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InaPub editor, Matt Eley, spends an evening on the other side of the bar
It’s 5pm on St Patrick’s Day and I am dreading going to the pub.
Not because of the hordes of people in daft hats swigging back the Black Stuff and singing out of tune or even because the Welsh will fancy a drink or two after their Six Nations success.
I’m not up for it because instead of drinking I am supposed to be working tonight.
I am down to do a stint behind the bar at a local pub, The Blue Anchor in Crowborough, East Sussex, as part of my own initiative to get more practical experience of a subject I spend my days writing about.
The fact is though, it’s Sunday, my two-year-old son is clinging to my legs for dear life, it’s tipping down outside, and I can’t really be arsed to leave the house.
But I do. And the main reason is because this must be how many people feel before putting a shift in. Not motivated, not at their best but still having to get behind the bar and put a smile on.
I needn’t have worried about having to find a forced sense of jollity. My hosts for the night brothers, Martyn and Damian and wife/sister-in-law Caroline, welcome me behind the bar and deftly bring me into a conversation with a friendly bunch of locals.
The atmosphere is good and I sense that this could actually be fun.
The trio have been at the pub – a Shepherd Neame tenancy – for four years and in that time have built up local and destination trade based around good quality, locally sourced food and a bar run to the highest of standards.
Thankfully as tonight is quiz night I don’t have to worry about any food orders. My job is to serve drinks and take the money.
You might think that with it being St Patrick’s Day there would be plenty of Guinness flowing but despite an Ireland themed section in the quiz, it isn’t really that sort of night. I only serve a few pints of Guinness and these come with a dash of blackcurrant. My biggest achievement is not turning my nose up at the order.
As I completed my first shift last week I feel confident pulling a pint (first up, cider – yes! Easy) but the team have plenty of tips for me.
I’m told to give the lager a swirl as I pour to encourage a decent head, which is the exact opposite to the problem I faced last time out.
When my fingers stray too close to the top of a pint Damian tells me to grab the glass with my little finger rested underneath, explaining that if a hand is anywhere near where the customer drinks from he won’t let it go across the bar.
After pouring what I, in my humble opinion, consider to be a darn decent pint of Kent Best, I tell a customer I can’t serve him that one and begin pouring another.
‘You’ve just poured me a pint. What’s wrong with that one?’
‘Oh, I can’t give you that one I’m afraid.’
‘Why ever not, it looks fine (he may have said ‘darn decent’, I can’t quite recall).
Anyway, I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to explain why I chose to rest that first pint on the back bar. I look across to Damian for help, but his expression suggests that he doesn’t have a clue why I am faffing about and wasting good drink.
‘I’m afraid I’ve contaminated that one,’ I venture
As soon as the sentence leaves my mouth I realise that my choice of words make it sound like I have gobbed in his pint.
‘A hair fell in it.’ I add. ‘An eyelash’, I splutter out, just for the sake of clarity.
‘Right, lovely. Thanks,’ says the customer, unimpressed, walking off with his uncontaminated beer.
Still, Damian tells me I did the right thing, even if my phrasing, a little ironically, wasn’t of as high a standard as my pint-pouring. It also means that I now I have a pint to drink, because my own eye-lash doesn’t bother me one jot and it’s either that or chuck it away.
The bar gets busier before the quiz gets going and the four of us work fairly solidly. Of course they all manage to serve about three customers to my one. If I’m not looking for the right glass, I’m struggling with the till.
Naturally, it’s electronic and for the other three it is as easy as typing in a PIN number at the cashpoint. But for me every attempt to use it is like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code.
‘Hit ‘clerk 4’ first, that’s you tonight, then add your drinks, enter the cash and give them the change’
Sounds easy enough, but where the bloody hell is the ‘dash of lime’ button? Which wine am I looking for? Is there a ‘175ml button’? And don’t even get me started on people with tabs or those paying with cards and asking for cashback.
I muddle on and thankfully my colleagues are always close at hand for when I need help. Either that or they’re taking the piss out of me on Twitter.
Things quieten down as the quiz gets going and I manage to collect a few glasses and perfect my lime and soda pouring technique(there’s a few students in), thinking that I’m just a few shifts away from being Tom Cruise in Cocktail.
Then it’s break time and the teams need to quench their thirst.
‘Pint of Best. Hold the eyelash’ quips the returning customer. I exaggerate leaning back as I pour his pint and hand it over minus any detached parts of my body.
That for me is a huge success.
And as soon as the shift has begun it seems to be drawing to an end. I half-heartedly help with cleaning tables before thinking ‘sod it, I’m working tomorrow’ and head off.
I leave happy with my efforts behind the bar but more importantly delighted to have found somewhere that from now on I will call my local.
