WHEN I arrive at the White Hart, a team of workmen are swinging a wrecking ball through a derelict set of buildings in an area that will eventually become a beer garden. It is indicative of the dramatic changes that Sell More, Save More aims to help instigate at the pub.
The White Hart in Wiveliscombe, near Taunton in Somerset, has taken on the community pub role in the project - and licensees Carlos Alfaro and Simon Tanner are looking forward to getting to grips with key areas across the business in the months to come.
The pair are fully aware of the hard work that awaits them in getting their business right. Their trade is split 50/30 between wet and dry trade, with the remainder accounted for by 16 letting rooms. They admit that the business is far from achieving its potential and that it is suffering from an identity crisis, confused between being a coaching inn and a restaurant.
"We are a 350-year-old coaching inn, but it doesn't tie together," says Carlos. "There's no message that shoots out at you in terms of food and drink."We have to crystallise where we want to go and get everything together to do that."
Carlos and Simon took over the freehold in 2004 and started a number of redevelopments, the latest being the rubble-scattered work on the garden I found on arrival. Spending £350,000 on the property, they converted an old flour mill at the rear into staff accommodation. The pub had 10 letting rooms at the time and the new accommodation gave them a total of 16 letting rooms.
They fitted out part of the pub with a 34-cover dining area, gave its exterior a lick of paint, and have been re-decorating stage by stage throughout. They have a pool of around 30 regular customers "who would never leave the pub" and have the benefit of customers taking pride in two local breweries. The Exmoor and Cotleigh breweries are both located in Wiveliscombe, and their beers can be found on the White Hart's bar. All this, together with a function room and a skittle alley, gives them a good basis for a business.
However, they have failed to get the balance right between all these elements. Their dining room is rarely full on Friday and Saturday nights, which disappoints the pair. They agree that there is too much of a formal environment."We want to be a community bar with letting rooms attached, and for that to have a knock-on effect on diners," Simon explains. "However, we could have a full hotel and bar, but an empty restaurant. That implies we have got it wrong."
Carlos adds that they have "ended up falling between two stools on food and drink".
There are clearly some success stories on which to build. On my visit, there is a 'no vacancy' sign hanging in the window, and Simon says there is a lot of demand for the letting rooms, much of it coming from listings on hotel booking websites. The White Hart regularly hosts local community groups such as the Rotary Club.
However, there are gains which Carlos and Simon are hopeful Sell More, Save More can help them towards. They see several crucial areas to improve upon (see boxes). Let the champions begin!
When Carlos and Simon took over the White Hart, they converted its lounge bar into a 34-cover restaurant. This has become an under-used area of the pub, and they admit that the concept is not working.
Carlos says: "The dining area has become a restaurant, which we never meant to happen. With the smoking ban, now there is no longer a need to have a designated smoke-free area to eat in, we realised we had got it wrong."
They have wrestled with the idea of separate menus for the dining room and the bar, but have never found the right solution.
"We sell a lot of steak and ale pies, for example, but people don't want to eat something like that in a restaurant," says Carlos.The problem calls for a redesign of this area of the pub, another look at the food offering, and very probably the re-introduction of a bar.
Vintage Contracts will target the furniture, pub refurbishment specialist Mercury will be involved with the redesign and food champion Brakes will get stuck into redesigning the menus.
The White Hart's skittle alley is popular on winter evenings, but is "vastly under-used" for the rest of year.
Mediatheme has floated the idea of turning it into an entertainment area, featuring dartboards and pool tables, and able to host poker or racing nights. This is something Simon and Carlos are keen on as a means of making more use of the space.
The new beer garden will have "a significant impact on building and maintaining trade", according to Carlos. Especially since the introduction of the smoking ban, the White Hart has been losing customers to a rival pub over the road, which offers outdoor seating.
Simon hopes there will be enough room for around 100 covers, car parking space and an outdoor servery. Subject to planning permission, it will be open in time for next summer.
However, they will require help from Brakes to design a menu suitable for al fresco summer customers, and from all the champions to perfect the overall design.
Licensees: Carlos Alfaro and Simon Tanner
The Pub: The White Hart
Location: Wiveliscombe, a Somerset town near Taunton
Time in the pub: Three years
Wet/dry/accommodation split: 50/30/20
Beer/wine/spirits split: 60/30/10
Current entertainment: Skittles, karaoke, quizzes
Strengths: "We are established as a local venue, have a strong team of staff, and the letting rooms are massive for us," says Simon.Weaknesses: "We need to get the marketing right and are at risk without an outside area," he says. "The food needs perfecting."
Biggest threats to the business: The smoking ban means the pub will continue to suffer if it doesn't create a decent outside area.
What do you hope to achieve from Sell More, Save More? "We want to define the pub's identity," says Carlos. "We have set some strong financial targets and want to see a substantial increase in turnover."