Nick Gibson, licensee of the Drapers Arms in Islington, north London, shares insights on his £1m-turnover business with Sheila McWattie.
How I got here
Working for various City banks, I loathed the work and values. At the same time I kept telling my sons: “Throw yourself into everything you do, try lots of stuff and you will find something you enjoy that just happens to become your work.”
Eventually I realised that not only was I an immense hypocrite, but was also ignoring some pretty good advice. I’d always loved food and drink — consuming, cooking and entertaining.
Through my wife Georgina’s work at Soho House, a private members’ club for those in film, media and creative industries, I had met several people in the business that I liked and admired.
In 2008 I started looking for a pub with Ben Maschler as my partner and in spring 2009 we re-opened the Drapers Arms, in Islington, seeking to make it a pub we’d like to use.
This beautiful building, purpose-built in 1839, is leased from the Drapers’ Company, one of London’s 12 livery companies. Sadly, Ben left in 2010. But I’ve recently opened a second pub, the Devonshire Arms, in Chiswick.
Achieving business growth
Although it had been shut for a year, the local community felt very affectionate towards the Drapers Arms. As running a pub was new to us, we aimed for simple things done well and consistently, with the aim of providing authentic, robust, enjoyable British food and drink with good service and generous spirit.
We focused on the stripped-down essence — food, drink, service — and trusted locals to respond. We stay away from discounting or offers — people who visit regularly should get fair, sustainable pricing and we endeavour to deliver that daily.
Great staff are the shoulders I stand on and we have taken turnover to more than £1m per year.
Best piece of business advice given
My friend Nick Jones, founder and owner of Soho House, told me to ask people I admired for advice, whether I knew them or not. I continue to do that and have had lots of great suggestions from many kind people — the industry is full of them.
Standing out from the competition
We seek to be as good as we can in absolute terms, looking ahead at the people who inspire us and whom we’d like, one day, to call our peers. You have to want every person to leave with a smile as an end in
itself, rather than a means to financial gain.
Our key objective with drinks is to deliver authentic and enjoyable products. Our lagers are selected for the fact that they are made where they sound like they are from, so there’s no Japanese-sounding lager brewed in the Home Counties.
We have had a lot of success with Camden Hells lager this year. We rotate our ales through predominantly small and local brewers including Truman’s, Sambrook’s, Dark Star and Thornbridge. Harveys is on all the time because I like it!
Our wine list, which delivers about 60% of wet sales, is constructed with a limited number of small suppliers, underlining our focus on authenticity.
Environmentally, it doesn’t make sense to ship a bottle half-way round the world if you can get a similar wine in the old world for a comparable price — so you’ll see a lot of Spanish and French wines. Our New Zealand wines are there because they are exceptional.
I also like the wines to have individuality — to taste as they should, given where they come from. So rather than generic fruit-filled wines, we do have wines that some people might not like.
Six red and six whites are available by the glass and carafe, plus rosé, sparkling and sweet wines. We try to allow staff to familiarise themselves with the wine to enable appropriate recommendations.
Five best ideas
I’m deeply irreligious and can’t stand mince pies, Christmas pudding or mulled wine, but this is my favourite night of the year that I like to think embodies our affectionate relationship with customers. I don’t sing.
We let customers use space at the Drapers free of charge for day-time events such as acting workshops, fashion shoots, interviews and meetings. If they aren’t in our way, it’s nice to be helpful in other people’s lives.
Annual ale & cider festival
It’s not huge, but emphasises the point that we run a pub that takes its beer seriously — not a restaurant or wine bar.
We love running one-off events driven by friends and customers, such as: a calçotada — a Spanish fiesta celebrating sweet onions from Spain known as calçots; a food demo with food writer and TV presenter Stefan Gates; and a bloggers’ charity dinner.
Drink the list
When we change the wine list twice a year, we open every bottle and let people get stuck in. It’s far from a money-spinner but it is fun. I hope it encourages people to order wine they know they’d like when they next visit.
ON THE MENU
We change the menu daily, so it evolves through the year with what is seasonally best, rooted in honest, robust, British cooking. I love that we provide sharing dishes, such as whole fore-ribs of beef, shoulders of venison and roast chicken. And if you just want a home-made Scotch egg, sausage roll or pork pie, our bar-snacks menu ensures you can still try our cooking.
Starters: Ham hock, salsify, chicory & buttermilk dressing (£6.50); grilled razor clams, red onion, garlic & thyme (£7); crispy brawn, tartare sauce (£6)
Mains: Slow-cooked ox cheek, bashed neeps, watercress & crispy shallots (£14.50); Roasted pollock, cockles, bacon, samphire & cider (£13); steak & oyster suet pudding (£12.50); fore-rib of Dexter beef to share, chips, watercress & Béarnaise (£48.50)
Desserts (all £6): blancmange & blackberry jelly; spotted dick, custard; damson Arctic roll.
Food GP: 65% target
Best food promotion: Pig fest: We’re passionate about pigs and our annual six-course tribute to the wonderful beast. It’s £40 per head and the 50 places sell out quickly.
IN THE KNOW
Hire people who are happy, who like being happy and who like making other people happy.
Try to keep them that way, and to make the product one that they are proud of. Treat them with respect. Make expectations clear and give them all the information they require. Commit to maintaining quality and loyalty.
Fix every problem with generosity — make sure managers get to hear about them fast. Staff should know that we accept that mistakes happen, without repercussions. Deduct mistakes from bills, provide bottles of wine better than the customers were drinking; be honest, apologetic and sincere.
Twitter puts me in touch with people who are passionate about food and drink and take pleasure from eating and drinking out, which validates what we do every day of the week. It also helps us to communicate what we are interested in — our food
Link the manager and head chef’s benefits to the main controllables: GP, staff costs, top line and profitability. This helps them think about controlling costs at all times.
Surround staff with other hard-working and high-quality people, treat them decently, make the product a good one so that they are proud of it, and show your appreciation. Let them contribute as much as possible by having a light hand on the tiller.
Licensee: Nick Gibson
Tenure: Free-of-tie leasehold; lease owned by the Drapers’ Company
Wet:dry split: 50:50
Wages as percentage of turnover: 30%
Food GP: 65%
Drink GP: 66%
Total covers: Up to 170 in the summer, with 130 in the winter months
Average spend: £20