AN EX-LANDLADY who launched a virtual pub to keep locals in touch during the coronavirus lockdown has had to hire ‘bar staff’ to cope with her 14,500 customers.
Jo Bowtell, 40, launched The Virtual Pub Facebook page just over a week ago and hosts live music, quizzes, DJ sets, open mic and comedy nights.
She started it as a way to bring her local community together after running the Noel’s Arms in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, for several years.
But the group has attracted interest from as far away as Australia, the US, Canada, Spain and Italy.
So the mum-of-two (above) has had to recruit staff on the other side of the globe to keep the show running when she goes to bed.
She has a team of ten, with ‘bar staff’ who talk to customers and ‘bouncers’ moderating who is allowed into the pub.
Hundreds have been sharing selfies of themselves having a tipple at home as they tune in to watch DJ sets or a comedy show.
Jo, of Spondon, Derby, admitted the pub page had turned into a full-time job during the coronavirus crisis.
She said: ‘It has completely blown up. We’ve got 3,000 members just waiting for approval — it’s like there’s a queue at the door to get in.
‘It’s the biggest pub I’ve ever run and I can’t believe how popular it has become. It started as just a way for locals in Melton Mowbray who knew the pub to keep in touch.
‘Now I’ve got people in Hawaii tuning in to watch a DJ set and people stranded in Italy watching comedy nights with their mum in Britain.
‘It’s really nice to be able to bring people together in these difficult times in the most British way possible.
‘It is pretty much like going to a pub but doing it from your living room or back garden. It’s keeping communities entertained and friends and family connected.
‘It is like running an actual pub without the hassle of serving the booze.
‘I have to delegate jobs to my team. I’ve had to ask a friend in Australia to moderate the page throughout the night to make sure there’s entertainment for patrons 24/7.
‘I have people looking after the technical side of things and others doing online tutorials for new users.
‘I’ve got moderators, who are like bouncers vetting who can come in, and the bar staff chatting to people over a virtual bar counter.
‘We’re encouraging people to drink responsibly, though. We have coffee mornings as well.
‘As a landlady you tend to be a pillar of the community, who people turn to in times of need. You’re there for the good, the bad and the ugly.
‘We keep it light-hearted and there’s a lot of banter, but I don’t tolerate bad language or derogatory comments. I’m a bit of an old-school landlady like that.’
This weekend saw an exercise boot camp, cocktail-making class, live music and a quiz.
There is even a ‘thought of the day’ from 101-year-old Gentleman Jim — the stereotypical ‘old man in the corner who will sit with his half a pint of mild’.
Full-time mum Jo added: ‘Everyone is buying into it as they can sit at home and be entertained as if they are in the same place. It is a haven.
‘Some members of the page have been playing it through their television. So it’s like having the pub singers right in your front room.
‘Everyone seems to be really happy with it and I feel like something positive is happening in the world. I’m not doing it for profit and the team are working voluntarily.
‘In such bleak times, it is important to find a positive and with all the bad news going around I think it really puts a smile on people’s faces.’
Customer Dawn Richardson, 37, from Melton Mowbray, said: ‘It is keeping me entertained all day. I just love it. It has brought people together.’
Ray Callcut, 60, added: ‘It’s great. I can speak to my mum and then go back in the pub.’
Musician Tara Simms, who played a live two-hour set through Facebook, said: ‘For me, it was just like playing a gig. I was telling people to sing along.’