right decision by going to speak to Palmers – they’ve been amazing. We only had to start paying rent again on 1st September – even though we were still trading and taking money. And those four months won’t get added on either. We’ve felt utterly supported by them.

For us, lockdown was weird. Because obviously from a business point of view it was the worst thing that could possibly happen – nine months into our first year of trading. But from a personal point of view it was so good. We loved it.

As a chef, for years Michal has worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, which has meant it’s been so hard to see, Olivia, his daughter. 

Michal and Olivia

M: She’s thirteen, so her time off is weekends, which is always my busiest time.

EJ: So lockdown meant he spent the most time he’d spent with her in years. Six weeks, in total. And there’s enough of an age gap between her and Lily which means they get on really well. 

M: ‘Although she’s not a village girl.’

EJ: Yeah, how many times did we get told that? Michal’s quite a nature guy, pointing out different trees and flowers, and she’d just say, Yeah, I’m really not a village girl.’  It was brilliant though, the walks we did. Since coming here we hadn’t even walked up the lane. People would always ask where the good walks are, and I’d have to say, ‘Well customers have told me… One day, when it was just Michael and I, we walked for a whole day.

M: 15 miles.

EJ: And we did puzzles. I didn’t realise how much I love a jigsaw puzzle. We’d all be sat on the floor, doing them – I was obsessed. And Zoom quizzes – like every family done.

I ask how long they had before they started working again.

EJ: Well, on the Saturday morning I think we had a hangover; as I think we’d just thought drink is the answer. But actually we were quite busy, weren’t we? We were like, right, we need to get the pub into hibernation mode and we still didn’t have time to think about much. Michal was straight away freezing stuff down in the kitchen. We sold off boxes of veg and we boxed up things for our staff as we were worried about them. We thought, at least we could give them some food to tie them over.

M: I think people was like still calling us and asking when we gonna open again. And we had no idea. Everyone thought it was going to be a like a two, three weeks thing. 

EJ: That was hard. It was like you’re watching the news, just like we are. We don’t get any secret information. For the first week I spent quite a lot of time chatting to anyone who called, but I have to admit I got a bit shorter as time went on. And we did have some real depressive days. We’re used to getting up, getting dressed, coming downstairs and straight away, nine o’clock, getting ready for the day. The pub was so quiet and looked so sad. Because normally there’s flowers and candles on the tables. 

After four weeks we decided to start doing take-aways, which meant that Michal started working even harder than he usually does.

M: Wednesday all day (potatoes for chips); Thursday and Friday and then part of Saturday. Just to do food for two hours on Friday and then some cold stuff on Saturday morning. I was doing around 100 fish and chips, and for the Father’s day we did 140 roasts. There wasn’t much profit in it. Normally we make around 50% on food, but, for instance, for the Father’s Day we worked all week for £300.

EJ: We might not have made much money, but it didn’t feel we were doing it purely for philanthropic reasons – although when we started getting feedback we realised how important it was to the village, and beyond. People were coming from Weymouth for their fish and chips, just because they wanted to support us, and local people would email us to apologise if they weren’t going to buy a takeaway. But for selfish reasons we did it because it gave us something to do, a purpose other than just pottering around.

I’ve always known that Michal is a hard grafter. Even when we didn’t see eye to eye I always respected that every single plate of food he sent out would be perfect. He really does care. Sometimes, if an order went slightly wrong and he’d forgotten the veg or something (because we liked to put things in different containers, to keep it all looking nice), he’d go round to the person’s house to deliver it. 

M: Oh, I got so much grief about that stuff. For weeks. I remember one time we’d sold 60 cheese cakes and we couldn’t get any mascarpone, as nothing was coming out of Italy. So I went to Tesco to buy lots of small ones.

MJ: Perhaps we’re both perfectionists… Because even in a world pandemic we wanted everything to be spot on!

Also, it’s not all about the money. When we opened again in July, Michal had worked out that, because we could only have 12 tables indoors, we’d lose £60,000 by December.

M: I’m the worry person. Emma-Jayne just say, I wanna do that. 

EJ: But we’re actually doing okay – the weather has helped as people have been able to eat outside – but things will begin to slow down over the winter, and I’m worried about Christmas. This time last year we were fully booked, and so far I’ve only taken one booking – which I’m not even sure I’ll be able to fulfil as the group’s too big. 

And I still sense a national nervousness. We’ve had people eat in the rain rather than come inside. It’s young and old – age doesn’t make a difference. 

Lockdown for me meant that we got to see where we live, and we now feel a real part of the community. Plus Michal got to spend proper time with Olivia. But no, we’re not glad it happened. When we see what’s happened to friends in the trade, we know we were the lucky ones. Wedding venues like our old hotel have had their business decimated. People who’ve had pubs for 35 years are having to start again from scratch.

When we originally came here we had a five-year plan: to make as much money as we could then buy our own place – either a restaurant or a pub. Of course we’d always first ask Palmers their price would be to sell The Thimble to us. But we know they’d never do that.  

Now, how Covid19 has changed our plans is that, whatever else we do, we’ll try and buy a house in Piddlehinton. We’re part of the community now, on a personal as well as professional level, and we absolutely love it. 

M: And from now on we close the pub on Mondays, and go walking.

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