Sister act: Suffolk's Roxy and Ronnie?

When Maria Linsley decided to run a pub, she knew just who she wanted by her side: little sis.

Steven Russell

When Maria Linsley decided to run a pub, she knew just who she wanted by her side: little sis. And Natalie sacrificed her job to move to Suffolk with barely a thought. Steven Russell called just before opening time

THE sisters have barely got their names over the door of the King's Head and someone's already made the link with the fictional Mitchell siblings who ruled the bar of the Queen Vic in EastEnders. “Everyone at home - friends and family, all sorts - says 'Roxy and Ronnie', looking at all the pictures on Facebook,” grins Natalie Passey. “I was sat there the other night and someone - one of the darts players, I think - said 'Who the heck do you look like . . .? I know! Roxy from EastEnders!' I was like 'Thank you!' She's got fire in her belly; I like that.” Mind you, it was also said she looked a bit like brashy, trashy and troubled Coronation Street barmaid Becky Granger. “I wasn't so happy about that! I think it's just because I'm loud and up for a laugh.”

Having said all that, the new mine hostesses at the Great Cornard pub equate themselves to some different TV characters. “Do you watch Friends?” asks Natalie, with a chuckle. “I'm Phoebe, she's Monica.” The former's an eccentric scatterbrain who is also, somehow, quite together. Monica tends to have moments of control freakery. “Maria deals with the back of house, because that's her area. She's like a regimental officer, and I'm a bit of a private!”

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Er, I'm not so sure about that. I've just watched Natalie lay out the bar-towels in a precise way - centimetre-perfect. “Well,” she smiles, “out here is my comfort zone.”

And - it's too good to ignore - Natalie would rather have her age put down as 28 than 27, because “I'm not very good at odd numbers. I won't sit at tables if they're odd . . . the volume control has to be on an even number . . .” she laughs. “I'm not as bad as Maria. She has to have the same peg colour when she's pegging clothes up on the washing-line.”

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Maria insists being on top of the paperwork is crucial. “I am quite particular about everything being in its place and knowing what's what. At the end of the day I'm running a business and have to have that information to hand. I had everything in piles, but I've just this morning got everything filed and labelled and colour-coded. Just how I like it! I think 'Tidy office, tidy desk, tidy mind.'”

It was relatively recently that big sis decided she'd like to branch out on her own and run a pub. She was working up in Norwich as operations manager for a business-support company that offered services like equipped and staffed offices. With lots of responsibilities on her shoulders, it was logical to think she could use those skills to her own advantage, instead of lining someone else's pockets.

“I found myself at a bit of a crossroads. I'd got a bit of money put by. It wasn't enough for a deposit on a house; it was likely to get spent on holidays and a flash car. I didn't want to waste it.”

She contacted Bury St Edmund-based brewer Greene King and looked at possible pubs. One Friday night in late April she stepped through the door of the King's Head, just outside Sudbury, and knew it was the one. “It just had such a lovely, welcoming, proper-pub feel.”

But what about the risks? Even as we sit here in the bar, chatting, a story is breaking: the British Beer & Pub Association says UK pubs closed at a rate of 52 a week in the first half of the year.

Maria, 43, admits that many landlords she spoke to asked “Are you mad?!” But she's a “glass half full” kind of girl.

“While everyone is feeling the pinch, and while they might not be having their thousand-pound holiday this year, people still find �25 to come to the pub. Of course, it is a bit daunting when you see pubs closing, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time and if I hadn't made the choice to do it when I did, I probably wouldn't have done it.”

Her dad and his wife kept pubs for about 20 years, some of which were Greene King houses, and Maria had had bar jobs. So it wasn't an alien life.

Once she knew the tenancy agreement was hers, there was one dead-cert call to make: to Natalie.

Little sis was working for a recruitment company in Southampton, and enjoying it, but was ready for a geographical move. “I didn't even have to think twice about it. I came up and did the courses” - licensed trade qualifications - “and handed my notice in when I got back.

“So I signed a contract in blood, with the devil,” she laughs. “I'm not allowed to get pregnant, get married, meet anybody, for three years!

“I've given up a full-time job with a good salary, with great prospects. I had everything thrown at me when I left and I stuck to my guns. I wouldn't do that unless I thought it was worth it.”

Natalie shifted her stuff to Maria's place near Bury St Edmunds, they enjoyed an impulsive “we don't know when we'll get another chance” break in Ibiza, and then they moved to the King's Head on July 14 . . . opening that same day.

