There aren’t many 20 year olds around…

Who would take on a pub with their partner, and we’re pretty sure that Maddie Beaumont & Ben Porter are in a class of their own with what they have achieved over the last 5 years at the Cotley Inn.

As we drop into British Summer Time, it seems appropriate for our next interview to hark back to the halcyon indian summer days of last September, when we sat and interviewed Maddie Beaumont, co-owner of the Cotley Inn, in Wambrook, Somerset.

The afternoon of our interview was sunny and we basked in the rays of the sun as they reached down to the gorgeous terraced seating area that spreads across the front of the pub.

Rachel Collins, our photographer, was with us and both she and I know the pub really well and appreciate the sheer hard work that Maddie and her partner, Ben, have put into creating the destination pub that the Cotley is today.

But let’s first go back to Maddie’s formative years. Born in Tokyo to a Danish mother and an English father, who was pursuing an international career, Maddie’s school days were spent at a boarding school in Taunton. 

By the age of 14, she was working front of house in a pub, so her hospitality experience started early!

Then when it came to Maddie’s choice of University, fate lent a hand and without a definitive reason to go to University, Maddie decided to do some travelling first.  She’d met Ben while she was working at her local pub, and together they travelled to Canada, Europe and then returned home in 2018, with their sights set on a trip to South America.

But things went in a totally different direction when their old pub bosses invited Ben and Maddie to dinner and told them about an opportunity coming up at a local pub, The Cotley Inn.

Maddie takes up the story,

“I’d never really expressed an interest in running a pub ever before. But I thought, what the hell? How hard can it be? Let’s give it a go, and we asked to run it as just Managers for the first year, because at that stage, I was 21. It was a huge financial commitment to kind of jump into something that you don’t want to do. I’d been together with Ben for a couple of years and it was quite a big deal to then live and work with someone, so a year gave us a chance to try both those things out without a huge level of commitment.”

I shared with Maddie, that like her, for me life got too interesting and after I gained my A Levels, I never actually ended up going to University. However, I never felt that it had held me back, in fact it gave me the experience to get roles that put me further ahead than I could ever have achieved straight out of university.

Maddie agreed saying,

“I think that having a strong emotional intelligence actually does you better outside of an academic world and I think I would put much of my success down to having a high emotional intelligence, and being able to articulate myself in lots of different situations and being able to recognise and pick up on lots of different pieces of information.”

That emotional intelligence is probably the thing that really helped Ben and Maddie out when they first took the Cotley Inn on.  Mindful of the local customers, they were careful to include them on the journey to making changes.

Maddie carried on with the story,

“The welcome was the thing that kept us going through the tough times, so we were very keen from an early stage to recognise that actually, we needed to make organic changes and not just go in like a bulldozer.  I think there were a couple of things that limited us, one of them was obviously finances because we just didn’t have the money to be able to do it quickly.

But, most importantly, we needed and wanted to keep everybody on side and making them feel like it was their pub and that they were growing it with us was important.

We both found it so tough in the early days and I wanted to throw the towel in many, many times, but we were determined to make it work. We were working over 70 hours a week and the list of things to do was never-ending!

We had to work out how to make it work and to manage the staff relationships that were in place when we took it over. Then through natural progression, the head chef said he was going on to other things.  I had a total meltdown but Ben was like, “Oh that’s cool, you know it’s probably a good thing, let’s move forward.”

So we did, and our current team dropped into place and they are absolutely awesome.

This is an absolute synopsis of our relationship and why we work so well together, we balance each other perfectly!”

Maddie is also absolutely passionate about changing the stereotype of hospitality being more of a gap year career than a serious option.

“I believe hospitality poses so many opportunities for people.  I think there should almost be a form of National Service in hospitality because you can do so many roles and it teaches you a number of skills.  I want it to be a fun, dynamic and interesting place to work.  It’s long hours, sometimes with anti-social shifts and we’re in quite a remote location, so staff retention is important to us. Despite being a young manager, I’ve learnt that it’s important to give people an input into how the business is run, to be open about the kind of challenges that you’re facing and to reward success.”

It’s obvious that the way that Maddie and Ben run things is working as The Cotley Inn has scooped awards left, right and centre over the past few years, including 2022 Visit England Pub of the Year, 2023 Gold Pub of the Year in the Bristol, Bath and Somerset Tourism Awards, an AA Rosette and 2023 also saw them listed in the Michelin Guide and the Trencherman’s Guide.

