Jade Wright of Cheshire Life finds The White Horse country inn alive and kicking thanks to entrepreneur Gary Usher, his Elite Bistros team, crowdfunding supporters and the people of Churton.

'At every step of the process, the villagers have helped Gary and his team to transform the tired old pub into somewhere fresh and modern'

When villagers spotted a scruffily dressed man peering in through the windows of their deserted local, they feared the worst.

‘I was dressed like I am today,’ explains Gary Usher, the energy behind Elite Bistros, the North-West-based chain of restaurants. On the day we called, he was wrapped up against the cold in a beanie hat, plaster-splattered clothes and long-suffering boots.

Chester and District Standard: Before – the beer garden. Elite Bistros/ Gary UsherBefore – the beer garden. Elite Bistros/ Gary Usher

A year ago, chef and entrepreneur had popped down to take a look at the empty White Horse on Chester Road in Churton. Like more than 2,000 other pubs across England and Wales, it called its last orders before lockdown, leaving regulars without a place to socialise when the hospitality industry emerged post-Covid.

‘My mum and dad live locally and I love the site, so I was having a good look through the windows when Kevin (Mountford), one of the guys who lives nearby, came and asked me if I needed any help.

‘It was that kind of “can I help you?” where I worried he thought I was trying to rob the place.’

But Kevin was concerned about something much more sinister than burglars.

‘They thought a developer might buy it and turn it into flats,’ explains Gary. ‘They were worried it would be demolished and the community would lose its meeting place.

‘Kevin told me they’d registered it as a community asset and they were thinking to maybe try and buy it between them. I backed off straight away. If that was their plan, I’d wish them luck, but they asked about our other venues, and said that as long as it was staying a pub, they were happy, and they gave me the all research notes they’d put together.’

Chester and District Standard: Man at work: Gary Usher. Elite Bistros/ Gary UsherMan at work: Gary Usher. Elite Bistros/ Gary Usher

Inspired and encouraged by the villagers' support, Gary turned to people power, something he’s no stranger to. Over the years he had successfully crowdfunded more than £700k through Kickstarter with 7,000 backers. The original plan was to open the pub last year, offering shares in Elite Bistros via the Seedrs platform. But Gary and his team quickly changed their minds, cancelling the process and going back to what they knew best – a Kickstarter with a more modest target, which would mean doing a lot of the work themselves.

This offered potential customers the chance to buy their meals in advance, putting cash in upfront so Elite Bistros could finance the White Horse refurbishment. A £50 pledge bought a voucher for lunch for two in any of the group's s restaurants, while £2,500 would cover a dinner party at home for 10 guests, with a private chef for the night; 1,300 backers paid in almost £225,000, to invest in a new kitchen, beer pumps and furnishings to bring the pub back to life.

With a relaxed country inn feel, where dogs and families would feel welcome, the new venue would offer 65 covers plus a bar and beer garden. It was clear from the start that opening a new venue during a cost-of-living crisis would present challenges, so economising was key to the project’s success.

‘We’ve got stuff from charity shops. The Hospice of the Good Shepherd charity shop has been a great place to find things and Facebook marketplace has been brilliant, the lights in the conservatory all came from there,’ he explains, gesturing at the pub’s elegantly mismatched furniture and fittings.

Chester and District Standard: Chef/restaurateur/jack of all trades: 'Ive learnt that I’m best sticking to the unskilled stuff. Smashing things up, sweeping and getting rid of rubbish are about my level,' says Gary. Elite Bistros/ Gary UsherChef/restaurateur/jack of all trades: 'Ive learnt that I’m best sticking to the unskilled stuff. Smashing things up, sweeping and getting rid of rubbish are about my level,' says Gary. Elite Bistros/ Gary Usher

‘That wallpaper was £18.50 from B&Q. Other venues have interior designers and paper at £300 a roll, but I think this looks OK.’ And then there are the coat hooks. ‘These are really important to the ethos here,’ says Gary. ‘In our bistros, when you walk in, someone will always ask if you’d like your coat hanging up. Here, it’s more casual, you can hang your coat up if you want, and there are loads of hooks dotted round everywhere to make that easier.

‘Not to be too Manchester Northern Quarter about it. But they’re made out of scaffolding planks and some old hooks we found.’ Each set looks like it’s been painstakingly painted.

‘I am the worst painter,’ he laments. ‘I’ve had a go at pretty much every trade here, and painting is probably my worst skill. I say “skill”, but really I’ve learnt that I’m best sticking to the unskilled stuff. Smashing things up, sweeping and getting rid of rubbish are about my level.

‘If I’d have paid someone to do all the clearing up, it would have cost a fortune, so I’ve done it myself, and I’ve enjoyed it.’

For the trades, he’s had an army of willing helpers. The villagers who had planned to buy the site were keen to see how it would look with Elite Bistros in charge, and came to offer support.

