Profit on a plate

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First-time foodie Jo-Ann Neal tells Lucy Britner how she and her husband Kelvin introduced food at their Lincolnshire pub, the Vine Jo-Ann Neal is...

First-time foodie Jo-Ann Neal tells Lucy Britner how she and her husband Kelvin introduced food at their Lincolnshire pub, the Vine

Jo-Ann Neal is nervous. She has a party of 15 booked for dinner and it's the most covers ever done in one sitting at the Vine, in Market Deeping. She has become half a stone lighter since the pub started serving food in October.

"We work about 105 hours a week each now, and I just don't feel like eating much after looking at food all day," says Jo-Ann. But the hard work is starting to pay off and the pub's monthly turnover is up by 10%.

The Neals have been Charles Wells licensees for two and a half years and have ventured into food with the help of the company's new Profit on a Plate website. The site is designed to help licensees introduce food or upgrade their current food offering.

The Neals had a steep learning curve, but thanks to their determination and the support of their pubco, they got there.

Business plan

The pub is well known locally for its real ale and the fact that it has been non-smoking since the Neals took over in 2005. The couple submitted their business plan to Charles Wells and, with the company's help, the pair transformed an outhouse across the court yard into a small kitchen. The Neals invested £17,000 on equipment, with a further £4,500 from Charles Wells.

"We were lucky to have a contact for kitchen equipment because we weren't really sure what we needed," says Jo-Ann. "We got basic equipment like sinks, fryers, fridges and burners. We also bought a panini toaster, but we won't use that until the summer."

By December 2007, the 24-cover pub was serving an average 60 meals a week, with no advertising.

When planning their food the Neals took the same approach as with the real ales - a simple offering that's well prepared and looked after. "Our main idea was to provide a 'tea time' service to the Deeping people as there isn't really anywhere where you can get a cheap, home-cooked meal between 5pm and 8pm."


On the menu

The menu at the Vine is small, simple and well constructed. Dishes include: cottage pie with locally-sourced beef, cheesy creamed potatoes and fresh veg (£5.90); Lincolnshire sausages with a choice of cheese, mustard, onion or buttered cream potatoes (£5.80) and drayman's platter - Stilton and Cheddar cheese, locally-produced pork pie and a slice of Lincolnshire haslet with crusty bread, farmhouse pickle and salad (£5.80).

The Neal's decision to keep things simple is paying off and Jo-Ann saves more adventurous dishes for her Saturday specials menu. The bestseller is chicken de-vine, stuffed with Stil-ton and grapes, wrapped in bacon and served with cheese sauce, mash or fries (£6.30).

Jo-Ann has used a lot of her favourite recipes so she has confidence in the menu. She says: "I still get nervous every time I bring food out. We have put a lot of pressure on ourselves."

Other foodie inspiration has come from the Profit on a Plate website and the Neals are using the online profit calculator to keep an eye on the margins. Jo-Ann can get her menus printed via the website at a reduced price, meaning she can tweak them as often as she needs to.

"We did have a seafood platter on the menu but people just didn't order it. I ended up wasting a lot of fresh fish, so I just took it off the menu and reprinted it.

"We don't have a strict GP in the kitchen at the moment - we can't really until everything has bedded in. At the moment the pub's running us, we're not running the pub. But we do use the calculator for odd things - especially when ordering new supplies," she says.

Local suppliers are a priority at the Vine, but not for fashionable, foodie reasons. Jo-Ann and Kelvin see themselves as part of the community and the local economy.

"Our customers are part of our extended family - we had three invites for Christmas lunch from regulars; 95% of people that eat the food are from our regular customer base.

"We believe it isn't enough for licensees just to sell drink any more. We are retailers and have to move with the times. We host theme nights, including a Simpsons night with Duff beer and Krusty burgers. We also sponsor sports teams, raise money for charity, and have quiz teams as well as Wi-Fi and meeting facilities."

Charles wells: helping licensees with food

Charles Wells introduced the Profit on a Plate website at the beginning of October. Retail development manager Tim Smith and food consultant Caroline Sawyer, were part of the team that developed the site to help licensees introduce food or upgrade their current food offering.

In the past couple of years, Charles Wells has streamlined its pub company and moved away from managed houses. Of their 250 strong estate, around 60% serve food and 40% use the website. There have been 182 menus started/completed, 29 posters and 40 leaflets produced. The most popular pages have been recipes and the profit calculator. Most users are first-timers.

Smith says that over the past three to four years, the type of licensee that Charles Wells has been aiming to recruit has changed.

"We were looking to take on old-fashioned licensees. What we weren't looking for was business people. Now we look for retailers rather than, say, caterers. They've got the business skills and the people skills and we can teach them the rest," he says.

"We are trying to almost re-align our business to attract professional retailers with good people skills. As part of this we have revamped the way we market pubs. We now produce information almost like an estate agent, with details of every cost a licensee will incur when considering taking on a pub."

Smith's future plans include the possibility of a food-training course and asking licensees what they want next from Profit on a Plate. Visit for more details.

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