Matthew Moggridge visits the Royal Oak and Manor Restaurant in Staffordshire - and finds a tenant who has built the majority of his menu around a fine range of locally sourced and produced food.Matthew Shropshall recently bought out his business partner and now runs the Royal Oak and Manor Restaurant in King's Bromley, Staffordshire, virtually single-handedly. There is a small 25-seater restaurant, a lounge bar and a relatively large kitchen with some suspiciously domestic-looking refrigerators mingling with the bona fide commercial catering equipment.In addition to blackboards advertising the Friday fish menu, specials and desserts, there is a printed lunchtime menu and a restaurant menu.Tenant Matthew has been establishing a healthy reputation for himself in the culinary department. He has more gold medals for catering than Steve Redgrave has for rowing, and has been a finalist in numerous national catering competitions, including the Pub Food Awards 2001's Ethnic Pub of the Year (won by Florence Seale of the Blisworth Hotel, Northants).The Royal Oak, Burtonwood Brewery's most southerley pub, is nothing to write home about in terms of its appearance - but the food operation is interesting for one reason: only 20 per cent of the menu is home-made on the premises, a fact that a lot of pub caterers would be reluctant to mention.Home-madeIt is interesting because the bought-in food in question is home-made, but not on the premises. In a nutshell, Matthew Shropshall has little in the way of time and staff to do absolutely everything himself. He argues that there are people living nearby who produce better apple pies, meat pies and faggots than he ever could and so he buys them in.But surely, a chef with so many gold medals must be capable of knocking up a few pies and the odd plate of faggots? Not so, apparently. "I'm teaching, I'm the only chef here, I have to do the accounts, the rotas, the wages, clean the taps, read the magazines and conduct general maintenance," said Matthew.It is Tuesday lunchtime and there are virtually no customers. Monday to Wednesday, said Matthew, are "dead flat", but between Thursday and Sunday things do liven up. The restaurant is open throughout the week and is the only outlet for Matt's home-made food. Matthew claims that he will make anything to order, if asked. If a customer comes in off the street and wants to eat a dish he first experienced in, say, the Raffles Hotel, Singapore, then Matthew is the man who can do it. He says he can replicate anything.But he is not going to get up early to bake off a load of pies, not when there are local people who can do a better job. Fair enough and, to be quite honest, we tried the pies and they were delicious, so I am sure the customers feel the same way.Break evenWith everything so quiet, I began to wonder how Matthew makes any money. The answer is simple. He only has to produce 16 meals per day to break even and anything over that is clear profit. Based on this calculation and the fact that weekends are extremely busy, Matthew reckons that he could close the pub at the beginning of the week and base his entire earnings on what happens at the weekends.Matthew admits he has mastered the art of "winging it", a phrase which seems to underpin his entire business strategy; everything is done on a wing and a prayer - that and "deals". "We get deals, that's what it's all about, isn't it?", he said, referring to the fact that one of his chefs' fathers works for Wing Yip in Birmingham, which works out a treat when the Royal Oak runs an ethnic theme night.In many ways, it is quite refreshing to see a pub being run on such an ad hoc hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis.But getting a clear-cut answer from Matthew is difficult. On deliveries he says they come in on a day-to-day basis on the assumption that "if we're busy, we're busy".The aforementioned pies seem to make good business sense. He buys them for 27p each and flogs them on for £1 over the bar - that's roughly 70 per cent profit per pie on the price alone. Their availability is advertised on blackboards.Fresh fishWhile we are discussing the pies, in walks Nick the Fish, who sells fresh fish and seafood out of a van. It's good-quality gear and Matthew, who has never used Nick before, will probably use him again. He buys seabass, king prawns, skate wings, crabs and monkfish and promises us a treat for lunch.Nick the Fish has contacts in Grimsby and Brixham who visit the Manchester fish markets. He supplies around 20 restaurants in Cheshire and Staffordshire and visits the markets four times a week. His fish are guaranteed fresh. As for Matthew, he says he gets most of his fresh fish from Larderfresh, so it will remain to be seen if Nick the Fish becomes a regular fixture.Back in the kitchen, Matthew said it was all down to speed. Food comes through the door, in this case from Nick the Fish, and Matt has two days to sell it. He comes from a family of salespeople, he says, so selling in its purest sense, is in his blood. He will, at some stage, walk out among his customers displaying, perhaps, his seabass or his monkfish, and will actively sell his wares to his customers. "I wouldn't enjoy it unless I had the relationship with the customers", which, of course, he does. Time, however, is a problem, but where the pub is concerned, Matthew has it sorted. While he is out competing in culinary competitions, teaching or running his outside catering business, there is always 62-year-old Dave Baker, the principal of Sandwell College - Birmingham's third biggest catering college - to help out on some of the shifts. "He's a bit more serious than me and he gets the job done," said Matthew. There is also Chris Pollard, the chef with connections at Wing Yip, and others who are available to help.A new chef was supposed to start the day before we visited, "but she didn't want the job - too stressful", said Matthew. "I can't get the right people and I don't have the time," he added, encapsulating his problems in one sentence.As for the future, it is a case of simply keeping on "chipping away", according to Matthew. There are rooms upstairs which could be used as letting accommodation and, of course, there is plenty of scope for private dinner parties and outside catering. TrainingMatthew is working towards being an NVQ assessor and is looking into the possibility of in-house catering training at the pub in addition to buying a freehold pub.The food is good at the Royal Oak, be it home-made on the premises or home-made by what Matthew refers to as 'proper cooks' away from the pub and then bought in. Other pub caterers should consider this approach and investigate their own local suppliers and culinary craftsmen.Why? Because de-skilling does not have to mean using the same old frozen food wholesalers. The key in this game is to provide a crucial point of difference regardless of whether you are a skilled chef or not. Matthew Shropshall is a skilled chef and he does put his skills to use on his restaurant menu, but time is a precious commodity which is in short supply at the Royal Oak and Matthew believes that buying in quality products, locally produced, is the best option for him. Fortunately, because the faggots and pies he buys are not found anywhere else, the pub does not suffer from the criticism of providing "samey" food, as do many branded pub restaurant chains.
The Royal Oak and Manor Restaurant