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The Head of Steam - the station buffet of the future?

From The Publican

18-May-1998

According to Tony Brookes' masterplan, waiting for a train will never be the same. Phil Mellows went trainspotting with the founder of Head of Steam.

You know station buffets. Those bars that are neither here nor there with their shifting and shifty clientele, glass in hand and glassy-eyed, inhabiting those in-between moments where life is suspended - just waiting for a train.

However, changing trains at Huddersfield may prove more unpredictable.

Quarter to midnight on a wet Tuesday, your train long gone, you could still be in there, chilling out to a breezy jazz combo having sampled a range of unusual cask ales, eaten a meal, browsed among the memorabilia, bought a model locomotive and taken part in a quiz.

The Head of Steam is, if managing director Tony Brookes has anything to do with it, the station buffet of the future.

Brookes, you may remember, was, in 1980, the brains behind Legendary Yorkshire Heroes - the cask ale wholesaler and off licence chain.

Ten years later he added 18 pubs from Scottish & Newcastle, then sold the whole lot in 1994 to fund his new concept.

"I have always wanted to be in the forefront of things," he said. "That's the only interesting place to be.

"I wanted Head of Steam to be something completely different, not just a pub but a station buffet, restaurant, waiting room, model shop, newsagent, a live music venue and a tourist destination."

And they would be in a perfect location, right in the middle of town, the kind of place big operators dream about - in an old railway station.

Brookes is one of those entrepreneurs with an infectious enthusiasm for ideas.

Unfortunately it has proved an infection to which the railway bureaucracies have been immune.

As well as Huddersfield there are only two other Head of Steams, one at Euston, just outside the station, and a slightly different proposition in Newcastle, where Brookes is based.

According to his original plan, there should be at least 20 pubs in the group by now.

"The problem has been the Railtrack property people," he explained. "They have simply been unwilling to issue the kind of commercial lease which would make the business viable. They just don't seem to be in the same property market as the rest of the country."

The upheaval of rail privatisation also threw a spoke in Brookes' wheel, and his frustration is such that he has started looking at an alternative route - franchising.

"There is such a huge potential there, and I can see more opportunities opening up now that we've proved the idea can be successful.

"Attitudes are beginning to change. The railways are recognising a good thing when they see it. Something like the Head of Steam offers their customers a better service.

"The trouble is that we are too small as an organisation to cover the whole country and find the money to open pubs quickly enough.

"So I've started talking to pub companies and brewers who might take the concept on board. We could use the resources of one or more operators to roll out the brand nationally. I hate the term 'roll-out' and I hate the term 'brand', but Head of Steam certainly lends itself to being developed in that way."

Brookes doesn't like to talk turnover, but the quality of the idea is confirmed by a visit to Huddersfield station.

The building itself is a vast Grade I listed mock-classical Victorian edifice reckoned to be one of the finest examples of its kind.

The wing that now houses Head of Steam was derelict, without even a ceiling when Brookes took it over two years ago and spent £500,000 in turning it into a pub.

As he points out, that's nothing by superpub standards, but Head of Steam is on more traditional lines - if you exclude the 12.30am licence justified by the live jazz and blues.

As well as some imaginative cask ales, the pub sells up to 40 bottled beers, the full range of Gale's fruit wines and some 40 varieties of vodka.

It has five separate bar areas, including the former ticket office which is the perfect elongated shape to store the casks during a beer festival.

On the platform side there is a non-smoking area and a comfy chair area - a rather superior waiting room which seems to attract people who really are passing through. You can buy a sandwich and a coffee to take on the train, or just pop in to use the toilet.

Yet on the street side you would not suspect that you are in anything other than a busy two-bar pub.

Even so, it would have to be a pub with aspirations towards being a museum.

The walls are smothered with railway paraphernalia and enamel advertising signs, all authentic and, according to Brookes, worth rather a large amount of money.

Anything you see is for sale but the price-tag might put you off - unless you are happy to pay four figures for a rare Huddersfield station sign.

The pub also sells models and books, and, Brookes says, attracts railway enthusiasts from all over the country.

Are we talking about trainspotters, here?

"Trainspotters and ex-trainspotters," he replies. "I ran my own trainspotters' club myself when I was at school.

"There is a great affinity between trains, especially steam trains, and cask ale. You find a lot of people interested in both. It's to do with going back to an age when things were better."

The theme fits a pub in a railway station, and it fits Brookes, who was once a professional in the transport industry and considers himself more of a marketer than anything.

His latest scheme, soon to be officially launched, is to expand Head of Steam's potential as a tourist destination.

Brookes has negotiated deals with a variety of other attractions around West Yorkshire and beyond to offer discounts to members of his "Head of Steam Club" - basically anyone who turns up at the pub can join for free.

"Huddersfield is not the centre of the world at the moment, but that will improve. I want to make sure that anyone who comes to Yorkshire comes to the Head of Steam. The pub will become a focus for tourism."

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