Fresh to the trade

May 14, 2019
There are hundreds of successful operators running vibrant pub businesses today; from the couple running one pub under a lease, to those who have built – or are building – a pub company with two or more sites.
We ask new pub owners why they took the plunge into the on-trade and find out what they are planning for their businesses in the future
According to Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) statistics, an average of 18 pubs closed every week in the UK during the first half of 2018, continuing an ongoing decline in the market.
But before you take a deep sigh and flick past what appears to be another article highlighting the demise of the great British pub, take heart in the fact that while some may be leaving, there’s plenty of fresh blood looking to breathe new life into the sector.
“We have certainly seen an uplift in the number of first-time pub owners,” says Tom Cormie, negotiator at property agents Fleurets, citing two major reasons for the rise.
“A growing interest in artisanal and craft products has resulted in hyper-localised supply chains and increased brand loyalty,” he explains.
“The natural progression for these suppliers is to approach growth with vertical integration in mind, for example, following a craft brewery’s success with an on-site taproom, they are now looking to grow a small bar estate across London.
Access to funding is also key, and crowdfunding as well as the institutional lenders, provide options to finance ventures.”
Alasdair Clifford and his wife Victoria Collins weren’t craft brewers, but last year they secured enough funding to realise their dream of running a pub.
The couple opened the Barrington Boar, near Ilminster in Somerset, under a 10-year lease in June with little prior experience of working in pubs, other than Clifford’s teenage stint as a pot washer at his local and Collins’ part-time work pulling pints in a couple of pubs when she was 18.
Clifford did have experience in hospitality, however, and after a few years working as a chef, including at Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, south London, he decided it was time to get cracking on the plan he and his wife had been “toying with” for eight years.
“We’d wanted to run our own pub for a long time, probably from before I became a chef. Working as a chef was hard, but I learnt loads,” explains Clifford. “However, I ultimately wanted my own business, specifically a pub.”
Establishing a business
The couple were “besotted” by the atmosphere of a country pub and were keen to find a property where they could achieve their aim of serving restaurant-quality food to a predominantly local clientele in the surrounds of a welcoming pub.
After a search around Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, they settled on the Barrington Boar. Although the lease was more expensive than others they’d seen in their price range, the property was in good condition and position, so provided the best option for their budget and ambitions.
“We went to visit a few places and it was quite depressing to see some. There was no hope,” says Clifford.
“You can see why some people are selling – because there’s no business there. It might be cheap but if you’ve got to do the whole place up and then find trade, it’s too much of a gamble,” adds Collins.
Now, more than halfway through their first year as pub owners the couple are still passionate about what they do, but understand what a slog it can be to establish a business, particularly in a small village where every customer seemingly has an opinion on how their local should be run.
“It’s not just mentally hard, it’s physically hard,” says Clifford. “In December, we were working seven days a week for almost a month. We expected that, but nothing prepares you for the fact that when you’re running a pub yourself, you don’t get time off.”
Thankfully, having listened to some well-meaning advice and tailoring their business to the needs of the locals – yet not losing sight of their aim to provide top-quality food – the couple are running a thriving pub and haven’t thwarted plans to buy the freehold of their current site and open more in the future.
“Sometimes when you’re tired it’s hard to look at the positives,” says Clifford, “but stepping away from the pub for just a while helps us remember we’ve got a business that’s working, it’s ours and it’s getting positive feedback. That makes it all worthwhile.”
Collins recognises that although the busiest part of the year is behind them, they still have a lot to learn and have found that listening to customers has been useful.
“We had a terrible first Friday night,” she says with a grimace. “The next morning a lady who lives across the road came over with a pot of coffee and explained village life to me. She was really nice, but delivered a few home truths I think I needed to hear.
Half of me wanted to tell her to leave us alone and let us get on with it, but I realised it was nice of her to check we were OK, so I listened. She gave us tips on how to align ourselves with the village so we could get on. I wonder if she hadn’t have come over and I hadn’t sat down with her where we would be now.”
Fast growth not possible
While the going is tough, the couple not only plan to remain in the trade, but also open more sites. They set their business up under the name ‘Valinor Inns’, the plural form of ‘Inn’ a clear indication that they would like more than one pub. Nevertheless, they will take their time.
“We have to get our business model right,” says Collins. “This is our first venture and once we truly know our trade well we’ll consider opening a second.”
The careful approach is one that Piers Baker, owner of the Sun Inn, Dedham, Essex, has taken. The pub owner and operator who, like Alasdair Clifford, had his first taste of the industry as a pot washer, waited 11 years before opening his second site, the Church Street Tavern in Colchester, in 2014.
Having worked in hospitality for many years (five of which were for pub groups in London) before taking the plunge into independent ownership, Baker thought he’d be able to grow his business quickly, but it didn’t happen like that for many reasons.
“Growth has come more organically,” he says. “In the first instance because I didn’t have a business partner at my side day to day, and secondly because country trade was a little different to London trade.
“We were offering something no-one had seen in these parts. So it took a while to establish. But the success of The Sun Inn, led directly to the opening and success of the Church Street Tavern and hopefully will lead to further openings this year.”
Baker, who sees five sites as his maximum, says “consistency and always striving to improve” as well as hiring people who cared and wanted to contribute to the pub’s “success and reputation” enabled him to build a strong first site from which he could grow.