Then in December 2023, Maddie herself took the top award in the Women in Food & Drink category at the West Country Women Awards.

Having been to The Cotley quite a few times, I know that the whole team are foodies. They love food, explore food, and they’re really passionate about it, as are Maddie and Ben, and that comes through because they’re really proud of what they do.

I know that Maddie and her team visit their suppliers and know them personally, so I asked her to tell me more about the Cotley’s sourcing policy.

“We try as much as possible to source everything from within 25 miles and we’re really lucky that we have so many good suppliers available locally.  Plus, lockdown provided us with the opportunity to develop a kitchen garden where we wouldn’t necessarily have had the time before. It’s probably not the most financially sound way of doing things, but it’s lovely for the chefs to be able to just go out and pick what they want.  So the financial aspect of it is more than offset by the inspiration that it gives them.

We also raise our own pigs as well, we don’t provide all our own pork but we do what we can and again it inspires new things for the menu.

But I think our most special thing is that we’re an Estate-owned pub, and all of our meat, apart from our poultry comes from the Estate. Our beef and our lamb graze the fields that surround us so our food miles are very low.

Then we champion anything that we can’t do ourselves, our cheeses are all Somerset cheeses, our veg is local whenever possible.  I feel like it’s all a celebration of where we are really and I hope that how passionate we are about it comes through on the menu.”

I can share with you that it’s easy to forget, when you sit and eat an amazing meal at the Cotley and enjoy the fantastic service that you receive, that this has all been created by a really young team in a period of just 5 years.  The Cotley Inn has gone from being a sleepy pub destination to becoming one of THE foodie destinations in the area.  I wanted to understand from Maddie if she ever felt that her young age had ever held her back.

“I think it spurs me on in a sense that I have something to prove to myself, namely that I don’t need to have got the grades and gone to university to be able to operate a successful business. But it also holds me back because sometimes I think that I am not experienced enough to manage the people relationships and suppliers.

I struggled, especially at the beginning, with gaining respect, because everybody that I was working with or speaking to was loads older than me.

When I started out I was 20 and there’s a big difference isn’t there between being 20 and 25? And I guess experience comes as you grow older. But I used to think that they weren’t going to take me seriously, or listen to me as I’m just a kid. What do I know?

That has got better as time has gone on, so I think on the whole, it does spur me on, it excites me that I’ve still got so much of my working life to be able to develop.  You know, five years is actually a relatively short space of time. So what could I achieve in 10 years? 15 years?”

It’s so refreshing talking to someone who is happy to share their vulnerabilities, as well as their successes.  Personally I’ve found that the awareness of the down days and the ability to see a way out of them makes a real difference to how people progress, so I’m keen for Maddie to share advice that someone who hasn’t quite made it yet might find useful.

“I would say, two things:-

1 Don’t overthink it.

2 Personality.

One of the things that I say to my staff is you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to know what everything is on the menu, you don’t have to know every product we sell.

But the way you carry yourself, the way you conduct yourself is part of the way I differentiate our business to others.

Holly very kindly said that this isn’t just a pub and that’s a huge, huge compliment. But that’s all down to personality and being human because humans relate better to humans than they do to robots.

That’s the message really – you don’t have to throw yourself into something, you don’t have to be the font of all knowledge about that specific subject, you can just feel really strongly about something and want to do it. And actually, if you feel strongly enough about something, then you can achieve anything really.”

When Maddie goes on to say that she really wants to create a culture where people feel safe and where they can learn to be the best versions of themselves, it almost makes me want to see if she has any vacancies at the moment, because isn’t that the sort of place that we all want to work?

Just visiting the Cotley makes it clear that it’s a very special place,  Ben and Maddie create an ambiance that encourages people to linger and their talented chefs, kitchen and front of house team all play their parts, delivering a seamless experience that lingers in your mind long after the actual meal has been eaten.

So reluctantly, it’s time for our traditional last question of the interview.  We give our guests friends, family and animals, and ask, outside of them, what one thing is your must-have thing?

I should have guessed what Maddie’s answer would be!

“ Travel!

Travel gives me this sense of freedom and headspace to be able to plan, troubleshoot and strategise.  It makes me feel like the world is my oyster and I can achieve everything. I am a big advocate for travel, for overseas and UK travel to learn about how different cultures and people operate and how different services work.“

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