Making scotch eggs isn’t easy. You’ve got to get the eggs the right degree of runny, the meat the right thickness and properly sealed around the egg. They’ve got to be tasty, have the right texture, be the right size, and still have that slightly oozy middle later on when someone’s munching on them in the pub.
Not easy – unless of course you’re a pub landlord who makes them week in, week out for your loyal punters. That’s probably why Graham Proud, landlord of the Seven Stars in Rugby is pretty expert at the old scotch eggs. Whether it’s a traditional one, chorizo, pork and Stilton or even a Christmas scotch egg special, he can turn them out perfectly pretty much every time, bar the occasional reject.
The irony is, Graham has zero aspirations for the Seven Stars to be a ‘food pub’. He’s tried that before in a previous pub and while it went brilliantly, he decided he’d rather run a pub that’s a proper boozer, he tells me as we roll scotch eggs together on a quiet Wednesday morning. The Seven Stars certainly is that – it won Rugby and District CAMRA Pub of the Year three years on the trot and has also been declared Warwickshire pub of the year for two years, as well as coming second in a regional pub of the year award.
Creating great pubs – which the Seven Stars definitely is, from its great ales (so I hear) to a fabulous range of gins, a welcoming, warm space and most importantly, somewhere with a proper ‘pub’ feel – and being a good landlord is something that can take a lifetime. But it’s not something Graham has done his whole life.
He tells me he learned to cook in his youth – his mum was a cook at a factory and was a single parent, so while she was working Graham had to learn to cook. He honed his skills in the Royal Navy before going on to become a lorry driver for nearly 30 years.
“My dad was a truck driver, so was my grandad so it was basically something that ran in the family. I started driving 7.5 tonne trucks to get some money in while my wife had the pub and 28 years later I was still doing it.” His work took him across Europe and all of its various cuisines.
“A lot of lorry drivers will park the lorry up, sit in the lorry all night and not go out. I always used to park up in an industrial area on the outskirts of a town and go out to eat because I could learn the language and also there were people to talk to. I’ve had a million conversations with people I’ll never meet again. I learnt how to speak Spanish because I don’t like some fish. It took me ages to realise that pesci was fish.
“I learnt a lot about food as well. I love German food but I used to try all sorts. I remember there was a chain of restaurants called Buffalo in France. They’re like a steakhouse and they were always in these industrial areas.”
But it was when he hit 50 that Graham had a panic – sparking his change of career.
“I was working in an office looking after trucks because I’d had an operation on my back and couldn’t drive. We had a quietish day and one of the guys asked me how long I’d been doing it and how far I’d driven. I told him I’d done about six days a week – 400 miles a day, sometimes 500. He came back to me in the afternoon and said, ‘I’ve worked it all out – you’ve done seven return trips to the moon or 121 times round the earth and I did it based on 26 years taking account of holidays.’ I went home and said: ‘what have I done? What have I got to show for it?’
That moment took him into the pub business and a pub that he and partner Lisa turned into a huge success, including a top-ranking venue for Sunday dinners. Fast forward to four years ago and the couple took the helm at the Seven Stars, becoming a key player in Rugby’s local pub scene.
“When we first moved in we did get a pushback – it’s what you always get. People who are barred come back, and tell you they run the pub. There’s always a pushback – people don’t like change.”
Graham’s key is to be jovial but be firm. His and Lisa’s aim is to be a drinking pub – a proper boozer – but welcoming to everyone. “When we first took the pub over it was very much a ‘man’s’ pub and we wanted to change that. We wanted it to be a place that ladies could come and feel comfortable too.” That means alongside a wide selection of real ales and lagers, they stock gins and a range of wines.
And then there’s the food. While Graham and Lisa don’t want to be a ‘food pub’, they get that we all love to munch on something when we’ve had a few drinks. Hence the scotch eggs, as well as pork pies and filled baps – plus Pie & a Pint night on a Wednesday and barbecues in summer. The food isn’t just about feeding the punters.
As we watch our creations frying away ready to be served up later to keen customers, Graham – who also makes his own beef jerky, ham and occasionally his own bread – tells me that he sees the kitchen as his happy place. “I love cooking. I always remember the foreward to one of Gino di Campo’s books – he said if you not in the mood for cooking then don’t, because it will go wrong. And I’ve stuck with that. But I do love it and it’s great to get in here and get my eggs made.”
Whether it’s providing the right kind of food to keep people sated without changing the make-up of the punters, or encouraging women into the pub without losing male drinkers, Graham says it’s all about getting the balance right. He could accept any praise for himself, but is keen to point out that it’s his team as much as him and Lisa. “I don’t win the awards. As I say to everybody, I can steer the pub, Lisa can steer the pub but it’s the staff and team who win the awards. People sometimes say, ‘why have you employed them?’ and I say it’s because they’re going to be good. It’s about much more than the ability to pull a pint.”
They’re clearly good at what they do, and are always working to be better, but while they need to be competitive, Graham would rather work with his fellow publicans in Rugby than against them. “I’m not here to shut other pubs down. We’re all here to work with each other. If I was that successful and I managed to shut down the other pubs because everyone came to me, actually people would stop coming to Rugby because there would be less pubs, less of a walkabout. We all work together and bring more people into the town, that promotes Rugby, everybody benefits.”
Those are heartening words to someone who wants to see Rugby take its place as a great Warwickshire town rather than a second-class citizen when it comes to the county’s offering. He also doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk, frequenting fellow independents in Rugby including one of my personal faves – Gallachers Wine Merchants.
For Graham, one thing lockdown did teach people was to appreciate the role independent businesses play in their community. “I think people realised how much independent businesses matter. Whether it be a pub or shoe shop or electrical shop, they realised the big fellas don’t need their money.”
Despite the positives, lockdown has been hard for businesses like the Seven Stars, who were forced to shut at little notice and also didn’t benefit from August’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. “It all happened quickly – we had about three hours to get rid of the beer. They announced we were closing at 5pm and I think we had the busiest night ever. We managed to sell all the real ale but we had to throw away the lager and Guinness, which wasn’t great watching it go down the drain. It was the food pubs I felt sorry for – they had all this food and suddenly had to close. I remember we sat upstairs and couldn’t believe we were upstairs on a Saturday night and watching some telly. We had something like 140 channels and it was awful – I was thinking why do people stay in on a Saturday?”
Since they reopened, they’ve spent a not insignificant sum ‘Covid-proofing’ the pub, from hand sanitisers to screens at the bar, as well as switching to table service and ensuring social distancing. “We spent £1,200 on actually doing all the screens, signs, hand sanitisers, to make it right. But we didn’t want it to look too much like a post office, we wanted it to still look like a pub. The hardest thing is social distancing works when people first come in – three pints in and everyone wants to hug each other. That’s the issue. You end up being a policeman as well as being a landlord but it’s for everybody’s safety.”
Covid-aside, running a pub is more than a full-time job (he and Lisa each do 100-plus hours a week) and far more than pulling pints, making scotch eggs and enjoying a beer with customers. Ask Graham what he gets up to behind the scenes and it ranges from pipe cleaning and maintaining the real ale to unblocking toilets and making sure they’re clean (apparently the ladies’ are always worse than the men’s). “If the staff know we’re upstairs and someone comes in looking for the landlord they’ll come and get me. And even when I am sitting down having a beer with someone, I’m always watching who’s coming in, what’s going on.”
Despite the hard work, you won’t be surprised to hear that he wouldn’t change it for the world. “It’s a way of life, not a job. I wouldn’t change it.”