Rick Bowman, co-licensee at the Stag in Ongar, Essex, tells Sheila McWattie how he enlisted the help of local people to transform the pub.
How we got here
My partner Tony and I have more than 15 years' experience in several tenancies. After extensive research, we joined McMullen & Sons in August 2007, taking over the tenancy at the Candlestick in Essendon, Hertfordshire, until tenanted trade director Fergus McMullen offered us the Stag in Ongar, Essex, in February 2010.
It's very much a pub at the heart of the local community, with space for 28 covers inside and a very large garden accommodating more than 80. The town has 7,000 residents, three other pubs, two primary schools, restaurants and a supermarket.
Chelmsford, Brentwood and Harlow are just 20 minutes away by car and there are affluent villages nearby. We are committed to making the Stag the heart of the community.
How we achieved business growth
Before we took on the Stag, we turned to tenancy operations manager Graham Rollings. The company knows the local area like the back of its hand. If there is a new business or pub coming to the area, or council committee meeting scheduled, it will be the first to know about it.
This was invaluable and we contacted the council to obtain demographic data, drove round every street, and visited the competition. Ongar has a lot of families with children, but pubs were not offering a great deal for them — and there was no play area for youngsters.
Our introductory letter, hand-delivered to every home, outlined our aims, including quality, locally-sourced, home-cooked food, quiz nights and a children's play area.
We closed for just three days, adding new furnishings and lights and transforming the garden into a beautiful, alfresco space with a play area. Our research also identified a large group of young adults aged 19-26. Several work in the local supermarket and we invited them over.
They now form a lively and loyal group of regulars boosting trade here. Within two weeks of opening, we had the locals thanking us for giving them their pub back, and
turnover has increased five-fold in the past 11 months.
McMullen & Sons helped enormously by paying most of the refurb costs, creating the ambience and atmosphere we wanted for the local community.
The company also helped us fund the £5,000 investment for the play area, which has paid for itself 10 times over in the short time we have been trading.
How we stand out from the competition
We work to support our local community — and be at its heart. Identifying Ongar's need for a play area has really paid off, for example. We've created a real home-from-home atmosphere in the pub, which features a broad mix of ages.
When we arrived, the Stag had no food offering, so we asked the community what kind of food it wanted on the menu and set about offering that for people. We recently won a Gold Award from the Round Table of Ongar for our outstanding community contribution.
We are working hard to build our food offering and, in just 11 months, sales have increased significantly. Our ales include McMullen AK and McMullen Country Bitter, and we stock Oliver & Greg's wines across white, red and rosé.
Our butcher, D White, of Braughing, near Ware, Hertfordshire. Visit www.braughingsausage.com
Top five ideas
• Children's play area
• Alfresco dining space — transformed from just grass
• Food offering: good quality, locally-sourced and home-cooked
• Live singer every month
• Monthly quiz nights in support of Cancer Research
Tenure: Six-year tenancy with McMullen & Sons
Licensees: Rick Bowman and Tony James
Wet:dry split: 70:30
GP food: 65%
GP drink: 52%
Inside: 28; outside 80
Average weekly covers: This number varies depending on the season
Average spend per head: £15-£20
Our offer consists of traditional pub classics and we're happy to adapt to customers' requirements. Our specials board changes each week and features pies (fish and meat), steaks and gammon dishes. We offer sandwiches, light bites such as jacket potatoes, and mains, with a children's menu also available.
Sandwiches are all priced under £5 and come with chips and a salad garnish. Favourites include home-made Braughing sausages from a renowned butcher near Ware, Hertfordshire, and smoked salmon & cucumber.
Main meal selections
Home-made steak & Stilton pie (£8.95); game pie (£9.25); lasagne (£8.75); Sunday lunch with all the trimmings (£7.75).
We have also embraced the growing trend for sharing platters, which are hugely popular with customers who like smaller bites. Our sharing platters, which are all priced at £9, involve combinations of king prawns, breaded mushrooms, onion rings, chicken goujons & curly fries with a choice of dips. Our beetroot & apple pie (£3.95) dessert created quite a stir when we first added it to the menu. The idea came from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage and is a particular favourite of our female guests.
The menu changes seasonally with the specials board changing weekly.
Starters: deep-fried crispy Camembert served with salad garnish & cranberry sauce (£4.75); duck hoisin spring rolls served with a salad garnish and plum sauce (£4.75); whitebait served with salad garnish & tartare sauce (£4.50).
Mains: lamb shanks served with vegetables of the day, potatoes or chips (£11); 8oz gammon steak served with chips, peas, fried egg, pineapple, mushrooms & salad (£9.50); beer-battered cod with peas, chips, salad garnish & fresh lemon slice (£7.50).
Desserts: spotted dick with choice of custard, cream or ice-cream (£3.75); Hot chocolate fudge cake with choice of custard, cream or ice-cream (£3.75); Orange roulade with cream or ice-cream (£3.75).
Two most profitable dishes: Lamb shanks and gammon steak.
Best food event
In the summer we hold Sunday barbecues for around 80 covers in the garden, catering for all tastes. We complement our offering with numerous home-made salads and sauces.
In the know — Business philosophy
Provide nothing less than the service you'd expect yourself.
Best piece of business advice ever given
Choose a brewery such as McMullen & Sons, who you are confident will support you at every turn, working through any problems you have, and finding a solution.
We want to be the talk of Ongar for the right reasons — offering great, locally-sourced, quality food, support for the community and a pub customers are proud to call their local. From the start, we sat down with our six staff and talked them through our vision and service values, such as being aware of customers arriving and offering a warm welcome. We aim to serve main dishes within 15 minutes of taking the order. If the kitchen is busy, we advise customers before taking an order.
Changing refuse arrangements to a local collector produced big savings for us. We saved on recycling plastic Coke bottles by introducing a Coca-Cola machine.
Successful marketing and PR
We publicise our monthly offering via A-boards and we recently introduced framed, colourful A-boards in the pub to publicise individual offerings such as special themed nights, quiz and music evenings.
Our team's ages range from 18 to 45. Tony and I work closely with our staff to promote good customer service and provide
a fun, and sociable, working environment. Even when staff aren't working at the pub they spend their social time drinking and eating here.