Hugh Crossley's main goal is to keep the Duke's Head regulars happy but his seasonal menu is also pulling in East Anglia's boating tourists from the Suffolk Broads, reports Nigel Huddleston
The corridors of the Duke's Head at Somerleyton in Suffolk are lined with black and white photos of locals of all ages, a reminder that conversion to a quality food business doesn't necessarily mean ditching your commitment to the role as the village pub.
Among the line-up are Lord and Lady Somerleyton, occupants of Somerleyton Hall, whose pictures were commissioned by their son, Hugh Crossley who also happens to be the Duke's Head licensee.
The hall has been the family seat since 1863 and the pub has long been part of the estate. But until recently it was leased, first to Whitbread then to a family who ran it for 10 years.
When that family left at the start of 2004, Crossley decided it was time the pub reverted to freehold management. 'I didn't have a lot of competition, he jokes.
Down-to-earth pub food
With Crossley's aristocratic background you might expect the pub to have a designer gastro-pub vibe and a fine dining menu to rival the best London restaurants.
Instead, it's a down-to-earth, no gimmicks pub food menu in a modern but rustic property, with only slightly premium prices, justified by the use of quality produce.
'Everyone assumes I'm a foodie and the reality is I'm not, says Crossley. 'I don't want to have a Michelin star because I don't enjoy food enough for that sort of thing.
Crossley gave up running Dish Dash, a chain of Middle Eastern-style tapas bars in London, to take over the full-time running of the Duke's Head, plus the business side of the rest of the estate.
He brought head chef Brad Salazar with him from Dish Dash, where they had worked together for four years. 'He was on for setting it up and fortunately for me he's stayed because we've grown considerably, says Crossley.
'We haven't tried to be a restaurant, he adds. 'We spend an awful lot of time reminding people it's a pub with food. When pubs try to become restaurants they lose their character. I wasn't prepared to hang myself out to dry by becoming a fine dining restaurant because it wouldn't have done me any favours in the local community.
Although the pub has been remodelled and refurbished, it's retained a very casual feel (it's not afraid to use the word boozer on its website), and the locals have kept a significant public bar space.
'It was a classic Broads pub, Crossley says. 'You kind of swam through the carpet and it was quite chintzy. We left the public bar almost with the same dust on the top shelf. Having a wall knocked down on the other side was already a life-changing event for many of the regulars.
Tourists boost takings
As well as the locals, a significant lump of trade comes from tourists on the Broads, with public moorings just 100 yards away from the pub.
The slightly more upmarket take on the pub's food in part reflects the changing nature of the area. 'Because the Broads Authority is clamping down on boat pollution and erosion of the banks, it has slapped on a bigger tax, which has squeezed out the lower end of the market, says Crossley. 'Instead of lager louts in hired boats you've now got boat owners, who tend to be better off and more interested in eating better food. More and more the ones who do stop are hitting our sort of profile. But the pace of change has had to be carefully judged. 'Round here there's no such thing as a gastro pub really, he says.
'In London almost every pub has kept its Victorian features and they're all doing good food at quite expensive prices, but in East Anglia 98% of pubs are still doing scampi and chips out of a freezer.
Local beer and affordable wines
The wine list, too, reflects regional trends in taste and price, Crossley says. 'I've got a friend who has a pub in Gloucestershire, and down there you have people who can afford to spend £20 on a bottle of wine and who have the knowledge to buy a great Burgundy. Here it's more like parts of London, where they'll drink Chardonnay from the New World.
Beers are local from Greene King, Adnams and the micro Oulton Brewery with room for a guest and Aspall's Suffolk cider.
'Greene King IPA is a national brand and a lot of the boat traffic will go for a brand they understand, says Crossley.
Recent innovations have included an outside stage for live music.
'It adds a different reason to come to the pub and builds up the band, without just being purely about food, says Crossley.
The pictures on the wall provide a more permanent reminder that the Duke's Head is much more than that.
Knowing where the customers' loyalties lie
The Duke's Head has developed a novel way of getting closer to its customers, by launching a 'loyalty card called the Somerleyton United Club.
The card gives regular customers a 10% lunchtime food discount at the pub, plus preferential booking rates on entertainment facilities either at the Duke's Head or the Somerleyton estate's Fritton House hotel.
The database will be used to keep members in touch with special food and drink offers, and provide access to activities such as falconry lessons or shoots to give as presents to family members.
The idea came in response to the end of last year's summer season.
'After the school holidays we didn't find just a drop-off in trade but a precipice, says Crossley.
'The loyalty scheme is really about the database, so that we can hit 500 people with a text or e-mail about an offer. If people feel like they have ownership through a club they are more likely to respond.
There's also a Somer'older Than Others Club, providing a discount scheme for the over 60s.