We’ve been here for nearly 14 years but the pub has existed for 450. It’s one of the founding three buildings in the village, and is a Tudor, Grade II-listed building.
It started as a stopover venue for monks because there was a monastery in nearby Lewes. I certainly wanted to explore the possibility of buying a pub, a bar, a club, or something in the hospitality and leisure sector. When the Bull came up, it was a bit expensive.
I couldn’t afford it, but with some goodwill, and support from an agent, he helped pave our way into the market. It was an unloved pub that had been bankrupt for some years, then spent a few more trying to recover.
It was performing really badly. I thought it had potential, it was just unloved. We wanted to make the physical layout of the pub work with the atmosphere we were trying to create. That was a really important factor.
It was little details: we didn’t want loads of tables pushed together, we wanted to have lots of big tables that could be shared by complete strangers and so create a great jovial atmosphere.
We’re in a small village near the South Downs National Park, with a population of 2,000 people living within the parish boundaries. This equates to about 35% of our weekly trade.
The customers are hugely loyal. It’s got a good, broad customer base, which increases all the time.
We live in a beautiful village yet we can be on Brighton beach in about 15 minutes, or at Gatwick Airport, or Crawley in 20 minutes.
There are glorious places around us, like the stunning Haywards Heath and the mighty Lewes.
Within a 15 to 20 minutes’ drive, we must be nudging the best part of a million people. You cannot believe you are so close to such a big and vibrant city within 15 minutes.
The majority are full-time, serious, career-oriented people. I’ve always paid staff a proper salary; we never wanted to embrace the apprentice wage because it just didn’t feel comfortable.
We’ve taken on a couple of dozen chefs as apprentices. The front of house team has been on many training courses, such as customer service management.
We have had some students work for us during busy times or throughout their degree, but the spine of the business is run by a core team who understand what we’re trying to achieve.
We like to think we look after our staff and treat them with respect. We make sure they have a sense of ownership and financial structures to their rewards, such as a pension scheme.
The staff here have become family. We help them when it’s required and definitely support them through difficult times and it’s worked both ways, there’s a real friendship that exists here.
We had lots of successes and failures along the way, but there has been a natural evolvement through a determination to be better. We put the smoking ban up to two years before the law was passed. We took a gamble on that.
The kickback of resistance against it was huge at first, but once over that hurdle, the payback was infinite.
We never place adverts and we don’t have a PR team. We are what we are and everything has just evolved really naturally.
Turnover has increased every year for the past 14 years.
When you think about other factors the industry has been up against, such as the smoking ban, the worst recession in living history and, more recently, the uncertainty of Brexit, more pubs have closed than ever in living history.
Some remarkable tides have come against us, yet we’ve seen consistent growth. I think it’s really been identifying the customer’s desire, matched with our own ambitions.
Here, certainly we’ve been able to marry that up. It’s not easy and you’ve got to keep pushing. I don’t know about being innovative, but I think it’s about being honest, true and authentic.
You cannot book a table here; that was a very clear decision. It’s more of a trend nowadays, but it was something we introduced six months after coming here.
No-shows are a real issue; I find them so disrespectful. Having a no-bookings policy changed the business overnight.
It was about six or seven months into the business and we felt extremely busy. Having made that decision, we found that suddenly we could fill those tables.
It takes a lot of trust. I absolutely understand the frustrations of people calling on a daily basis to book, but every single year we’ve just got busier and busier, so something is working.
We never give customers any pressure. I understand those businesses who have to have booking systems to maximise their systems.
But this is a small pub, we have 14 tables, which is not a lot, but it just works.
We set up our own brewery – Bedlam Brewery – about 18 months ago through a crowdfunding scheme. We needed to accelerate the business and answer to the demand of the product, so we had to raise some money.
Bedlam has seen some great growth and has exceeded my expectations. We had a gentlemen invest £10,000 in the brewery just 48 hours after visiting it!
The customers trust us, we’ve earned their trust and each other’s respect, which means you can keep pushing new offers and new ideas to them.
