Claire Brooks – Walnut Tree Shades

The Walnut Tree Shades in Norwich is described as “your local in the heart of the city”, offering great food and drinks, and its weekly line-up of live music will return. We recently caught up with landlady Claire to see how things were going there, and what the future holds in terms of the return of live music at the Walnut Tree Shades.

Hello Claire, hope you are well and the business is going okay. Let’s start with a brief introduction – tell us a bit about the business now and a brief history and who’s involved…

Well, I’ve been here as landlady for just over 10 years now. We have worked really hard at pursuing the brand of the Walnut Tree Shades as a music venue, and one of the best live music venues in Norwich City Centre.
The previous landlords prior did music here too, so it has been a live music venue for over 35 years. The pub itself dates back to 1830, although we assume it was here a bit longer as we have a 16th-century beam in the building.

Everything was going really well, we just signed a new contract back in January and were looking forward to another 5 years here, and then obviously everything went a little crazy…

Much like us, live events are a big part of your business, but how important are live events for you and what do they do for your business?

It’s the key thing we’re known for! Even though technically we are a pub, we usually have live music four to five times a week. A lot were covers bands, but there were some original bands, and we had some acoustic evenings as well. It tends to be a starting point for a lot of the musicians to go onto bigger venues or maybe be the next Steve Tyler or Mick Jagger! It can be a big thing for them, but from our point of view, music is what we’re all about, and without the live music we’ve lost the bulk of our trade.

I can imagine, but have you managed to organise any events, if not what do you think the future holds for events?

It’s all completely new territory now. Where we used to have bands in our bar area, it’s just not feasible to do that. If we were to put a band on at the moment, even with our current guidelines allowing certain things, we would lose half of our bar area and as opposed to being a standing venue, we have to be seated; and playing to an audience of 12 people isn’t viable, unfortunately.

However, we are looking at different ways of doing things and tonight we are actually having our first comedy evening. We used to have comedy evenings previously, but we are doing our first seated and ticketed event upstairs. Following on from that, we are holding two intimate gigs with a soloist and a duo, both on Friday evenings. This is big thing for us, because we didn’t regularly have small acts, it was always about three, four or five-piece bands. To suddenly be changing what we’re known for is quite scary! But we’ve got to adapt and do something different. I’m hoping our plans will work, and it will pave the way for music to continue here in the foreseeable future. Unless there is no social distancing, unfortunately having a full band is not something we can consider.

Sounds great – how has the response been?

Yeah, the comedy evening is sold out and we are in the process now of advertising the next one. We have only literally just released the information for the new intimate sessions, and I’ve got people interested already.

Are the performers contacting you or are you seeking them out?

Firstly, I have spoken to everyone who has played here previously to let them know what the situation is as I did not want anyone to be upset their bands aren’t being offered gigs. But I also gave them the opportunity to come back to me about doing something on a smaller scale, so some have come back and said they might be interested.

We are going to look at how the first two events go, figure out what works and what doesn’t work – because until you actually do it, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve missed something, and you could find a better way to do it. The seating plan we have set-up is suited to the current social distancing regulations, however once we have seen how it actually works, we might find slightly better ways of doing it. We might even be able to hopefully find ways of potentially having more people in; but it’s better to start with smaller numbers to see how it all works and whether we’ve got it right in the first place.

Yes, that sounds sensible. In terms of Covid-19, it’s obviously been tough on us all but how has the pandemic impacted on your business in particular– has it been easy getting people back in or is it still a bit slow?

We have been really lucky; we’ve got a really loyal base of local musicians and regulars that come in. Even if it’s not for what they would usually come to us for before, they are coming to us and trying to put a few pennies in the pot and trying to keep us open because they are hoping we will be back to what we were one day. Without them, ultimately we wouldn’t be surviving, if it weren’t for our loyal customer base we wouldn’t be here.

I’ve been very surprised at how well we’ve actually done since we’ve reopened. Even though we are essentially down to 15% of our capacity, people keep coming back to us. It’s a key thing, if they’re going to have a night out; they’ll come to us because they hope we’ll be able to put events on again. The response when I’ve been talking to them about the new ideas and things that we’re doing, they really like them and they can see that we’re being proactive. I don’t know if they’d be quite so keen to come in as much if we were just sitting here and not doing anything.

