Lamb at Satwell: lone sheep makes good

By Lesley Foottit

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pub Cask ale Public house Campaign for real ale

Gross and Smith: making a success of the Lamb
Gross and Smith: making a success of the Lamb
Chris Smith, of the Lamb at Satwell, Oxfordshire, talks to Lesley Foottit about making money from a pub three miles from the nearest house.

Leasehold owner Chris Smith, of the Lamb at Satwell, Oxfordshire, talks to Lesley Foottit about the challenges of making money from a tiny pub three miles from the nearest house.

How we got here

My long-time friend and business partner Nick Gross and I took on the free-of-tie commercial lease at the worst time possible — March 2009, right in the middle of the recession.

We had an uphill struggle as that summer it rained more than anything else, and then we were hit with 18 inches of snow in Britain's worst winter in more than 30 years.

But we persevered and 2010 has been looking much better for us, as we have established ourselves and were recently named the Campaign for Real Ale's (CAMRA) South Oxfordshire Pub of the Season Spring 2010.

Learning curve

I had no experience whatsoever when I took on the Lamb, just a long-term objective to enter the licensed trade and a 15-year background in marketing and promotions, which I thought would be an asset.

Gross spent many years working as a chef for Marco Pierre White and also established the Clerkenwell Dining Room and Devonshire House in London, so he knows his food inside out. We decided to start a pub business together and, actually, ended up switching to the Lamb at the last minute after a previous deal fell through.

The pub wasn't in a bad state when we got it. In fact, we opened on 20 March after just a week getting the pub ready. It was a priority to get the pub open and the business up and running, so we had decorators in overnight for a while to tidy the place up.

The kitchen needed equipment and the pub needed decorating from top to bottom, and we've bought new furniture, carpets, cutlery and crockery. We are constantly upgrading. So far we've spent around £20,000, which is actually fairly low, because we always shop around for the best buys.

Attracting trade

The pub is absolutely tiny. It holds just 40 people over two rooms and it's in the middle of nowhere, so we really had our work cut out to attract people here. On the up side, the pub is cosy and intimate with a huge log fire in winter and a 200-cover garden that, hopefully, we'll get more use out of this summer.

In terms of attracting trade, we've discovered that if the kids are happy, the parents are happy, and we've come up with a few ways to capitalise on that. We developed a special bar menu geared towards children that we serve in the early evening. It means we make some extra money between 6pm and 7pm.

During our Saturday breakfast through the summer, children are invited to collect their own eggs from our 20 hens and the chefs cook the ones they've chosen. They love it and through word of mouth we have built up around 20 to 30 extra regular covers on those mornings. We sell a boiled egg and soldiers for £2.95 and the adults' version is £8, so it is worthwhile in both profit and goodwill. People tell their friends so our business increases and our good reputation grows.

We are in the middle of a group of villages, which means we have a large potential customer base, but there is a huge amount of local competition. Four other serious gastro-pubs with a similar offer are within a few miles, so we had to work very hard to build up a solid reputation.

Also, the pub is three miles from the nearest home, which means it's unlikely people will be coming to drink, so we had to make sure our food offer is absolutely spot on. Our wet:dry split is around 35:65.

Food and drink

Our menu is modern English and European. We do a lot of pasta and vegetarian dishes, so it's not all straight-down-the-line English pub food. The average spend per head here is between £25 and £30 for two courses and a glass of wine.

The menu changes regularly, but at the moment our best-selling main is the double-boned pork chop with fondant potato (£12.50) — it's flying out. People love our soups too, and because we have customers returning regularly, we change the soup every two or three days to give them something different.

Drinks-wise we offer a range of wines that change every six months, and when they do we invite customers to a £15-a-head tasting session with an expert, and there are three or four cask ales on at all times. The local Loddon Brewery provides us with our bespoke ale — Leaping Lamb (3.9% ABV) — which is very popular at £3.50 a pint. We sell four pints of bitter for every one pint of lager.

Being CAMRA approved is a great asset as people recognise that it's the sign of good quality ale. We change the ales every week, so it's very appealing to our customers. I have been an active member of CAMRA for 10 years, so we do promotions with the organisation.

Marketing strategy

I was able to transfer a lot of the skills I picked up from working in marketing and promotions for the music industry over 15 years. It is really important to have a strong website — so many pubs don't bother. Our website is our strongest tool and we spent between £3,000 and £4,000 building it from scratch, exactly to our specification.

It has links to Twitter and Facebook and it's colourful, community based and informative. Of course, it's very easy to go too far the other way and overload your website with information, so we put all our extra news on email alerts to customers. We now have around 1,000 people registered through a combination of us adding email addresses from comment cards and people signing up.

Twitter and Facebook work with the younger demographic and they just take minutes to update. We refresh our pages regularly and update the website every Monday morning. Social networking also means you can deal with customer problems straight away.

We also advertise once a month in the Henley Standard for £150 a time to see how well we're doing. We gauge it by offering a 20% food discount voucher for two people valid for two months, to see how many people come in.

It is important not to do too much advertising and promoting as it can make businesses seem a little desperate.

In the pipeline

Our huge garden will be a big draw to customers this summer — if the weather is kind to us. We have spent around £2,000 on plants, flowers, hanging baskets and furniture, and now the garden looks great.

In the event that we get a typical British summer, we've also invested in some gazebos so we can still make use of the extra space outside whatever the weather.

In the longer term, Gross and I are planning to build up a little empire in the Oxfordshire area.

Over the next three to five years we want to build a small chain of gastropubs and perhaps have a little hotel. We are looking aggressively for our next pub, so watch this space.

Facts 'n' stats

Turnover: increased by 15% to 20% since March 2009

Wet GP: 65%

Dry GP: 65%

Wet:dry split: 35:65

Average spend: two courses & glass of wine, £25 to £30

Most popular drink: Leaping Lamb cask ale

Average covers: 30 to 100 a day

Staff: three chefs, 10 front

Tips for business

• Remember a pub is a pub — there is a fine line between gastropubs and restaurants

• Never be complacent — you are always at the mercy of the local population

• You only have one chance to get it right — follow up every complaint straight away

• Research your staff before hiring — your front-of-house staff represent you and your offer

• Always move forward — even fantastic food and drink menus need updating regularly

• Give staff frequent guidance and training — friendly and informative staff make all the difference

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