Stepping up to the rural challenge in The Vines, Saltmills, Co. Wexford

How to survive and thrive in a small rural village where all the shops and businesses have closed is a question many publicans ask themselves. If you’ve been running the pub for years how do you change your offer to attract and retain new customers?

Pictured are owners, Tom and Lorainne Walsh, The Vines, Saltmills

The Vines in Saltmills, Wexford, is one such pub. Tom Walsh, along with his wife Lorraine, is the fourth generation in his family to run the pub, which would be well-known locally as Cleggs. The village has perhaps 200 people living there so the focus for Tom and Lorraine is picking up business from visitors to the nearby Tintern Abbey along with locals from outside Saltmills.

While the village is quiet, The Vines is well situated with sea views and over the past three years Tintern Abbey has done great work creating tourist trails and walking tours that have drawn large numbers of people to the area. One of the trails passes the pub.

Walkers would stop at the pub looking for food. Tom and Lorraine knew developing a food offering was crucial to the pub’s future success but a lack of kitchen facilities and little space to build a kitchen meant they were stuck.

“We knew food was the next step for us but with no space to build a kitchen we decided to explore the food truck option,” says Lorraine. “It took months to find a suitable van and someone that could undertake the conversion but eventually we found a guy in Galway who could do the job. We worked closely with the HSE to ensure we are fully compliant.”

The food truck, which is located in a spacious beer garden to the back of the pub, was launched in late July to tremendous success. “The fine weather certainly helped but we were surprised at how popular it’s been,” says Tom.

The food offering is relatively simple – pizza and wraps – as the tourists stopping by are generally looking for something light to eat.

While hitting on the idea of a food truck, the couple also decided to extend the pub’s floor space by building an extension. Open since May, it is a cleverly designed space that is a natural extension to the original pub but also has its own character through use of glass and fixed canopy. The impact was immediately apparent, not just with the increased capacity, but with extra party bookings.

“Previously, we might take four bookings a year for parties but now with word of mouth, the bookings are flooding in,” says Lorraine. “We also found that a younger crowd who in the past avoided the pub are now happy to meet up in the new extension.”

The Vines also has an outdoor children’s’ play area. “We see that families are staying longer now. Before we started the food truck they would have to move on to get the children fed but now they’re happy to stay,” says Lorraine.

A live band plays every Sunday, which proves hugely popular, particularly during the summer when it performs in the beer garden.

One interesting point Tom and Lorraine made about their recent expansion was the fact banks were not interested in funding a loan. “None of them wanted to work with us,” Lorraine. “In the end, we secured micro finance from the local enterprise office.”

For any publicans wary of banks, it could be an avenue worth exploring.

Like many other rural areas transport is a big concern. They benefitted from a Local Link service for a period but has now ceased. They will examine transport solutions sometime in the future but, in the meantime, Tom and Lorraine are looking forward to a busy autumn.