Farmer turned pub and cafe owner Bryan Jones has brought cheer and solace to his local rural community for many years, most recently with his ‘meals on wheels’ service that has proved to be a lifeline for so many during lockdown. Gaina Morgan reports.
With his thriving pub, the Cottage Inn, and later venture, the Gwili Cafe, gaining popularity at a similar rate, many in Llandeilo and the surrounding rural communities in Pembrokeshire will have experienced a warm welcome from Bryan Jones and his wife, Ainsley.
Bryan and Ainsley have created ‘the sort of places we’d like to go to ourselves’.
Those that serve good, basic, country fare in traditional style - while other outlets locally might serve boeuf bourguignon, they offer beef stew casserole with red wine.
Marking Bryan out latterly has been the pivotal role of his meal delivery service during lockdown this year.
While the service has become a mainstay for many in the community, it has proved to be a particular lifeline for elderly rural folk, the vulnerable, and those who have become isolated during the pandemic - his genuinely affable and caring nature dispelling any notion of shrewd business acumen.
A farmer’s son from Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, Bryan studied at Gelli Aur, Llandeilo, and then at the Welsh Agricultural College, Aberystwyth, in the late 1970s.
There, he says, Professor David Morris was inspirational and decades ahead of his time in terms of producing milk from grass and calving heifers at two years old.
Bryan’s career evolved via dairy farm work and a spell with Dalgetty, where he built up a network of farming contacts from which to launch his own contracting business. This in turn led to his involvement in a 121 hectare (300 acre) dairy farm for some time.
His life now may be very different from his former dairying roles, but farming protocols and principles continue to underpin his attitude to business.
The change in lifestyle was prompted by a near fatal brain tumour that struck Bryan 10 years ago.
The resulting seizures meant he had to stop milking, and he cannot work outside for extended periods now.
Ainsley says: “We took on the pub because the idea was that Bryan would sort of potch about, to keep him occupied - I took a year off work and we thought we’d do a bit of food.
“Between farming, going around the marts, rugby, young farmers and so on, Bryan knows so many people that we thought people would come.
“We put out a sandwich board saying ’we are open’ and by 9pm we had done 27 meals and had 70 people in. It was vertical take-off.”
“I think since we’ve been doing the meals on wheels it’s given me a purpose in life”
Bryan’s working day is now every bit as long as his farming day once was, usually a 14 hour stint.
And clearly Bryan and Ainsley, an NHS executive, who graduated in Business Studies at Cardiff University, have an adroit grasp of number crunching and a flair for anticipating the needs of their customers.
Quality, locally produced grass-fed beef and lamb, including their own home-bred lamb, are the staple ingredients of their ‘no frills’ menu, together with as much locally sourced food as possible, including milk bought from a local farm, together with an impressive range of Welsh craft beers.
The pair run a flock of 40 pure-bred Hill Radnor ewes, together with 100 Hill Radnors crossed with Beltex and Texels over 16ha (40 acres). The pure bred ewe lambs are sold for breeding, while ram lambs and the cross-breds supply the pub and cafe.
Normally, the businesses take two or three lamb carcasses a week, about 100kgs of beef and about 100 steaks.
Bryan says: “We never know what we’ll get for our lamb when we take it from the farm. You can get a good price this week and a bad price next week.
Coming into this [the foodservice] industry, it’s the complete opposite. You have more control over what you can charge for your finished product.
“We serve good food at a fair price. We know the source of all of our meat and the name of the farm who supplied it, and that name goes on the board.
“Our own lamb is supplied most of the time and the beef comes from mid-Wales, pure Hereford or Welsh Black. We usually buy carcasses from the Royal Welsh Show, the Winter Fair, the local fat stock shows, and the Christmas marts in Brecon and Llandeilo too."
His knowledge and experience of the whole supply chain also has a value.
“It’s no good sending me poor beef, because I know,” he says. “I’ve cut out the middleman in terms of buying the beef and lamb.”
Other than in lockdown, the pub is open seven days a week from 9am - when breakfast is served to their bed and breakfast guests - until late, although this has been impacted during the pandemic, together with staff numbers in lockdown which reduced from 22 to nine.
At the Gwili Cafe in Llandeilo’s main street, it’s a different market.
The quaint, rather old-fashioned atmosphere hasn’t changed in decades and appeals to elderly customers, who want smaller portions of good food and is where Bryan’s mantra of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it’ clearly appeals.
And while the bottom line is critical, Bryan cherishes his role in the local community.
He is a recent president of Llandeilo show and now of Cothi Bridge show.
Everyone knows him and he knows everyone.
“We’ve missed the Royal Welsh show this year, people usually stop halfway home to Pembrokeshire for a meal and to end the day," Bryan says.
As he takes his three hour meals on wheels tour of rural homes each day now, Bryan takes the time to stop and chat to his elderly customers.
It essentially involves four minutes a call he says, but invariably customers like to talk as they return the washed plates.
They might recall personal stories of farming in days gone by, or they may want him to change the hour on the clock, or to change a bulb, even sourcing and installing a rotary line for one customer.
It has become a highly prized and growing service, with about 74 customers and the round trip taking in at least 40 houses a day - the £5 hot lunch and £2 desert is chosen by the customer the night before and served on ‘proper white china plates.’
And then there is Bryan’s Facebook page with its menu updates, prices and general food news which also serves as a community ‘voice’.
Local events, deaths, illnesses and tales of old are recorded, often with a gentle humour and a genuine respect for good lives, well lived.
“The brain tumour changed my life completely, up until then I had no patience at all,” says Bryan. “I think since we’ve been doing the meals on wheels it’s given me a purpose in life.
“Ten years ago, they gave me a 25 per cent chance of being here the following day. I go back for check-ups, but I’m still here.”
Testament to their hair work, Bryan and Ainsley won the Countryside Alliance ‘Welsh Pub of the Year’ in 2017.
A deciding factor was the pub’s role in the community, with 48 different clubs meeting there from a wide range of interests.
An award from the rotary club, commending ‘outstanding service to the Llandeilo community during the Covid-19 pandemic’ is also proudly displayed.
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