It gets harder though as the weather gets colder. While it was warm it wasn’t so bad, there were quite a lot of musicians that would still come down on the various nights that they’d come in usually, even if just to have a chat with each other. But now it’s colder, they are not so keen, and not everybody wants to come and sit inside either, so that makes it difficult.

That said, what measures have you put in place to ensure the safety of your staff and your customers due to Covid-19?

From day one of reopening we have had all the measures in place. Including table service, face coverings, sanitiser stations and more, so when things have changed, those were things we had already put in place. Therefore most of the things that have altered haven’t had major impacts to us as we were already doing them, but trying to find a new way to entertain customers has been quite a hard task.

What, in your opinion, gives you an edge over your competitors, and what do you offer that makes you unique?

We are trying to find a way to adapt with the new regulations, and all the people that are supporting us know that I’m very Covid conscious, making sure it’s a safe environment and I think that’s a big thing for the customers. They know when they come to us it’s a safe environment and that we take it seriously. That’s not to say that other venues don’t, but I think that there are different levels of how people adapt to these things and because we had all the measures in place from day one, that has made people feel safe.

Have you had any positive developments against the adversity?

We have had some new customers coming in. It’s really hard to pinpoint why, I think in some cases,people just like going to pubs so they see one that is open and they’re like ‘right let’s go and have a drink and see what they’re like’. That sounds crazy, but because everybody has been working on different opening hours as well, sometimes people have had to go to different places to where they would normally go, as their usual venue might not be open. And vice versa! We have had different opening hours ourselves (currently it is Monday-Saturday from 12 noon until 9.30pm) so I know some of my customers have said they’ve gone and tried other places as well. But they’ve come back, so that’s a definite plus! When we reopened initially, we weren’t opening in the afternoon, but because of the curfew we’ve adapted that and a lot of people have been pleased we’ve opened again in the afternoons.

We’ve also concentrated on trying to do more with our food menu. We’ve always done food, but prior to Covid-19, it was only 5% of our business. Which no one quite realised how little it was in comparison, but that’s how successful we were as a music venue. We’ve been working on doing more with the food menu though, to try and encourage people to come in and hopefully spend a few more pennies because there’s something to eat as well. It all helps! Obviously if any of the regulations change, this may be quite vital to our business, so a lot of our regulars have been trying the food as well which has been really nice because they hadn’t necessarily done so before, or even realise we did food, so we’ve extended the times on that. When we have got things on like the acoustic evening, if they want to, we have suggested coming down a little earlier and maybe trying something to eat a bit before, which wasn’t really viable to do often previously since we were so busy.

Lastly, to wrap up – tell us why you love what you do and what would you like to say to the community/customers?

The Walnut Tree Shades is my baby! I love it as if it were my child. I love live music too, so when the opportunity arose 10 years ago to run, in my opinion, one of the most iconic venues in Norwich, I was very excited. I could see myself being able to run the place and run it well. It took a long time to get established, but we did.

I’ve got to be honest; I do miss that aspect of having bands in nearly every night of the week. But I love the fact we have such loyal customers and most of those customers are like friends now. We have a proper family feel to the Walnut Tree Shades; it’s not just a pub or music venue. I always describe it as your local in the heart of the city, because that’s how it feels to me. I’m very thankful that we have such great, I say customers, but a lot of them are friends. Very thankful for that and all the musicians we’ve met along the way. We’ve met so many interesting people.

If you run a pub or music venue, you have to love doing it. If you don’t love doing it, you’re in the wrong trade because it is a way of life. Our way of life might be slightly different now to what it was, but there’s definitely hope and new ways around it. For example, we had a music quiz the other evening and one of the guys played some of the questions on his guitar, and it was great. It actually gave the feel of what the Walnut has always been about again. Even though it was in a completely different scenario, but it felt like the Walnut again.

After conducting the original interview with Claire, I have had a quick catch up to see how the Comedy night went. Claire said said that it was a success. “Everything worked really well, everyone was happy, the seating plan worked and they have already sold tickets for the next event, plus people have started booking for the other events”.

Upcoming events include: Friday 30th October – Chris James, Friday 6th November – Mister Pink, Tuesday 3 November – Tree House Comedy with David Alfie Ward (and Micah Hall supporting) and hopefully more events to come. Tickets and safety measures apply.

For more information or tickets visit facebook.com/walnut.treeshades.7 / thewalnuttreeshades.com.