“Maria was sorting out the business side of things with Greene King and I was getting the bar ready. I looked at the clock and it was 10 to four. It was like 'Oh my life!' But we opened the doors at four o'clock and it was fine. People said 'Are you mad? We didn't think you'd be open until Friday!'”

Maria says she felt a little nervous because it had been a while since she'd physically stood on the business side of a bar, but that sensation faded within seconds - after the first pint was poured. “It feels as though I was meant to do this.”

If we want to split hairs, we should point out the women are technically half-sisters. With near enough 15 years between them, they didn't really grow up together. What with now working together and living above the pub - and with Maria confessing “we're both quite hot-headed” - how do they predict things will turn out?

“We're only a week in, but we still love each other!” laughs Maria. In fact, in the last four or five years they've done a lot together, including regular ski-ing trips. It was on the slopes that they had the one argument of their lives; that was two years ago, was over something completely ridiculous, and was done, dusted and sorted in 20 minutes.

Natalie says: “We live life to the full and are not afraid of risk, and are very spontaneous. My mum says 'I thought I broke the mould with Maria, but then you came along.' We are both very stubborn and dig our heels in.”

But they work well together. “She's my boss, at the end of the day. I leave her to it in the office, because I don't want the responsibility of it, to be honest; I want to concentrate on out here.”

The sisters are united in a belief that customer care is the key to success. “People want to forget work, forget the mortgage, and come in and find a nice welcome, a smile, a bit of chat behind the bar if they want it, and a bit of a laugh, and it makes them relax,” reckons Maria.

With the Bures Road pub home to darts, pool and crib teams, and with some regulars having drunk there for 30 or 40 years, there won't be dramatic changes. King's Head customers were worried the Sky Sports subscription would be scrapped. Ain't going to happen. “Yes, it is expensive, and you're never going to cover the cost of it by what you're selling, but by not having it you are going to lose an awful lot of custom, because they come in 20-, 30-handed to watch the football - and more,” explains Maria.

Quiz nights should have started by now, the courtyard garden will be improved at some stage, live music and karaoke evenings are planned, you'll probably find a welcome on Christmas night, a light menu is on the way, and lunchtime openings are in the pipeline. “We've no children or other commitments taking up our time, so we're here to stick with it,” insists Maria.

Since the age of 16, Natalie has spent most of her life in the catering industry. A spell with the restaurant business T.G.I. Fridays, she says, taught her valuable lessons about customer service. Basically, you wear your smile and look after people.

At the King's Head, for instance, some customers were surprised when she took their beers to the table during a quiet period. “Little things like that go such a long way.” And they're thrilled by a comment about how nice the men's loos smell!

Natalie also worked for the Compass Group as the ration accountant in an Army camp, running three messes. She was also unit manager at a prison, running the prisoners' shop. No-one's going to take liberties at the King's Heads, then! “I'm not a softie. I won't put up with things people might think they can get away with.”

The hours and the graft are also challenges the sisters are taking in their stride. They seem to have cracked - touchwood - the task of cleaning the beer-lines down in the cellar.

“Keg beer is cask-conditioned and you don't have to do much to it; it's the real ale that has its secondary fermentation downstairs, which is why it can be good or bad depending on how you look after it. With IPA, you basically have to keep it cold, keep it still, keep your lines clean,” explains Maria. “Abbot Ale is slightly more temperamental. There only has to be a storm and it can make it go cloudy. And Abbot drinkers are very particular!”

The first Friday brought an early start for the landlady: up at 6.30am ready for the dray delivery about an hour later. That evening was busy, so it was 3.30am the following morning before Maria's head next hit the pillow. “As long as I get six hours' sleep . . . and it's not usually an early start in the pub trade.”

The King's Head has a formal opening on the evening of Saturday, August 8. As well as greeting customers, the sisters will be welcoming an influx of friends and relatives from as far afield as America and Ireland.

They're a very tight, extended clan. “God help anyone who tries to break that,” laughs Natalie, “because it makes us who we are.”

Natalie on Maria: “Focussed, determined, very kind and very generous. She's got a heart of gold. She would walk over hot coals for us, and that's the reason I'm here. And she knows that when she is 'Monica', I'll just do something stupid to make her laugh. She can be quite stroppy, but at the end of the day this is her business and everything has to be right for her”

Maria on Natalie: “Enthusiastic - bags of it; definitely a comedian; and loyal - absolutely loyal”

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