Ted Bruning discovers the trade secrets of Warwickshire's Merchant's Inn
Some pubs are blessed with Michelin-standard kitchens. Others are cursed with galleys scarcely adequate to heat beans in. But there can only be one that shares its kitchen with the restaurant next door, and that's the Merchant's Inn in Rugby in Warwickshire.
To cut a complicated story short, the whole site used to function as a single, and indeed enormous, French restaurant, Le Café Noir. Six years ago the owner sold half of it to a small independent pub group, Burlison Inns, to become the Merchant's; the rest (including the kitchen, which separates the two parts) was let separately as the Longhorn restaurant.
It's an odd set-up, but it suits both operators very well. The Longhorn doesn't open during the day, but the chefs are in anyway, prepping for the evening, and it's no skin off their nose to cook for the Merchant's. The Merchant's has no evening service and takes a commission of just 10% on lunches, to just about cover its costs.
Merchant's manager Scott Whyment says the pub does about 40 covers on an average weekday and up to 90 on Sundays. With light meals such as scrambled egg and bacon, cheese on toast, and soup ranging from £3.50 to £4.75, and mains of gammon and egg, fish and chips, and chilli ranging from £5.95 to £6.95, that's a lot of turnover not to make any profit on.
But the parent company's eponymous owner, Gary Burlison, is happy with the unusual state of affairs. For the Merchant's is a beerhouse, selling 1,100 barrels a year. Customers are greeted by a row of 10 handpumps, with two more real ales served straight from the cask. With around 40 bottled Belgian beers in the chiller cabinets as well, and the whole place crammed with brewery memorabilia, it's no surprise that the Merchant's is the Campaign for Real Ale's reigning Warwickshire Pub of the Year.
Its reputation for ale means busy evenings. But lunchtimes, even in a bustling town like Rugby, are more problematic. Too many people make do with grabbing a bite at their desks, so while the sandwich bars are hard at it, the pubs and restaurants are quiet — three restaurants have abandoned lunchtime service altogether in the last few months, says Whyment.
The Merchant's lunches, then, serve to tempt the town's beer drinkers out of their offices at 1pm and make midday opening financially worthwhile.
"Even though we don't make much on the food, there's no doubt that it has saved midday opening at the Merchant's," says Whyment. But tempting office workers out at lunchtime takes more than the promise of a really good pint (and one or at most two is all most lunchtime customers will drink these days, says Whyment — the three or four-pint lunchtime session is history). The rest of the offering has to be spot-on too.
The menu is nothing fancy, but it's sourced and cooked by restaurant chefs, so the quality is top notch. Whyment is a stickler for service, too; people only have an hour, he says, so if service is taking 20 minutes or more his staff will actually stop taking orders until the kitchen catches up. "Customers would prefer to be told upfront if there's a wait rather than be left dangling," he says. "That gives them time to try elsewhere if they're in a hurry." So true!
The formula seems to work, for lunches at the Merchant's attract not only town-centre workers but customers from the big edge-of-town employers like Cemex as well. Maybe they don't come as often as in the past, but it's clear that the Merchant's is special enough to make the two-mile trip (and car-parking hell) worthwhile.
So that's the Merchant's recipe for town-centre lunchtime success: a great atmosphere in interesting and unusual surroundings; plain but top-quality food, reasonably priced; efficient and reliable service; and then that something special to make the trip worthwhile — truly great beer.