The Big Interview: Mark Reynolds, Tom Peake, Nick Fox, Renaissance Pubs

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Renaissance founders: L-R Mark Reynolds, Tom Peake, Nick Fox
Renaissance founders: L-R Mark Reynolds, Tom Peake, Nick Fox

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Tom Peake, Nick Fox and Mark Reynolds, founders of Renaissance Pubs, talk Lesley Foottit through the first decade of the south London group as they celebrate a special anniversary

"Mate, it’s time." The cryptic call wouldn’t have been out of place in a gangster movie, but instead the phrase was uttered by Tom Peake when he told co-founder and long-time friend Nick Fox that the time was right to kick-start Renaissance Pubs.

The two, along with Mark Reynolds, had been planning a foray into the gastro world for a while and — in 2003 — they struck. "We saw the gastro thing happening and it made sense — it fitted with us," says Peake.

All three have backgrounds in hospitality, with various degrees across hospitality management, business studies, catering and marketing between them. Peake has been credited by the others with getting the Renaissance ball rolling.

Going into hospitality was a clear choice for all three, but in particular Reynolds, whose parents ran a business in the sector in the 1980s. Peake completed a bartending course after leaving school and gained valuable experience. Fox, meanwhile, was involved in the leisure game.

In 2000 they opened Cinnamon Cay in Lavender Hill, Clapham, south-west London, and while it didn’t make them millionaires, it taught them priceless lessons about running their own business.

"Paying wages for the first time was awful," says Fox. "I went through the book from the Government and it made no sense. In the end I called the helpline. I take charge of the finances for Renaissance and it suits me. We all have skills in different areas. Having three of us works well."

Reynolds adds: "We learned a lot on our feet and our staff do the same — they see our profit and loss. You have got to give people autonomy to run their own businesses. You can’t tell people how to run them."

Working together

The trio obviously get along well, with Peake and Reynolds firm friends since the age of eight or nine, while Fox joined the party later when they all went to university.

Peake and Reynolds often stay in a flat above the Stonhouse in Clapham during the week if they need a ‘crash pad’ in London. "I bought loo paper this morning, darling," cracks Reynolds. They are still in fully-fledged banter mode and all three insist that arguments don’t happen.

"Three [people] is a good number," says Fox. "There is usually a majority vote and we have different skills and expertise for each area."

Peake adds: "We have a similar outlook on most issues anyway — for example, in terms of expansion. We are quite philosophical — they are not life-or-death decisions."

Having come this far without any "major errors", the group’s only regret is the company’s relatively slow growth, which is down to a lack of suitable sites.

"We are looking, and get very excited on a regular basis," says Peake. He adds they have lost out on some sites to larger companies that can pay higher fees.

lthough all six sites are in south London, the founders are open to crossing the river into new territory, as well as moving outside London. "We want a few more in London before we head out," cautions Fox. "Outside London, it is much more difficult."

North, west, central London and the Home Counties are all possibilities for future locations.

"What has helped us is our knowledge of the Clapham and Balham areas — we don’t have that with north London. Clapham has really changed since we started — there are so many more restaurants, and people."

Peake adds: "Northcote Road [in Battersea] has been growing steadily for the past 30 years. Clapham High Street is the one that really sticks out. There used to be just a few paint shops — it was rough. Now pubs, restaurants and estate agents line the streets and the whole area is humming — it is incredible to be young in London now."

Organic growth

In terms of locations, the sites are fantastic. All accessible by Tube, bus or on foot in vastly-populated areas, the Avalon by Clapham South Tube is particularly well placed to ensnare the streams of people pouring out of the station and down Balham Hill.

The addition of the sizeable Avalon and Bolingbroke, both in Battersea, in 2008 kicked the business up to another level, but growth — apart from that — has been "fairly organic".

However, site frustration hasn’t affected the trio’s grand plans for the future. A pizza offer has just been introduced at the Rosendale in West Dulwich, south-east London — the group’s newest site.

A big climbing frame has also been added to attract families, while young professionals haven’t been left out with the addition of table-tennis kit and table football.

The Rosendale might house some letting rooms in the future, with similar plans possible at the Tommyfield in Kennington, south London.

The latter outlet is a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, so politicians could be prime candidates for bookings.

Six or seven boutique-style rooms could be in the offing, though the space may lend itself to more.

"We would love to get into boutique-type hotels in the end," says Peake.

Making it work

Wannabe operators may want to hear the trio’s top tips, given their success. The most important one, they add, is to not underestimate the challenges of running a successful pub.

pening the first Renaissance site, the Abbeville in Clapham, on "an absolute shoestring" was tough for the group, but they credit the transition from one to two sites as being the hardest switch, operationally. Once they hit site three, they knew they wanted to keep growing.

"There is the hard side of researching, crunching the numbers and educating yourself," says Peake. "And the soft side of dealing with staff and customers. If the staff aren’t happy, it is not going to work."

Fox adds: "Don’t overcomplicate it and don’t be too clever. Have areas of expertise and have someone do the finances. Pubs have such a long-standing place in the hearts and minds of British people that they aren’t going anywhere soon."

The three friends anticipate eating-out standards will continue rising in line with expectations as the number of casual-dining operators increases and expect operators’ USPs to be paramount.

As Peake points out, pubs and restaurants are very different businesses in terms of managing customers’ expectations, and the company is resolute about not crossing the blurred lines between the two.

"Managing restaurants is more straightforward — it is a more linear agreement," he says. "Arrivals in pubs are different — some people want to eat, some drink, some might drink, then eat — there is no structure. Pubs are a messy business in a good way."

Reynolds interjects: "Messy, but fun!" Never a truer word was said and if confirmation is necessary, take a trip to the Avalon on a weekend night. You’ll find it wall-to-wall with 20-somethings.

Each pub trades differently on food and drink but the group, on average, is 56% wet-led. Despite rapidly rising food costs, the company has been kind to its punters with remarkably static menu prices.

"I think we are as foodie as we want to be," says Reynolds. Fox adds: "We want them to be very much pubs. The Stonhouse is perceived as more ‘restaurant-y’ and we need to shift perception — we will always take a walk-in."

Birthday celebrations

In the meantime, Renaissance is toasting its 10th anniversary this year and someone will win a decade of free dining at any existing or future pub
of their choice to celebrate the event. See www.renaissancepubs.co.uk/ten​ for further details.

The extensive festivities also include an offer of four TEN London G&Ts for £10 between 5pm and 7pm every day at all sites during June.

Despite the endearing child-like exuberance with which the trio have approached Renaissance’s milestone year, the boys are all grown-up, with eight children between them, but still meet most weeks for a catch-up.

They are rightly proud of their achievements and struggle to pick a favourite outlet. Reynolds plumps for the Abbeville for its "locals’ feel", Fox goes with the Bolingbroke as it is his children’s favourite and Peake can’t choose between the upbeat Avalon, his love for the Tommyfield or his soft spot for the Abbeville. As he points out, not having a head office means they simply have to spend more time in the pubs. I wonder if that is more by design than accident.

 

Key dates

2003

Tom Peake, Nick Fox and Mark Reynolds launch Renaissance Pubs and open the Abbeville in Clapham, south-west London

2005

They open the Tommyfield in Kennington, south London

2006

The Stonhouse in Clapham, south-west London, launches

2008

Renaissance unveils Bolingbroke in Battersea, south-west London

2008

The Avalon launches in Clapham

2011

The Rosendale pub, in West Dulwich, south-east London, opens

2013

Renaissance toasts its 10th birthday

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