Business Focus: The Castle Inn, Chiddingstone, Kent

By Lesley Foottit

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pub Head chef Chef Michelin

Chef turned landlord: Castle Inn licensee, John McManus
Chef turned landlord: Castle Inn licensee, John McManus
John McManus of the Castle Inn, Chiddingstone, Kent, knew he was going to be a chef from the age of 13. Having worked with some of the biggest names in the restaurant business, he tells Lesley Foottit how he turned his hand to running a pub

How you got here

I had never worked in a pub before, but am a chef by profession. I am from Lancashire and went to college there where one of my lecturers was Michael Quinn. He left to take up a post at Gravetye Manor in West Sussex, which was a top-10 UK restaurant and one of just 12 with a Michelin star at the time. He sorted a job out for me there when I left college. It was my first introduction to highend food and the Michelin circuit.

Following that I held posts at a number of prestigious establishments including chef de partie at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, sous chef at Le Gavroche when it held three Michelin stars and head chef of Four Seasons on Park Lane. I had always promised myself that one day I would work for myself and when the time came I looked around for a suitable pub. I wanted to run a pub rather than a restaurant because people now want restaurant standard food in a pub without all the airs and graces.

The Castle Inn came on the radar. It is a charming, traditional pub in a lovely village with picturesque views of the church spire. It is owned by the National Trust and I took it on in Janurary 2010, opening a couple of weeks later after a lick of paint.

Achieving business growth

The pub dates back to 1420 and is in need of a little updating, but not urgently. There is the potential to put some bedrooms in, but most importantly for me was to establish the food and drink offer.


We have got very good feedback from our customers and are building on last year financially. We are getting repeat customers, people who used to visit the pub years ago are starting to come back, and diners who ate with us last Christmas have been enquiring about this year, which is great news.

I have known Marco Pierre White since I was 19 when we worked together and he recently got in touch about the launch of his beer. The Governor bitter was launched in March with JW Lees and Marco got in touch to see about me stocking it at the pub. Of course, I did and it has gone down very well, though 80% of the beer we sell is brewed by Larkins just down the road.

Mainly, achieving business growth is about keeping the food and service standards high and making sure your customers are happy because then they will recommend you further afield. We are very much a destination dining pub and need word of mouth to keep new people coming.

Standing out from the rest

There are a few other pubs in the area but they have a different offer so although there is some crossover, we attract different types of clientele. I think that when you look at our lunch menu and see something like the rabbit terrine with pickled wild mushrooms, Dijon mayonnaise & broad beans (£6.60) it is clear that the people in the kitchen really care about the food they are cooking.

We stand out with our fantastic venue, great food and friendly service, all in a fabulous setting. It doesn’t matter whether someone serves from the right and clears from the left. What matters is con-sistent friendly service and a great overall experience.


You can see traits of my Michelin training in some aspects at the pub. When the food is put on the tables it is clear that care has gone into the dish and that the people in the kitchen love what they do. We like to be innovative and put on a twist on things but above all, it is high quality, affordable food that we serve.

In terms of the talented people I have worked with, Michael Quinn has inspired me greatly as he guided me from college and gave me my first job. He went on to be head chef at the Ritz and get an MBE. Albert Roux has also been a great inspiration to me from a chef point of view.

On the front of house side, I often find myself wondering what Ramón Pajares would do in certain situations. We worked together at Four Seasons when he was general manager and was regarded as the best hotelier in the world. His attention to detail and


knowledge about customer service was incredible.

He went on to be director of the Savoy Group.

Best piece of business advice

Think about your circle of friends and don’t be scared to talk to them. Ask them for advice and use their experiences to help you form your own decisions.

Biggest mistake and what did you learn

Luckily, so far I have not experienced any huge mistakes, although I have learned to check quotes from companies very carefully to avoid cost in the long run.

Recommended business websites

The BII ( is very good, really professional and helpful. I also found the links available to help construct employee con-tracts invaluable.

Other great websites are​ and​.

Three recommended suppliers

Wine Service in Lingfield, Surrey, Bentons in Uckfield, East Sussex, and Larkins Brewery in Chiddingstone.

What I couldn’t live without...

A good book to read. I don’t get a chance to sit down and read a good book too often so I do enjoy it. When I start a book I can’t put it down until it’s finished so I read when I get home after work.

Four best ideas

  • Lunchtime special/early bird menu
  • Castle.Inn.Sandwich(2)
    Pie and pint with a new guest beer for £3
  • Converting one of the unused staff rooms upstairs into a private dining room
  • Resealing the garden furniture — it is amazing how many people comment on how good the terrace and garden furniture looks.

Pub facts

Licensee​: John McManu


Wet:dry split​: 50:50

Total covers​: 85 inside, 150 outside

Average covers per week​: 350, more in summer

Average spend per head (three courses and a drink)​: £17 lunchtime, £25 dinner


Menu philosophy

I oversee all the menus and my head chef and I make sure that we stay true to our vision for the pub as well as listening to what our customers want.

We do modern British food served with attention to detail and care. Even our sandwiches look as though they are made with great consideration and people take photographs of our Ploughman’s because it looks so good.

When we started the pub was 60:40 wet-led and that has balanced out to 50:50. I expect it to continue that way and we may end up with a split around 40:60 food-led.

Best new dish

Brunch Board (£11.25). It comes with small samples of dishes of some of those offered on the main and pudding menus — dishes such as mini sausage & mash, fishcake, plum tomato & goats cheese salad and a chocolate brownie.

Best-selling dishes

Starters:​ Rabbit terrine with pickled wild mushrooms, Dijon mayonnaise & broad beans (£6.60)


Mains:​ Seared south coast squid with pak choi, beansprouts & sweet chilli dressing (£12.95)

Desserts:​ Treacle tart with almond & chantilly cream (£5.60)
Most profitable dish

Confit of ham hock terrine with mustard & celeriac coleslaw (£6.50)


Advertising, PR and marketing

I have done very little advertising because I believe that word of mouth is the best benchmark to assess how your business is really doing. When advertising, you don’t know if peaks in business are down to the promotion or whether it is really a reflection of how it is going. It saves a great expense too.

However, we do some in house promotions that are working really well. Diners can have two courses for £9.95 or three courses for £13.95 during weekday lunches or dinners from 5.30pm to 7pm. The dishes are taken from the main menu so the quality is the same.

People coming in for a sandwich often end up having two or three courses as it is such a good deal and next time they bring their friends too. In November we are going to put on a twice-weekly early evening supper to get people out. It will be very homely with hot pots and winter stews cooking on our wood-burning stove. Diners will get a main meal and glass of wine for £9.95.

I have recruited two members of kitchen staff who I have worked with in the past, which has been great as I already know how they work. I have three members of staff in the kitchen and three front of house plus some part timers when we need them and I am really happy with my team.

I lead by example and try to put over to them that they can get a lot of enjoyment and fun out of hospitality. It is not just a job. Part time workers and students learn so many life skills in a pub that put them in good stead for later in life. When they get older they will look back to their time here and see how they learned invaluable communication, people, work ethic and time-keeping skills.

It is important to train your staff and give them permission to make mistakes. It is how they recover from the mistake that can be really telling.

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