Dominic from The Rusty Bicycle, Oxford on how pubs can revitalise communities

A big fan of The Landmark Trust properties, I was excited to find a pub company, aptly named The Dodo Pub Company, that rescued old, rundown pubs and breathed life back into them. Friendly and informal, The Rusty Bicycle was the first of the group to open, serving a focused menu of excellent pizzas and burgers alongside all your classic pub drinks. I got chatting to the manager, Dominic Nolan, about how it all started and what they feel a good pub adds to a community.

SD: How did The Dodo Pub Company come to find The Rusty Bicycle?

DN: Chris Manners, our founder, went to uni in Oxford with the son of a local brewer, Arkells. They were sad to see a lot of pubs round here get turned into blocks of flats, so when this place, then a rundown boozer, came to the end of its tenancy, Chris asked the community what they wanted and took it on with very minimal savings. The community wanted a friendly, welcoming neighbourhood space with good food and drink where women and children could come without feeling threatened, so that’s what we are focused on delivering.

The Rusty Bicycle pub Oxford
The Rusty Bicycle pub Oxford

SD: How did you come to find The Rusty Bicycle?

DN: I studied Biology at Oxford Brookes and after university didn’t really know what to do with myself so started serving food and worked my way up. I worked at The Rickety Press first, while it was a gastropub, and then moved over to manage The Rusty Bicycle later. I’ve been here two and a half years now.

SD: What do you think are the key aspects of running a successful pub?

DN: It’s really the people that make a pub. The product is important, but building good relationships with your regular customers is even more important. There are about 50 people who come here regularly that I know by name. Many of them order the same thing every time – I know immediately what to get them the moment they walk through the door. It’s about making people feel relevant. We do also serve the best pizzas and burgers in Oxford, though I say it myself! They might not be quite as good as the Neapolitans make them, but they’re close. Do what you do well and build good customer interaction – that’s what saves a rundown pub.

SD: How do you think pubs impact on the local area?

DN: Good pubs provide a real sense of community. Personally, I would always check out the local pub before moving into an area. It makes a big difference to have a pub you’d like to hang out in. At The Rusty Bicycle all our regulars intermingle, whether it’s the young mothers meeting over coffee in the morning after dropping the kids off at school, or the office workers joining us for happy hour. There are a lot of students in Oxford, but because the average age in The Rusty Bicycle tends to be higher than in some of the other local pubs, the students tend to be better behaved here.

Local communities can be very powerful. There’s an Italian migrant population in America, called Roseto after the Italian town they came from. The population there doesn’t die from the same things as the rest of the American population. They have such a strong sense of community that they have managed to insulate themselves from many of the pressures of modern life and that has had a real benefit on their overall health. While it’s unlikely that a single pub would have such a direct impact on customer health, I like to think that we provide a friendly bubble and buffer from the pressures of everyday life.

SD: You’re clearly very proud of your suppliers. How much do your customers notice this?

DN: Provenance and animal welfare is important to us, regardless of how much our customers notice it. Customers tend to notice when things are either good or bad. They’ll know when the food isn’t good quality even if they couldn’t tell you why. Sourcing quality ingredients is about making sure you know how and where they’re made. You can’t make good pizzas without good quality Italian ingredients, which is why we source our flour from Naples itself. You can also taste the difference in a high-welfare burger. We have ours made specially for us. Customers may not always pay attention to what they are eating, but they’ll notice if it doesn’t taste right. We get very good feedback on our pizzas, even from Italians, which is very satisfying. We must be doing something right!

SD: How has it been reopening after lockdown?

DN: It’s been great to see people coming back and meeting each other again – people daring to hug each other for the first time in months! We’re operating at just under 50% capacity, but the demand is there. Sometimes we have to turn people away. We’ve put lots of effort into cleaning and we’re gradually getting busier, which I think says a lot about the confidence our guests have in us to keep them safe. We’re also joining the Eat Out To Help Out scheme next week which includes 50% off all food items from Monday to Wednesday.

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