For the Sheppards, the tenancy with family brewer Shepherd Neame is an opportunity to raise their two young sons in a village environment at the same time as building a successful business. “Of course, running a pub is hard work, but there’s a great sense of community in Smarden,” says Phil.
Having previously worked as a manager at a busy Shepherd Neame city centre pub, Patrick Casey’s Ale House in Canterbury, as well as managing pubs for Whitbread and Yates’s, Phil has no shortage of experience. “The Flying Horse is different in some ways; while it’s seen very much as ‘the local’ where people on the village come for a drink, it also has a busy food trade. Fortunately, we inherited a very good chef, and every pub I’ve run has done well, so I was confident about taking on a new challenge.”
Patrick Casey’s Ale House more than trebled weekly sales when Phil managed the pub from 2001 to 2006. After a period away from the licensed trade during which he worked part time while looking after the couple’s first son, the roles have now been reversed. Phil, as licensee, is the front-of-house host at the Flying Horse, while Nancy, who has an accountancy background, combines managing the books with looking after the boys.
The centuries-old pub has a traditional feel, with oak beams and an open fire and is thought to get its name from a racecourse which stood opposite until 1863. The ‘Flier‘, as the pub is known locally, is a traditional rural community pub at the heart of village life. “Smarden is a very active community,” says Phil. “There are plenty of societies and organisations in the village, such as the WI, as well as a football and cricket team.”
While this strong sense of community means the village takes a keen interest in who runs their local, the Sheppard’s arrival has been welcomed. “There was a feeling in the village that the pub wasn’t particularly family-friendly in the past. We’ve put in few sofas to create a more informal area, and generally tried to make the pub more appealing to the whole community, including young families. The village has been very supportive of what we want to do here.”
Regular events at the pub now include a quiz night, karaoke, “which is very popular in the village” and live music, with plans to introduce an acoustic night. Minor refurbishments inside and out have included new outdoor furniture in the pub’s patio garden. “It’s not a huge area, but we want to be able to make the most of it when the weather allows,” says Phil.
Shepherd Neame made taking on the tenancy very straightforward, he adds. “We were very clear about our business plan, and we’ve had very good support from our district manager, John Barnes. As we develop the business during the year ahead we’ll be calling on specialist support from Shepherd Neame as we need it.”
Shepherd Neame offers a wide range of specialist support for licensees in tenanted businesses. Food development and digital marketing, including free access to a web site to promote the pub, are among the services recently added. This enhances existing support, which includes wine, cellar management and beer quality, training for both licensees and staff, and professional services including legal, licensing and financial advice.
“Since the work on the pub was completed the response from the public has been fantastic. Our regulars are delighted the new look is in keeping with the pub’s heritage, but we’ve also managed to attract new customers. There’s a strong market for pubs with individuality and character and this work’s helped us meet that demand.”
Tony Tarrats, of the Duke of Cumberland, moved from a freehold restaurant to become a Shepherd Neame licensee and has not looked back.
Tony runs the historic town centre pub helped by fellow licensees Sarah Smith and Annie Foreman. The pub’s popularity is due to their hard work and enthusiasm – and the continual support of Shepherd Neame.
The tenancy model gives licensees the opportunity to take charge of their own business for relatively low start-up investment, providing Tony with the opportunity to develop a significant business in the heart of the popular seaside resort without having to buy an expensive freehold.
“Thanks to our tenancy agreement with Shepherd Neame, we have a fantastic building which is the best in the town and includes a hotel, restaurant and the biggest bar in Whitstable,” said Tony.
The business partners need not concern themselves with an issue that frequently plagues freeholders: the maintenance of such an old building. There has been a pub on the site for more than 300 years and the current structure dates back to 1878. While they are responsible for interior décor, fixtures and fittings, Shepherd Neame’s property team provides expert care for the main fabric and exterior.
Shepherd Neame has a tenanted estate of around 300 pubs and hotels across the South East. It offers prospective licensees a huge choice of properties, many listed, from country inns to bustling town centre bars, community locals to seaside hotels and gastropubs to established live music venues.
They are encouraged to develop each pub’s individual offer, while remaining confident that they have the backing of a team of experienced professionals, committed to the success of their business.
Tony said: “We have lots of our own ideas and it’s refreshing that the brewery lets us do things our way.”
Tony’s cites his relationship with his business development manager, (BDM) Mike Davies, as another reason why the partnership succeeds. Business development managers are in regular contact with their licensees, offering help and advice.
In an independent survey by Elliott People, 88% of Shepherd Neame licensees said that they were happy with their relationship with their BDM.
The brewery supplies a wealth of technical support, including web-based marketing and licensing support, plus facilities to create bespoke promotional literature such as menus and table cards.
