My Pub: O'Marleys Red Lion

By Tony Halstead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Red lion Public house Cask ale

O'Marleys Red Lion, in Blackburn, Lancashire
O'Marleys Red Lion, in Blackburn, Lancashire
Mary Winter, co-tenant at O’Marleys Red Lion in Blackburn, Lancashire, tells Tony Halstead how a new name and increasing ale sales have helped double turnover at the pub

How we got here

My co-tenant Lesley Walker and I took over the Red Lion in August 2009 on a three-year tenancy with JW Lees.

Previously, we had run the Brierfield at Bolton on a Punch lease. Although we did very well there and achieved a huge increase in turnover, we were hit with a massive rent rise. It was a good pub but the new terms meant it was a no-go for us.

We decided to look for a smaller pub operator with more of a hands-on approach, and sought out numerous pubs before the Red Lion came on to our radar.

It was a managed house that was under-performing, so Lees wanted to switch it to a tenancy. We started by doing a lot of local market research and decided we could make a go of things by changing the business direction of the pub.

I had worked in hospital catering and also enjoyed a career as a retail manager with Asda, while Lesley works as a part-time nurse at the local hospital but is totally committed to our business at the pub.

So together we had accumulated plenty of experience and new ideas to put into practice.

The pub

The Red Lion is situated on the outskirts of Blackburn, right on one of the town’s main motorway access roundabouts. There is a McDonald’s next door and we have two food discount pubs — a Crown Carvery and a Beefeater — less than a mile away.

I think many prospective licensees will have been put off by such stiff competition, but we were convinced we could do well by providing a point of difference and stamping our own personality on the pub.

As a pub, the Red Lion dates from 1735, but the building goes back much further. It’s the oldest pub in Blackburn and has some interesting features that we wanted to enhance, so we could boast about its long history.

A change of name

We knew that effective marketing of our new business was one of the keys to its future success. Even though there are two other Red Lions in the town and we figured a lot of people might not be able to differentiate us from the others, we felt we should continue with the Red Lion name in some capacity.

After all, the Red Lion is a pub that thousands of people drive past each day and had been part of the local scenery for years, so it was probably viewed by people as more of a geographical landmark than a pub worth a visit.

Our compromise was to tinker with the name and re-brand the pub as O’Marleys Red Lion. O’Marleys is a way of combining my name with Lesley’s. If it sounds a bit Irish, it’s with good reason.

I am from the Republic of Ireland originally, so it seemed like a good idea, although we never planned to run the place as an Irish pub. It was simply a marketing tool to get people talking about us, and I am glad to say that it did the job.

The retail offer

Roaring success: vice-chairman Christopher Lee-Jones presenting O’Marleys Red Lion licensees Winter, left, and Walker with JW Lees’ Pub of the Year award 2011

With three high-profile food venues on our doorstep, getting our retail offer right first time was very important to both of us.

The pub did not have the greatest reputation, but with a new name and a newly launched food operation we decided to canvass local businesses and nearby residents to introduce ourselves.

We looked at other local pubs and food operators to see what they were doing so we could offer something different. It was never our idea to compete with them on price — our primary aim was to combine quality food and drink with great customer service.

We knew we’d be OK once we got customers through the door. The hope was that word-of-mouth would do the job for us, and it gradually worked.

We did not break any records over the first year and lost everything we put in, but by the start of the second year the business began to grow and we have moved forward ever since.

The menu

Our menu mixes traditional dishes with Mediterranean specialities backed up by a choice of daily specials. Our sharing dishes such as Mexican nachos (£5.45), O’Marleys Greek meze (£14.95) and O’Marleys Spanish tapas (£10.95) have been a big hit with customers. At £8.45, the paella Valencia is also popular, but fish & chips and cheese & onion pie are our best-selling dishes. We also offer a number of meal-deals.

On the drinks side, the rise in cask-ale sales has become one of our big success stories. When we arrived, real ale hardly featured on the bar at all, but now we have a strong following of ale drinkers and were delighted to receive Cask Marque accreditation in the summer.

Best ideas

Changing the pub’s name was obviously a key decision but we have had a number of other ideas and initiatives that have paid dividends.

The pub’s location, just off the M65, makes us a very convenient stop-off point for travellers heading north or south, so we have joined forces with a Danish travel company, which runs football trips for foreign visitors.

It’s not just aimed at matches at nearby Blackburn Rovers’ football ground, but also grounds based in the north-west generally.

We do a burger and a pint offer for £8.95 and this goes down very well with football crowds.

Other events have included a big Guy Fawkes bonfire party, which attracted a huge crowd. We had food stalls in the car park and lots of entertainment going on.

We also put on more functions such as birthday parties and christenings — this is an area where we hope to see major business growth in the future.

Earlier this year we built an outside gazebo at the front of the pub and, thanks to a good spell of spring weather, it had paid for itself by Easter.

Finance and costs

Quality offering: standards are high at the revamped Lancashire pub

It costs us £305 a day simply to open up and run the pub in terms of utility charges and staff wages. Our weekly break-even figure is £8,500, so with margins extremely tight we are constantly looking at every cost item to see whether we can save money and explore every way of adding to our revenue stream.

It’s a case of trying to maximise every opportunity and explore every gap in the market. We have dug deep to cut supplier costs to get the best deals and generally try to keep a lid on every cost item.

When we arrived here, turnover was struggling at £5,500 per week. We have managed to increase it to £10,000, so have the base to move forward and increase this figure significantly. The next 12 months will be critical for us.

We advertise regularly on local radio. In the run-up to Christmas, we will be describing O’Marleys Red Lion as ‘the place to be’. We also have our own website and generally find social networking is very effective. and JW Lees’s own site also do a good job for us.

Our favourite pub

We don’t get out all that often but we enjoy the environment of traditional community pubs. One of our friends runs the Ranken Arms a few miles away in Hoddlesden, near Darwen. It’s everything a good local should be — friendly, with good service and a great atmosphere.

Facts ’n’ stats

  • Pub​: O’Marleys Red Lion, Blackburn, Lancashire
  • Owner​: JW Lees
  • Tenants:​ Lesley Walker and Mary Winter
  • Tenure:​ Three-year tenancy
  • Business turnover:​ £10,000 per week
  • Wet:dry split:​ 50:50
  • Wet GP:​ 48%
  • Dry GP:​ 55%
  • Meals per week:​ 700
  • Average visitor spend:​ £10
  • Staff:​ Four full-time, four part-time
  • Staff wages as percentage of turnover:​ 19%
  • Average pint of cask ale​: £2.65

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