The Big Interview: Charlie McVeigh, Draft House

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Draft house, Cask ale

"We quite like small sites. They're easier to manage, and if you get the quality right you can make money" - Charlie McVeigh
"We quite like small sites. They're easier to manage, and if you get the quality right you can make money" - Charlie McVeigh
After hearing about Charlie McVeigh’s ambitions for his Draft House pub chain, how he aims to double in size to six by the end of this year and get to 15 by 2015, it wouldn’t naturally occur to you say, “Yes, but what else are you doing?” So, leaning back in the sunshine in the beer garden at the Westbridge, stroking his beard, he volunteers the information himself.

“Actually, I’m working on a book. It’s about the history of the pub, a kind of manifesto.

“I feel very passionately that in smaller communities the pub is a very important amenity.

“I started out as a free marketeer, but now I feel there are things that can’t be left to the free market. People are drinking at home too much and that’s a massive issue. We’ve got to subsidise the pub and create opportunities for them to serve communities. The Government should pick a fight with Europe and tax British brewers less on draught beers.

“There’s an incredibly exciting brewing industry in the UK and pubs are creating jobs. Let’s make it easier for them.”

McVeigh himself doesn’t seem to need such help. His three London Draft Houses, two in Battersea and one at Tower Bridge, will be joined by a fourth in East Dulwich next month and a fifth, in the West End, could open late summer.

The concept, built around a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, high quality pub food and the interesting draught beers that suggested the brand name, last year earned the approval of Pizza Express entrepreneur Luke Johnson, who not only took a stake in the business but became its chairman.

Like a lot of his beers, McVeigh is an import. His father was a New York banker who brought the family over in the mid ’70s. McVeigh started his own career as a financial journalist, going on to advise Proctor & Gamble on strategy in eastern Europe and the Far East.

Returning to London in 1998 he met a couple of mates at a party and they were complaining about the lack of clubs in Notting Hill. They decided to solve the problem themselves. McVeigh had some money from his consultancy and between them they bought a four-storey Conservative club next to Westbourne Park station and turned it into a club called Woody’s.

“It must have been luck,” recalls McVeigh. “We had no idea what we were doing really and it was a total smash.”

Backed by a small group of investors they bought the pub next door, converting it into the Grand Union, and opened the Bush Bar & Grill in Goldhawk Road. The sites were sold in 2006, but in the meantime McVeigh had embarked on a personal venture, leasing what would become the Westbridge from the Wellington Pub Company and creating an Italian pub called Matilda.

“It was a disaster,” he says. “People really had no idea what it was — and it was particularly bad for me because it was the only place I had done by myself.”

His second attempt, though, hit the mark. And the Westbridge Pub & Dining Rooms not only made it as a gastropub, it was here he began his experiments with beer.

“I had a bar manager at the time who was interested in beers and we started to introduce some imports on the bar. We got more and more busy. The take went from £8,000 to £16,000 a week.

“That was before anyone talked about beer. It was Carling, Stella, that’s what you did, plus one or two cask ales, badly kept. That was the basic model.”

He developed relationships with brewers, including Duncan Sambrook, who was setting up nearby. The Westbridge was the first pub to serve Sambrook’s Wandle ale.

“It all came together,” says McVeigh. “That was the beginning of the craft beer revolution.

“Our focus was not on cask ale, but on international keg beers. Some were as much as 12% ABV with big flavours, so we introduced smaller third-pint glasses, which I’d noticed were legal. It’s a nice measure. If the beer’s 8% or 10% ABV it’s like having a glass of wine, and it hasn’t got the stigma of a half-pint. A third became the discerning man’s drink.

“I had no concept of doing a brand at this point,” he continues. “But I’d also got a reputation for doing traditional pub dishes really well, so I thought we’d do another one.”

He was offered a site in the Westfield shopping complex, but amid the uncertainties of the recent credit crunch turned it down. It’s now Geronimo’s Bull.

But he did feel ready to take a smaller site, on Northcote Road, and the first Draft House became an instant success. As well as a clearly defined food and drink offer it took its inspiration from Amsterdam’s brown bars, “a calm, cool atmosphere, beer served in small measures, busy hangings of pictures”.

McVeigh saw the potential for a brand and charged designer Frith Kerr with creating an image “emblematic of really good interesting beer, simple food and a warm atmosphere”.

“She’s a genius, and she turned what we were doing into a brand. Everything had been so bitty and disparate, and what I really wanted to do was build up a reputation for consistency.”

Within a year he’d rebranded the Westbridge as Draft House and opened a third at Tower Bridge before progress stalled.

“I underestimated the stresses and strains of going to three sites and how important it is to consolidate what you’ve got,” he admits. “There were a lot of inconsistencies and difficulties with staffing and management. It was a real struggle for six or nine months.”

The systems Draft House needed arrived with Suga Gunam, poached from Nando’s operator Capricorn Ventures. Once Suga-ised, as McVeigh terms it, he was ready to take the next step. He talked to several potential investors before doing the deal with Johnson — “the others didn’t compare” — and set about looking for new sites.

That hasn’t been easy. The two that are in the pipeline are smaller than the existing Draft Houses, but McVeigh is comfortable with that.
“We quite like small sites. They’re easier to manage, and if you get the quality right you can make money. They always feel nice, too, even when there aren’t many customers.”

Despite the popularity of creative food offers such as Burger Monday — customers can choose their burger with ‘a yolk, a smoke or a poke’ — takings across the Draft House group are 60% wet, thanks, in part, to the fact that “people can walk to the pub in London”.

“We’d like the West End site to be very wet-led, like the Cask in Pimlico or the Rake at London Bridge,” says McVeigh. “We’re seeing a massive move to specialisation and specialising in beer is a plus at the moment. I think the wet-led pub is going to make a comeback, at least in city centres. There’s a huge market for standing up and drinking beer — and it’s easier to run a pub like that!

“We’ll grow to 10 or 15 sites over the next three years, then we’ll look outside London. We feel in control of our own destiny now.”

My kind of pub

COWEXTERIOR2

“I use the Cow near my house in Notting Hill. It’s run by Tom Conran and it seems as though everything is effortless there, but you know there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

“The other place I’d choose is the London Inn at Molland, north Devon, where my family are. It’s a very simple pub and it’s used by everyone in the village.”

Key dates

1967
Charlie McVeigh born in New York

1975
Moves to London with his parents

1990
Graduates from University of Edinburgh and becomes a financial reporter on The Daily Telegraph

1992
Moves to Austria to work on The European newspaper

1994
As a consultant advises companies on how to break into eastern Europe

1996
Managing director of consultancy ECM Asia, setting up offices in Manila and Beijing

1998
Returns to the UK and opens Woody’s club in Notting Hill, adding the Grand Union pub, Westbourne Grove, and the Bush Bar & Grill, Goldhawk Road

2004
Takes free-of-tie lease at the Westbridge

2006
Sells Woody’s, Grand Union and the Bush, converts Westbridge into a gastropub and introduces pioneering beer range

2008
With chef Rowley Leigh opens the Café Anglais, Bayswater, where he remains a director

2009
First Draft House opens at the Northcote, Battersea

2010
Westbridge rebranded as Draft House. Tower Bridge site opens

2011
Luke Johnson takes a stake and is installed as chairman of the business

Related topics: MA500 Business Club

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