‘When we started on site, I used to come in every morning and it was pretty overwhelming,’ says Gary. ‘I wasn’t really sure where to start. Matt Shaw (Elite Bistro’s managing director) and I were trying to do it by ourselves. Lots of local people came and offered to help. I think I was being a bit British about it. I’d say, “thanks so much but I think we’re fine”.

Chester and District Standard: Head chef Josh Robbins back up a treat. Elite Bistros/ Gary UsherHead chef Josh Robbins back up a treat. Elite Bistros/ Gary Usher

‘But we definitely weren’t fine. That must have been obvious.

‘One day, my neighbour Paul (Dearden) called round and asked if he could help. He said he was semi-retired and offered to give us a hand. I thanked him – it was a massively kind offer – but I couldn’t accept.

Matt asked me why I wasn’t letting anyone in. I thought about it and realised maybe he was right. This was their pub and if they wanted to have a hand in shaping it, they should be able to. Plus we really needed their help.’

The next day, Paul turned up again.

‘He started cleaning the floor,’ says Gary. ‘Then he started checking the power points. It very quickly emerged he knew about a million times more than me about most trades, so he started doing really useful, skilled things, and I cleaned the floor.’

Paul also introduced Gary to his friend Steve Gaskell, another Churton resident.

‘Steve is also incredible,’ Gary laughs. ‘He’s got so much energy. He’s always doing something.

Chester and District Standard: Villager Paul Dearden puts in a volunteer shift. Elite Bistros/ Gary UsherVillager Paul Dearden puts in a volunteer shift. Elite Bistros/ Gary Usher

‘He built the bar out of some old bits of wood, and then he made a massive log store out of some old fence and part of the ceiling that fell down in the bar.

‘One day he said “I’ve got some spare trellis at home” and the next day when I got there he’d already put it up and he was sorting out the garden.

‘Everything that has come up, he has known how to do it, or he’s known someone who can, like Gearoid O’Brien, who is also this ridiculously handy man, who lives nearby and can do pretty much anything.He and Steve found this matching parquet floor from eBay and fitted it perfectly.

‘Another time, Dave Pickles, who lives round the corner, popped his head through the door and said he was cleaning out his gutters, did I want ours doing. I went to say no, but it was probably pretty obvious I don’t own a set of ladders, so he came over next day and did it.’

When the renovations uncovered a fireplace, John Lawson, another neighbour, offered Gary the perfect stove.

‘He wheeled round this beautiful AGA woodburner he had spare, and it fitted exactly.’

People have helped in whatever way they can. Every day, resident Mandy Webster dropped off lunch for the team.

‘Mandy is the most amazing cook,’ says Gary. ‘There were days through the winter where it was freezing and we were covered in plaster. The thing that kept us going was knowing that Mandy would bring us some hot pulled pork baps, or this beautiful broccoli and stilton soup. Her seasoning and use of flavour is better than most chefs. She could walk into any professional kitchen and teach them something.’

The biggest problem Gary and his team have faced is how to show their appreciation to the village for all their hard work.

‘We are so grateful, but no-one will take a penny,’ says Gary. ‘I’ve had them tell me they’ve been into Sticky (Walnut, Gary’s first restaurant in Chester) the previous night and not tell me beforehand because they know I wouldn’t have let them pay.’

At every step of the process, the villagers have helped Gary and his team to transform the tired old pub into somewhere fresh and modern.

‘There was a particularly bleak day when we had to dig channels in the carpark to put new beer lines underneath – pythons, they’re called,’ recalls Gary. ‘They’ll give us much better beer, and we don’t lose six pints from each pump every times the lines get cleaned , but I was dreading it. They turned up with diggers and all sorts. It was amazing, humbling,’ he pauses. ‘That’s been the word all the way through really humbling.’

While he’s raised money for projects before, this time he’s been amazed by how readily the pub’s locals have donated their time, like a modern-day barn-raising.

‘You hear about it, don’t you? This idea of community, where everyone knows their neighbours and they all pitch in. But seeing it in action is pretty special. They have a village WhatsApp group and they all help each other out.

‘I always thought it was something that might have happened 50 years ago, further back maybe: that nobody really knows their neighbours anymore, but to see it now, it’s probably the most special thing I’ve ever been involved with.

Chester and District Standard: The renovation. Elite Bistros/ Gary UsherThe renovation. Elite Bistros/ Gary Usher

‘As we’ve been working we’ve chatted, and I can honestly say I have made some friends I hope I’ll always know.

‘I have heard so many stories about nights here. The way people here talk about it, I wish I could have come as a customer.

‘So now, we’ve finally opened the doors, and the biggest thing for me is trying to do it justice, to keep putting in as much as everyone here has, to keep that feeling of community going and to try everything I can to pay them all back.’

The White Horse

Chester Road, Churton, Chester CH3 6LA