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The Independent Pub

We spoke to owner, William Howell, about his successful six years running one of Brighton’s favourite haunts.

William Howell, The Black Dove, Brighton

The Black Dove is a traditional pub fused with a cocktail bar and a dusty antique emporium. Dimly lit and utterly charming, it’s almost stuck in a 20th-century time-warp.

Perched at the top of the hill in Kemptown, this Brighton boozer is well known among local residents. We caught up with owner William Howell about his successful six years running one of Brighton’s favourite haunts. 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background before running a pub ?

I've always worked in hospitality in one shape or form. From the age of 13 I worked in a number of roles, from working in the kitchen and waitering to being behind the bar when I was old enough. 

I studied hotel and restaurant management at Oxford Brookes, which was a reputable course but I didn't really like the corporate management direction – so I started to instigate community centre events at The Lounge (EOCC) on Cowley Rd.

I ran a couple of Otravida (festival) bars too and moved down to Brighton in 2009 with a view to finding my own place.  

What’s the story behind the Black Dove?

I moved down to Brighton with a big group of friends, as I’m sure a lot of people do – it was a 'visit a friend, fall in love with the place and move down soon after quitting your job’ kind of thing.

I worked in about seven different jobs in as many months to get an idea of the town and to find out where was good, what were people doing, what seemed popular and what could be bettered.

When number 74 St James's Street came on the market I jumped on the lease.

A lot has changed since I first opened. Money was really tight and everything that went into the till in the first 18 months went straight back into the business. 

Within two years I had made all the necessary investments in the cellar and gutting and redesigning the downstairs 'cotch' area.   

What makes a good pub?

In a logistics sense, having areas with a dual purpose is helpful, a good kitchen is an important asset and perhaps a beer/smoking garden. 

With regards to drinks, not being tied to a brewery gives the freedom to tailor your offering.

Personally, I believe in paying attention to the diversity of beers/ciders/spirits and providing the option of professionally made or mixed, or locally sourced, drinks.

A strict stereo with a well curated (subjective!) playlist and interesting ambience and décor also go a long way.

These are all things which will differentiate you from the pub down the road. 

However, the main aspect for me is your staff: looking after them with pay structures, empowering them and motivating them with care, thus giving a sense of job worth. A business is only as good as its staff.

You have such a wide selection of beers and spirits – how do you choose them?

Trialling things out!  I know what sort of beers and spirits I like, and generally that's what is behind the bar. 

I look for high drinkability and consistency of breweries/distilleries. Label aesthetics and locality is important, as is what the customer is looking for at the bar. 

Having the ability to keep things fresh and evolving is an essential part of being an independent 'freehouse' – and not giving into branding, not matter what the portfolio manager is offering.   

What advice would you give to someone thinking about entering the pub trade?

Evaluate the location, competition, management and lease agreement as these will all affect the day-to-day running of the business.

But make sure to have your own input and make it your own. I love what I do – being hospitable always helps!

Melanie Luff

About the author

Mel wrote for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other global industry publications.