There are also workshops on a range of subjects, including customer service, sales and merchandising, liquor and food management. In a him! survey, 90% of licensees agreed that brewery training courses were useful, helpful, relevant and well-conducted.
Tony’s business has access to a range of wines sourced direct from carefully-selected family vineyards, many exclusive to Shepherd Neame. The Wine Development Manager advises on wine range, pricing and promotions as well as providing wine menus and tent cards.
Licensees also have the advantage of being able to offer their customers distinctive traditional Kentish cask ales and international lagers, including sought-after brands such as Spitfire, Samuel Adams and Asahi.
Licensees are able to tap into Shepherd Neame’s economies of scale, obtaining favourable terms on a number of products and services, including food and snacks, catering equipment, uniforms, dishwashers and dispensing gases. To assist in marketing, point of sale and display materials are also made available.
Tony said: “Shepherd Neame listens to what we say, gives advice if we need it but allows us to follow our own business path. I like the fact they are a family brewer, because our business ethos is run along family lines, too.”
“I have always had an eye on the Belle Vue Tavern,” said Tony. “It is in a stunning location with wonderful views and is a great pub, the only one I would have made the move for.”
Tony, from Wimbledon, and Shirley, from Margate, met after Tony moved down to Kent and “fell in love” with the county. Tony started in the licensed trade 22 years ago in Hythe, working forWhitbread, and went on to open several restaurant pubs for them before joining Morlands in Oxfordshire.
The couple returned to Kent to run a very successful restaurant pub in Kingsgate for 13 years, where they won many awards including The Publican’s Family Pub of the Year, The Morning Advertiser’s Managed House of the Year and The Publican’s Good Food Children’s Menu of the Year.
Now Tony and Shirley, both 54, are bringing that winning formula to the 17th century Belle Vue Tavern “Our aim is to improve the food and bar trade with a view to getting listings in the major pub and food guides,” said Tony. “We have brought a young chef with us, Steve Harris, who has worked for us for eight years. His creativity and presentation are coming on in leaps and bounds and we are bringing in a second chef to help him.”
The menu of good quality traditional pub food is all freshly-prepared on the premises and uses fresh, seasonal produce whenever it is available.
“We get most of our vegetables from Nash Farm, two miles away, our meat from butcher Keith Young in Newington and cod, sole and skate from local fishermen whenever possible,” said Tony.
The Belle Vue Tavern has a 32-seat restaurant with magnificent sea views and is refurbished in contemporary style with wooden tables and high-backed leather chairs.
There is also room for casual dining in the pub’s country kitchen style bistro area off the comfortable and cosy bar which is warmed by a log fire.
We started the business back in July 2006 and it took us until September 2007 to find our first site, the Wiremill in Felbridge, Surrey. We hit the right note with this one and, in late July 2009, acquired our second site, the Grove Ferry, this time in Kent. It’s a rural mansion house built in 1831 which sits on the Stodmarsh Nature Reserve in the Stour Valley, eight miles from Canterbury and six miles from Herne Bay.
The building had great character, but had been neglected over the years and the business was on its knees. The whole place was tired, boring and didn’t give you a feeling that you wanted to be there. Food covers averaged 150 per week, net sales were £3,000 on a good week, the concept was dated and the food microwaved.
We have invested more than £200,000 replacing all the carpets and inside furniture, renewing the kitchen equipment, bar fittings and pumps and installing new log burners. The roof had to be renewed at a cost of £100,000, funded by Shepherd Neame. We have also just spent £10,000 upgrading our six bedrooms.
Achieving business growth
The idea was to roll out the same concept we’d delivered at the Wire-mill. Shepherd Neame had confidence in us, as we had the track history, but they didn’t believe the concept could work at the Grove Ferry. We were sure it would and it has.
Word of mouth is the strongest piece of marketing in any industry, but especially in ours. People think they have to be on Facebook, have a Twitter account, have an all singing and dancing website, which is true, but I think they forget that people do still talk.
So, we get people talking about us by doing something to make them smile, such as going into the towns dressed as cows, or by going the extra mile, by creating little bags of waste bread for visiting kids to feed the ducks. Our view is similar to that of Starbucks; we are the third place after work and home.
Standing out from the competition
We are never happy and are always picking holes in the business, months before our customers comment. We stand out because we are true to our offer; nothing is hidden behind the scenes. What we do is honest and people appreciate that.
We are tied to Shepherd Neame, so limited on lines we can stock, but they offer enough of a range to keep us interesting. Cask ales are also a big feature for us and customers can buy any of the ales they have tried in the pub to take home. Lagers include San Miguel, Oranjeboom and Peroni.
In terms of wine, we offer 37 bins including British and New World, ranging from an entry level price of £11.95 up to £34 a bottle. With the exception of a few of the top-end varieties we also sell all of our wines by the glass.Menu philosophy
Our menu is British and consists of a mix of more unusual dishes and classics.
