How I got here Up to the age of 43 I worked as a general manager and sales manager for a large London-based company specialising in large-format printing for retail, events and exhibition markets. The daily commute combined with dealing with the politics of big business were energy-sapping and I needed a change.
For several years, the George had been my local in Frant, a small village in East Sussex, two miles from Tunbridge Wells and close to the Kent border. My wife Catherine and I married in the church next door.
I felt really at home at this traditional 18th century pub, which attracted plenty of locals. Consecutive tenants hadn’t engaged closely with the community and business diminished.
It was only because I was fond of the George and sensed its wasted potential that I decided to jump ship when the pub came on to the market in 2006 and become a publican — a life-changing decision I’ve never regretted. Catherine was a housewife, but her family has a history of running successful cafés and restaurants in Brighton.
Turning the pub around
Our top priority was recruiting an effective team with the key aim of putting customer service at the heart of everything we do. We brightened up the menu, starting with a small offering, ensuring we got that right and adding individual dishes on the basis of customers’ feedback.
The pub’s large enclosed garden is a great asset, and our major capital expense involved making it more accessible and welcoming, including a safe play area.
In our first year we spent around £25,000 upgrading the kitchen and decorating the pub to attract new and regular faces. Meals are now served in our two bars, and in our dining area, where we host frequent celebrations, parties and functions, with bespoke catering.
Our business philosophy
Our success in helping people feel relaxed here is confirmed by customers’ positive feedback. While we take food and drink seriously, we don’t aspire to create a restaurant.
What people love is that a local solicitor can easily be found standing at the bar engaging in conversation with the scaffolder — there’s no pretentiousness and everyone considers each other an equal.
How we stand out
Nowadays there are few pubs like the George around Tunbridge Wells. We focus on our community, encouraging locals to mix, enjoy a drink and tasty food and hopefully have some light relief from their hectic lives.
Running eye-catching annual events such as our World Sloe Gin Championships in December and other enjoyable food and drink-related events help put us on the map. We’re lucky to live and work in an area often regarded as one of the UK’s top places in which to live.
Frant is bordered by Eridge Park estate, with the High Weald Landscape Trek and Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk going past our front door.
The pub opens every day from 10am to midnight, to enable walkers to re-charge their batteries over tea and cake, a light snack or full sit-down meal. Wellbehaved dogs are welcome and always offered a drink.
Building the business
I’m always open to new ideas, while believing “don’t fix what isn’t broken”. It’s easier to maximise what you already have than find new business and we aim to convert the infrequent customer to a frequent one.
It’s vital to retain our sense of community.
I’d rather fill our tables regularly by offering realistic price-points than see people go elsewhere.
All our dishes are made here. Supplementing our menu with daily specials allows us to experiment to see what sells and monitor price barriers.
Traditional pub food goes down well, outselling our fancier dishes, with Harvey’s steak and ale pie, beer-battered cod and chips, and curries among the favourites.
Having a fresh fish offering is important to us.
Our Enterprise/Laurel lease means we are tied for lager and stout only, leaving us free to order guest ales.
We have an interesting and varied wine list and have used the same supplier since we arrived, Les Caves De Pyrenne.
The house red is a French Merlot and a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular. Harvey’s best bitter, brewed in Lewes, East Sussex, has a very loyal following here.
The most effective way forward for us is local marketing, via word of mouth.
Our target market is the south side of Tunbridge Wells and villages within seven miles south of the George.
Our website features a detailed local map, and we’ve engaged a local PR to publicise our sloe gin event.
World Sloe Gin Championship: hosting this unusual annual event highlights the abundance of high quality wild produce and talent in this category and showcases our offer effectively.
Artisan sloe-gin makers will gather on 10 December for our sixth consecutive championship, which began when locals had a lively discussion about the constituents of the perfect sloe gin recipe.
Hand-crafted sloe gins are often superior to those commercially produced on a large scale, which can taste more like fruit cordial, so finding a top quality artisan product has become a winter highlight, attracting plenty of new and familiar enthusiasts.
Private entrants in the bid to find the World Champion Sloe Ginster support the MS Society (www. mssociety.org.uk) by donating £2.50 per entry; commercial producers each donate £25.
Entrants deliver two 100-500ml bottles of homemade sloe gin to the George on the morning of the event, which is copromoted by Moon Down, a company based in Bells Yew Green, running foraging, craft and marmalade workshops.
Entry forms are available via Moon Down’s website.
FrantFest: every August we showcase several local bands and a hog roast and barbecue. It can be costly but I regard some of this as marketing, as the festival is part of our bid to encourage first-time visitors.
Clubs and groups: our own golf society is known as the Gofers, and we encourage local groups and societies to meet here, especially in winter, when we also run a Monday quiz and darts competitions.
Mussels nights and fondue events: these always sell out at £9.95, including a starter. On a recent mussel night, snails proved popular. Our street-party celebrations for the royal wedding and Golden Jubilee were a memorable success.
Best advice I’ve received
Work hard, look after your regulars.
The George has belonged to the community for 400 years, so we want to help ensure that it continues far beyond our lifetimes.
Facts 'n stats
Wet:dry split: 55:45
Turnover this year: £500,000
Sta ff: Three full time; 10 part time
Covers: 70 indoors; 70 outdoors
Meals: up to 500 weekly, with seasonal variations
Food GP: c66%
Drinks GP: 53%
Best-selling dish: Harvey’s steak and ale pie (£9.95)