The Sun Inn, set in a restored 15th-century inn, built up a solid reputation among both locals and visitors for its Italian-inspired food, craft beer and ales. However, Baker says he would have liked to expand the business quicker.
“I cooked for the first seven years, so it took up a lot of time, along with running the business. Then it was a matter of finding the right site,” he explains. “There aren’t too many excellent pub sites in the area and I wanted to be within an hour’s travel of the Sun Inn. It is a great building in a great location and that is what I wanted. I’m quite picky and want things to be right.”
More vacant properties
Baker is currently looking for a third site now that his second, located in central Colchester, is also trading well. He’s viewed a number of sites and is hopeful that a “wonderful heritage pub”, which has been closed for a while, could be the one. Although he won’t reveal more for fear of “jinxing it”.
Of course, while pubs have been closing at a rate of 18 per week, it is the fact there are more vacant properties for smaller operators, like Baker, to choose from, which makes it easier for them to grow.
“Smaller, independent operators are sensing more opportunity in the leisure market
at present,” says Fleuret’s Cormie. “At this stage of their expansion they tend to take a cautious approach in terms of the quantum of rent they are prepared to pay to ensure their business model is sustainable at this critical period of growth. With a greater supply of leisure properties coming to the market, this is presenting options to secure well-located properties.”
New life in old pubs
One emerging pub group taking advantage of the flurry of leisure properties coming to the market is Brucan Pubs.
Established by ex-ETM Group operations director James Lyon-Shaw and former Ivy head chef Jamie Dobbin with the aim of “breathing new life into old pubs in the home counties”, the company opened its first site in September 2018 – the Greene Oak, near Windsor, Berkshire – with a bold plan to open 10 pubs in seven years.
“It’s a fairly aggressive expansion,” agrees Lyon-Shaw, but as he points out, unlike other newcomers, he spent 10 years helping ETM grow to 14 sites.
“We’ve got the track record of operating groups previously of this size, so part of [fast expansion] was that we’ve got the experience, plus we are lucky to have some big backers so there’s no point hanging around.”
Lyon-Shaw and Dobbin have already secured their second site – a pub based just outside Guildford in Surrey – which they hope to open in the first quarter of this year.
Quality steak offer
The home counties is where the pair will continue to focus their search initially. They see a gap in the market for a quality food and drink offering targeted at London commuters looking for a local pub to frequent during the evenings and at weekends that shares similar standards to the places they have experienced in the capital.
“Places where there are great properties,” adds Lyon-Shaw. “Good-looking old pubs with parking and gardens that are just being run by the wrong people.”
Like Brucan Pubs’ founders, Jordan Hallows, managing director of Rarebreed Dining and his co-founder Jonathan Matthew aren’t hanging around. The company, which opened its third site – the Corn Stores in Reading, Berkshire – at the end of last year, is also looking to provide a quality food offering to the home counties.
“The concept for Rarebreed Dining was born about five years ago out of the desire to solve the problem my business partner and I identified,” explains Hallows. “We both worked in London but lived in Surrey at the time and were fans of quality steak restaurants like Hawksmoor, Goodman and Gaucho, but couldn’t find anywhere to get a good steak at the weekend.”
Although Hallows is clear that Rarebreed Dining is a dining company, its first two restaurants are in pubs and still retain much of the feel of a pub, with the third described as a “multifaceted venue”.
Back-of-house investment
The first Rarebreed Dining opened at the Plough Inn in Cobham, Surrey, in 2015 after Hallows, who was notified of its availability by Star Pubs & Bars saw the site as the perfect place to start. A year later, the company took over the Shurlock Inn, also in Reading, with the pub’s owner becoming the company’s angel investor.
With a third site now open, the company is on track with its business plan to open four sites in four years.
Rarebreed Dining’s clear plan to build a group from the start meant that Hallows had the foresight to invest in core back-of-house systems such as EPoS, HR and reservations.
“It meant we could take on sites more seamlessly from an internal function point-of-view,” he says.
However, as he says, “brands, investment and systems” are “nothing” without investment in people and believes that having enthusiastic, well-trained staff is the real key to successful expansion.
“Making sure you have the right people around you and in the team is what will make your business a success,” agrees Brucan Pubs’ Lyon-Shaw who nevertheless is enjoying some time back on the floor as he gets his own business off the ground.
“We ensure the team are well paid and have good staff benefits. One of the things we do here is have a staff meal every day where they eat something off the menu. It gives them a chance to sit down together, but also sample the food so they can tell the guests that they’ve tried the dish and it’s really good. That’s something we want to try to hold onto as we grow, instil that passion in them. It reaps real benefits as they hit the floor.”
A need for good people
Baker also correlates the success of expansion with having the right people in place. He moved key staff from the Sun Inn who were “ready to grow” to Church Street Tavern to help establish it and says they were instrumental in giving it the right start.
The very hands-on Barrington Boar’s Clifford and Collins are slowly growing their own team and understand they will need good people to enable them to expand, but for now, they’re just not ready to hand the reins over to others.
“We’ve always said we won’t have one pub, we’ll have a couple,” says Collins. “But I have heard it’s easier to go from one pub to three because then you have to be a hands-off manager.
“At this point, I think handing the business, which we’ve poured every bit of ourselves into, over to other people will be hard, so we need to be in a situation where we’re ready to let them get on with it before we do.”
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