Pub with ‘secret’ cinema and smokehouse is now selling wood-fired pizzas
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Jane Palmer is perhaps one of the most enthusiastic publicans I’ve ever met.
“I can be a bit too much,” she tells me, laughing, as we chat about her freehouse, The Oyster Inn, on Suffolk’s Heritage Coast at Butley.
In my opinion, stoic, can-do, bubbly Jane has the perfect demeanour for running a pub. For her, ‘the local’ is an essential part of British life. Something to be honoured, celebrated...and preserved.
Which is why, despite naysayers, who possibly thought the death knell had rung for rural inns during Covid, she’s standing her ground, finally fully opening her doors with ‘proper hours’ for the first time since the lockdowns began.
And with lots of great things on the horizon – including freshly-made wood-fired pizza, cinema nights, an ice cream takeaway, quizzes...even a free shuttle service.
Jane has a long history in the hospitality trade. Classically French trained, she went on to teach chefs in further education. And she ran a pub in the Cotswolds while raising three young children.
In recent years, Jane’s partner founded a print company at Bentwaters, with the pair commuting over 90 miles each way, every day, from Essex to run the business.
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It was the first time she’d been to Suffolk. And an epiphany.
“I was like, why are we going to Suffolk? We’re in Essex. Then we came up here and I thought ‘wow’. It’s amazing. The Orwell Bridge became like the Yellow Brick Road for me.”
The couple commuted for four years, and decided eventually to take stock and make a move to the county.
“I had a meeting at this pub [The Oyster Inn] and I thought it was lovely. I gave them my phone number and said if they ever needed a hand behind the bar, to give me a call.”
And then a couple of years later, it came up for sale.
“I said to my partner, I’m just going to have a look. He’d told me he didn’t want to run a pub or be involved in a pub,” she chuckles.
“This sounds corny, but when I walked through the garden I could hear people laughing. It gives me goosebumps now just thinking about it. I got a feel about the place. Then I went back to the office and he was like ‘Oh God’.”
After a bit of soul-searching Jane took the plunge to buy The Oyster Inn a week later, with a view to open on Valentine’s Day 2020 – a date held off by licensing delays.
Just before the official opening day arrived, Boris made his first official lockdown announcement. Which was utterly devasting. Being a new business, there was no grant or furlough support available for the fledgling business.
“We didn’t for a minute think they wouldn’t let anyone out for months,” Jane reflects. “We had full fridges and a full bar.”
Remarkably, despite the financial repercussions for her family, Jane and the team (including two of her sons) ploughed ahead, doing everything they could to support local people in need.
“I said to the boys, let’s open a shop. There used to be one here. So we could sell fruit and veg, and fresh bread – everything we could get our hands on. And we delivered welfare packs and hot and cold food, all free of charge. No questions asked.”
At the height of lockdown, the pub was delivering 500 free food packages a week, with help eventually coming from the local council for packaging (which Jane had been financing with her savings), and a couple of staff members from Woodbridge School carrying out deliveries.
“In particular we couldn’t have done it without Woodbridge Greengrocers, who gave us produce that was going out of date.”
The pub has been open in trickles since restrictions lifted, but the early May bank holiday weekend is the first time in two year’s Jane has been able to commit to opening “properly”.
She’d been reticent to expand beyond the few hours she’d been operating in winter and early spring. “It’s harder now. During lockdown we had a captive audience with the shop and selling fish and chips,” Jane reflects.
But, onwards and upwards.
The Oyster Inn’s 21-seat cinema relaunches this weekend. It’s more like a relaxed front room, the landlady tells me, explaining it’s set up with sofas and beanbags, and can be used for chilling out at any time, hired for private events, or enjoyed when they have a screening.
The pub now has a smokehouse – preparing its own smoked salmon, ribs, brisket and chicken.
And Jane’s youngest son, Harry, is in charge of the two Italian wood-fired pizza ovens, housed in what was the shop. From the weekend, customers will be able to order pizza from the window to take away, or eat in the pub or its garden.
An ice cream truck is coming this summer, plus Airbnb accommodation and...perhaps a summer music festival.
The Oyster Inn’s menu is short, unfussy, and freshly prepared. “We do a curry on Tuesdays – we call it Ruby Tuesday,” says Jane. “Wednesday is quiz night, and we always offer food, sometimes lasagne, other times pizza. On Thursdays we have pizza and chicken and waffles. And Fridays we open as a fish and chip shop, with classic fish and chips, mussels, oysters, fish pie, hot smoked salmon fishcakes – you name it.”
Homemade pub food such as gammon, egg and chips is dished up on a Saturday. And if you want Sunday lunch, booking in advance is a must.
“We only do 30 covers for lunch on a Sunday. The kitchen’s tiny and I want everything to be fresh. I don’t want roast potatoes sitting around keeping hot for hours. We cook to order. We’re just trying to be the best we can be.”
All the desserts are plant-based, and Jane has opted to make as many items as possible gluten-free.
Being a freehouse, beers change regularly and include a mix of local and national brews. And Jane’s proud of the pub’s range of low alcohol and no alcohol drinks. She’s got quite the selection of beers and spirits.
“It’s a massive market. Most people have to drive to us so it makes sense to offer them alternative.”
Going the extra mile, in what appears to be true ‘Jane fashion’, the publican will soon start a shuttle service for anyone who wants to partake in the boozier section of the bar. Free lifts within a 10-mile radius will be available, with the pub calling revellers the following day, arranging to pick them up to retrieve their car.
This is just one of the measures Jane has put in place to help keep the Oyster alive.
“If you don’t diversify, you’ll become extinct,” she says, adding. “No matter what happens this year, we’ll remain a pub in some form or other. I love this pub. For the first time, I feel at home.”
The Oyster Inn is open from Tuesdays from 5pm, Wednesdays to Saturdays from 12noon to 3pm, and from 5pm to close, and on Sundays from 10am to 4pm.
Find The Oyster Inn Butley on Facebook.