We feature cooking times on the menu, to manage expectations. Our freshly-cooked meals take 25 minutes to prepare. It’s been a really difficult learning curve for customers, which we have almost cracked at the Wiremill, but still have some way to go with at the Grove. The menu changes seasonally.
On the menu:
Oven-baked rainbow trout stuffed with crayfish tails and tomato salsa (£14); slow braised beef and ruby beetroot in a Guinness sauce with a horseradish crumble topping (£14); butter-roasted supreme of chicken with wild mushrooms and bubble and squeak cake served with a banana shallot and tarragon sauce (£13).
Starters: soup (£5) chicken liver and wild mushroom parfait (£5.50); cranberry and apricot Stilton cheesecake (£5.50).
Mains: Fish and chips (£11); beef Wellington (£16); roasted best end of pork (£14).
Desserts: Triple chocolate brownie (£5.50); cinnamon and apple sponge (£5.50); seasonal cheesecake (£5.50).
Two most profitable dishes:
Fillet steak and roasted best end of pork.
Best food event:
Our menu tasting sessions. We don’t really do events as they take time to organise and don’t really deliver anything exceptional to the bottom line, but we do hold a secret open house for our menu tastings. These are normally on a Sunday night when all the staff, their families and the locals come in. We get to show off our new dishes and customers get the chance to have their say before they appear on the menu.Ten best ideas
Butcher’s block deli counter
We had a large empty space, unsuitable for seating, so we decided to extend the kitchen out by offering our meats on display on a counter. We bought some butcher’s block counters and then created a shop using the ingredients we needed in the kitchen, but also adding things like chutneys, eggs, sauces and local cakes to the offer. The counter is open every day and has grown and grown in recent months to the extent that we are looking to have an in-house butchers shop selling meats to go, including Christmas turkeys.
Steak service area
The butcher’s block concept is giving a twist to our steak offering. We found some amazing local farms, via Preston Family Butchers, and decided that it would be great to offer customers a choice of steak, size, cooking style and accompaniments. The butchers’ block is a great piece of theatre.
Desserts on a stick
We sold 10,000 take-away ice creams, such as Magnums and Feasts, this summer, making 80p net profit on each one.
Offering pregnancy-friendly dishes is beginning to make us a name locally and with foodie magazines. It came from personal experience. When my partner was pregnant she would look at a menu and say “can’t have that, that or that,” making us realise how little thought is given to pregnant women. Our menus are designed to be inclusive so we decided to create some dishes that could also be enjoyed by the pregnant amongst us.
We have started a new staff training academy, across the two sites, in partnership with CPL Training. It’s an e-learning system that allows staff to be trained before they even enter the building on areas such as fire safety, customer service and food handling. It gives them access to everything the industry can offer and is beginning to make inroads into educating the whole team.
Our promotional team has a concept that is a bit off the wall — the team dress in cow outfits and drive around in a white 4 x 4 handing out flyers and newsletters — but it’s going down a storm. We use QR codes for people to scan and get prizes, stand in fields with billboards and play spot the cow competitions online. The next idea is to ride the trains between Canterbury and St Pancras handing out flyers to the commuters. Last time we did this the website received 10 times the daily traffic.
Stour Valley tourist outpost
We are home to one of the first outpost tourist information points in the country; a brand new initiative working with Visit Britain and Tourism South East to promote rural pubs to Europe and foreign visitors. The outpost is located in our outside toilet block (much nicer than it reads!) and Visit Britain have just been granted funding to support the project over the next three years.
There used to be a boat taking people up and down the river from the pub. We found it, derelict, on the Isle of Wight, so we teamed up with two retired policemen and bought it, created a new landing station at the pub and now run trips throughout the week for groups of up to 10 people. The boat is an eco-friendly electric launch and a fantastic asset to have.
Great British picnic
This was suggested by a member of staff as a great way to cater for the large number of private and corporate bookings we receive. Hampers are laid out on the tables with a selection of savoury scones, mini fish and chip cones, pies and burgers and a selection of British tapas. The concept allows us to cater for much larger parties as most of the food is pre-prepped and, at £19 per head, is going down very well.
We have invested in a local bike hire company so that, from next summer, we will have 40 bikes available for customers to hire to explore the local countryside. Plus we have people walking our gardens and the local area, drumming up business for both the bike hire and boat trips.
Tenure: Lease with Shepherd Neame
Wet:dry:accommodation split: 37:55:8
GP food: 70%, but we work to cash margin as opposed to GP
GP drink: 55%.
Total covers: Inside, 140; outside, 300
Average weekly covers: Summer: 4,000; winter: 800