Pauline McCulloch, co-owner of the Royal Oak, Fritham, Hampshire, tells Sheila McWattie about building business in her New Forest pub.
How we got here
I trained as a chef and my husband, Neil, was a farmer, and after time out to raise our children we took on the challenge of the Royal Oak, which we all run now as a family. It's a tiny, thatched pub serving cask ales and local food in a New Forest hamlet, so we need to give people plenty of good reasons to leave the beaten track. A popular cycle route through the forest helps trade and we also attract walkers and horse-riders.
Neil and I took over the pub and its adjoining 58-acre working farm in 1998; by then it had been operated by the same family for 90 years. Customers and villagers were concerned that a brewer would take over the pub, which had become a freehouse several years earlier.
Fortunately, a friend and fellow villager agreed to back us, and 12 years on we are still here.
How we achieved growth
We didn't want to change the pub at all — just add to it. The previous owners didn't have a food operation, so this was one of the first changes we made, initially just buying in sandwiches until we could carry out a full refurbishment and build a kitchen.
We have a very strong local, evening trade, so decided we would just serve food at lunchtime and remain a pub in the evening. We have invested heavily in the building, spending £250,000 mainly on the initial refurb, and then rolling upkeep. Customers appreciate the way we've improved it, while maintaining the original feel.
Keep it simple; quality will always outsell quantity. Treat your staff as you would wish to be treated yourself. Reputations are hard to gain and easy to lose.
Best business advice
Run the pub you would like to visit. When we took over, most customers were men — now our numbers are about equal. We welcome the fact that women feel they can come in by themselves and feel comfortable.
How we stand out
If customers go away happy, thinking it must be easy to run a pub, you're doing it right. We stock a good range of local cask ales and provide a simple, quality food offering, good quality wine, clean glasses and clean toilets. We have a corral for visiting horse-riders, and ponies and pigs in the grounds. Our summer hog roasts and September beer festival boost trade and customer loyalty, and we smoke our own duck meat.
www.beerintheevening.com helps as it is based on actual customer comments. It's good to read constructive feedback, and you can work on the negatives.
How the menu changes
Seasonally: in summer we add local freshly-dressed crab to the ploughman's options, and home-made soups and broths in winter. People like consistency and come to us knowing what they are going to order; some even phone ahead and ask if we can save something in particular for them.
Couldn't live without…
Our marquee can only go up on a temporary basis, but during the Christmas period and bank holidays we use it to double the available area of the pub. It cost about £12,000, but has recouped that many times over.
Our aim with wet sales is to provide quality at an acceptable price to our customer. We are well known as a cask-ale establishment and always have seven real ales on from local breweries. Cask ales make up 69% of all wet sales, the best-sellers being Bowman's Wallops Wood and Ringwood Best Bitter.
Lager and cider run steadily and wine has grown to 17%. We have 10 wines by the glass. In the £3.50 to £4.50 per glass range we aim for a lower GP to enable us to offer better quality wines at sensible prices.
Three recommended suppliers
Lyburn farmhouse cheese
A great selection of award-winning cheeses from cows on the farm, based two miles from the pub. 01794 390451; www.lyburncheese.co.uk
Uptons of Bassett
Award-winning butchers with high quality local products, who understand customer service. 02380 393959; www.uptonsbutchers.co.uk
Award-winning beers made by a team always prepared to make that extra effort. 01489 878110; www.bowman-ales.com
In the know
It's all about attention to detail. We employ a lot of young staff and a proper induction in hygiene, safety and correct service is essential. Simple things make a huge difference, such as using knife-and-fork pouches so that the first impression is positive when food is served outside. There is nothing worse than a badly wrapped knife and fork. Getting staff to serve drinks correctly is vital as this is the first point of contact, and it's essential to have enough staff — don't keep your customers waiting.
An idea that didn't work
Getting involved with too many outside events. All the planning involved in a wedding reception can make it too easy to take your eye off the ball in terms of the core business.
As a freehouse we are in a strong position to drive down costs. We don't take debit or credit cards, so we're essentially a cash business, saving on bills to the banks — it's not as mad as it sounds. We also look at our turnover with suppliers to get them to reduce base costs. We don't like to change suppliers constantly, so we ask them to be as competitive as possible, while maintaining service standards.
Word of mouth has been hugely effective. Joining New Forest Produce, a group for producers, suppliers, and end-users of anything from pork, beef, and cheese right through to firewood produced within the boundary of the New Forest National Park, reduces advertising spend to a minimum.
We're lucky to have a great team — some staff who started at the age of 14 are still here in their early 20s, keen for more work whenever they return from university. We have a very low staff turnover and see our staff as friends as well as colleagues. Paying them a good wage helps, too.
Address: Royal Oak, Fritham, Hampshire
Tel: 023 8081 2606
Licensees: Pauline and Neil McCulloch
Turnover: £534,000 gross
Wet:dry split: 77:33
Wages as percentage of turnover: 27%
GP food: 65%
GP drink: 59%
Total covers: 34 inside, 300 in garden
Average covers per week: 580 over whole year
Average spend per head: £11