If we ever thought we were going to rest on our laurels, or be satisfied with where we are, we would be out of business as quick as a flash.
Customers would soon see when there is no innovation, they would see through us, and so you know you’ve got to keep delivering.
We use social media heavily. We love that feedback and those comments and people praising our pub. It’s great to see that people say nice things about us and the word about the pub keeps spreading.
It’s always important for us to have a good and broad offer, particularly with the drinks. We’ve seen wine sales escalate from 11% to 38% of the business.
We change our wine list up to three times a year. Some wines are available by the glass.
The staff have completed various levels of Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) training and they feel confident talking about wine. We send the team on wine trips every year, to places like South Africa or Italy. Beer is obviously important to us.
Now that the market has changed and evolved, we can offer a much broader selection.
As a free house we buy most of our beer directly, either from the brewery or the importer. When it comes down to soft drinks we want to make our soft drinks offer just as respectful, all our soft drinks are natural and pure.
Years ago I went to a pub in London which coined the phrase ‘gastropub’. I wanted to understand what this new phenomenon was.
Back then it resonated and struck a chord with me. I thought we could take the concept and the inspiration from what the staff at the pub were doing in a venue outside an urban city.
With the gastropub we were trying to create great food, sourced as locally as possible, in a totally uncomplicated way and completely flexible in a completely relaxed environment.
I didn’t want people to think they had to go to a fine dining restaurant to eat good food, it’s unnecessary.
That’s how great food should be in a pub, in a really relaxed atmosphere.
We’ve worked with some great suppliers for a number of years and every so often we find a little gem.
We’re near Shoreham-by-Sea so we can get overnight fish catches; we’re 20 minutes from Balcombe, from where we can get some of the best game in the country all year round; and, coupled with organic egg farms and a lamb farm on the edge of the village, it paints a nice picture of the sort of area in which we’re located.
We’re fairly traditional when it comes to our food offer, I’d describe it as ‘modern British’. We respect the tradition and heritage of pub food, but we need to evolve it.
There are so many cooking methods available to us now that enable us to do things so much more easily compared with 15 years ago.
I had a complete career change, I used to work as a corporate trainer. The job was just making sure we could get the best out of people.
That was a new career to me and I took those transferable skills in my next job at British Airways – it was fantastic.
It taught me a lot of life skills, like attention to detail. When the attack on [New York’s] Twin Towers happened in 2001, it really made me question the nature of my job, why I was doing it and what I wanted out of life. I thought ‘life is too short’, and decided to do something else.
There were many people who stayed in that job for 40 years and were so dissatisfied with life, so I decided to leave.
I love customer service, that interaction and direct relationship we have with people – the adrenaline you get is extraordinary. I have no regrets; I’ve really enjoyed the thrilling challenge. I love what we do with a real passion, it’s been life changing.
Great British Pub of the Year Award
It was certainly a huge surprise. I stressed to the team that being shortlisted was our win – that we should celebrate the fact we got into the final six. For our industry peers to be giving us a standing ovation in recognition of something we had done was absolutely incredible.
It meant a lot to me that the team came along with us and could see and understand what this pub means to people.
We compared the figures between last year and this, and the pub has been 25% busier in the same period.
That’s really unheard of; it’s crazy. It’s affected all sides of the business, the rooms and the bar are busier and people keep talking about it.
I’ve got no plans to conquer the world. Despite the limitations of having a pub near a National Park and in a conservation area, we have to expand the business.
We own the freehold here and have a couple of barns that have been derelict since the 1950s.
Having a Grade II-listed building could work against you in terms of development and it’s been tough at times, but we’ve got planning permission now and we’re looking forward to building an extension in the spring.
We will also be able to convert the two barns nearby and make them part of the business. By the time we move on, we will leave a bit of legacy behind.
Someone will be able to safeguard the future and allow it go on to the next level of productivity. We’re hugely conscious of the development we’re making.
We need to make sure that the core of this pub remains the same. It will give us a lot more flexibility and I’m hugely excited about it.
It’s a new challenge.