Creating happy customers

By Sheila McWattie

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Chef, Local food, Public house

The Ram, Firle, East Sussex
The Ram, Firle, East Sussex
Hayley Bayes, licensee at the Ram in Firle, East Sussex, tells Sheila McWattie about kids, dogs, horses, muddy boots, excellent beer, great wine and...

Hayley Bayes, licensee at the Ram in Firle, East Sussex, tells Sheila McWattie about kids, dogs, horses, muddy boots, excellent beer, great wine and truly local foods

How I got here

My family ran traditional pubs and after living in one I swore I'd never do it again. But the Ram is very different. I took on the 20-year private lease with my ex-partner six years ago and for the past two years I've been the sole licensee.

We'd started in the computer business and had run an all-night café and comedy club in Eastbourne. We were walking on the Sussex Downs and saw the Ram for sale. It's Grade-II listed, but was very run down.

Tranquil Firle seemed an amazing place to raise a family. The inn and village are owned by the Gage family, who live locally. We shared their vision of keeping the Ram primarily as a village pub, committed to offering excellent beer and great wine, without turning it into a restaurant.

How we grew business

People think the product is food and drink, but the product is a happy customer. We want customers to relax with their kids, dogs and muddy boots, and sit down to a plate of really good food.

We paid £30k to take on the Ram and lived above it for two years while we renovated, investing £150k. As visitors dropped in, saw the food quality and spread the word, it developed into a valued and valuable business. It was a massive change for me to become sole licensee, but as a woman on my own, raising three children, I've realised it's possible.

The Ram attracts a broad mix: locals, walkers, paragliders, riders and shooting parties. Children, dogs and horses are welcome. I once found someone on horseback chatting in the bar...

Business philosophy

We aim to optimise rather than

maximise turnover, focusing on margins and staff costs and giving value for money.

Best advice ever given

Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity.

How we stand out

Honesty, consistency, quality, a unique location and a relaxed casual atmosphere.

Lord Gage's local rents are affordable and have attracted lots of artists to Firle.

Our art exhibitions and monthly folk-music nights are well attended.

Bar talk

Harvey's is our biggest selling ale. We bright it off into a nine for the farmers' bar. We always have two guest ales and a perry. Wine is our top seller, followed by ale, lager and spirits. We sell wine and Champagne by the glass, Pimm's and Winter Pimm's are always big sellers. We change our wine list twice a year and stock about 14 reds and 14 whites in bottles from £14.50 to £50. Enotria supplies our wines.

Future plans

To encourage business meetings and training events, with lunch, tea and coffee and residential occupancy.

Best food promotion

A South African wine-grower talked about his vineyards and our chef prepared a special menu. We sold 30 tickets at £40 for three courses and a glass of wine matched to each.

Recommended suppliers

Heath's Butchers, Eastbourne,, 01323 722110

Brighton & Newhaven Fish Sales, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex,, 01273 430646

David Bland at Flint Owl Bakery, Glynde, East Sussex,, 07961 315610


Outdoor cinema​: On Wednesdays and Sundays, from July to September, we'll show free films at sunset in the garden, against a theatrical backdrop. We're adding blankets, hot-water bottles and hampers this year.

Four bedrooms​: A great extra income stream, attracting many international tourists exploring local Bloomsbury Group literary connections.

Stable conversion​: We cleared the stable and installed a wall-mounted screen for £500 for meetings and events. The Firle Artists group exhibit here; we're a Brighton Festival Open House in May and hold Lewes Artwave exhibitions in August.

Farmers' bar​: The locals were having to queue for their jugs of Harveys with the crowds ordering food and drink on summer weekends at our tiny bar, so I installed a 'floating' bar in the old coach-house, which they christened the Farmers' Bar.

Breakfasts​: Served on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Our Illy coffee and bacon butties suit walkers, who often knocked on the door before noon until we opened earlier. We also offer the full menu, which our B&B guests can choose from.


Menu philosophy

I want people to read our menu and be able to picture what they're going to get. Our focus on British pub food recognises the UK's history in terms of the impact of overseas dishes and ingredients.

Local produce here means using half a bullock reared in the fields behind the pub, yellow courgettes from allotments, bantams' eggs from people's gardens and pheasants from the Gage estate.

We also use small local firms. Our famous vicar, the Rev Peter Owen-Jones, brings wild strawberries, walnuts and huge baskets of home-grown vegetables. Our chefs have been spotted picking local blackberries.

Menu changes

We change something every day and most of the menu changes over a month.

Most popular dish

Wild rabbit. A local farmer culled more than 100 and offered them to us. We don't normally freeze, but bought

the lot.

Best-selling dishes

Starters​: Pint of shell-on prawns, aïoli, Flint Owl Bakery bread (£8.95); twice-cooked crispy Firle rabbit, mixed leaves, mayonnaise & lemon (£6.95); steamed South Brockwells Farm asparagus spears, Farmer's Hand Parmesan-style cheese, aged balsamic vinegar (£6.25).

Mains​: Pan-fried local skate wing, crushed new potatoes, samphire, brown shrimp, caper butter (£14.75); seared Heathfield venison loin, mashed potatoes, Savoy cabbage, dry-

cure bacon & game jus (£15.25); twice-cooked Sussex pork belly, sweet potato champ, fine beans & green peppercorn jus (£13.75).

Desserts (all £5.95)​: raspberry crème brûlée, lemon shortbreads; rhubarb poached in rosé wine with vanilla egg custard; dark chocolate & hazelnut brownie, chocolate sauce, vanilla cream

Most profitable dishes

Local butterflied mackerel, Jersey Royal new potato salad, mixed leaves, garlic butter (£10.95, GP 79%); rhubarb poached in rosé with vanilla egg custard (£5.95, GP 84%).


Service secrets

We foster a can-do attitude that's relaxed, casual, smiling, friendly, efficient and professional.

Idea that didn't work

We built an outside bar and barbecue. We thought it would blend well with the garden if

it was faced with wood, but it burnt down and set fire to a tree…

Credit check

Pro-eco, a buying group that searches the market for the best deals such as utilities, is invaluable:

Marketing & PR

We invested in our website design and our monthly parish magazine reaches three parishes. We were The Sunday Times's number-one pub garden of the year 2009, Waitrose magazine's Pub to Stop In, and listed in Sawday's Pubs & Inns of England & Wales, all without seeking publicity. The pub and staff featured in How to Live a Simple Life, a TV documentary with the Rev Peter Owen-Jones.

Staff motivation

My key staff have been here for a while: head chef Jack Cotton for five years and manager Glenn Hooper since October 2006. We're working through our large staff training manual. I like to promote from within and recruit via Friday Ad and Gumtree websites. I've introduced a profit share for the head chef and sous chef: we aim for 70% food GP and they get a percentage of everything over 66%. Many local youngsters come for work experience.


Tenure​: Private leasehold

Licensee​: Hayley Bayes


Wet:dry split​: 65:35

Wages as percentage of turnover​: 29%

GP food​: 68% — aim for 70%

GP drink​: 64%


Related topics: Training

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more