How I got here
I was born in 1982 and started my first shift in a pub at 14, collecting glasses in my Dad’s Middlesbrough local. As soon as I reached the legal age for pub work, I moved across the road to a Bass pub. I quickly climbed the ladder and by 19, I was doing relief management in pubs across the north-east of England and in Aberdeen.
I started a music technology course, then gave it up to become assistant manager of the Gipsy Moth, in Greenwich, owned by Bass Leisure Retail, which later became Mitchells & Butlers (M&B). More relief posts and an M&B tenancy followed, plus a short stint in recruitment.
In 2009, I became manager of Fuller’s White Horse in Richmond, south-west London, and within three years had operational responsibility for 11 sites. With this rapidly changing and challenging experience came plenty of freedom to create new pubs focused on ale beyond Fuller’s own products, including setting up the Barrel & Horn in Bromley, south-east London, and the Union Tavern in Westbourne Park, in the west of the capital.
Establishing our business
An independently minded, comparatively uneducated northerner like me didn’t quite match Fuller’s ideal senior management profile.
So I started my own company, initially working at Fuller’s during the day and setting up my own brewery in Penge, south-east London, at night — hence its Late Knights name.
Shortly after I left Fuller’s in early 2013, Late Knights started producing beer and my first site, the Beer Rebellion in Gipsy Hill, also in south-east London, opened.
Since then we’ve opened another four sites: London Beer Dispensary in Brockley (June 2014) and Beer Rebellion in Peckham (August 2014); the Brighton Beer Dispensary, in central Brighton (April 2014), and the Ravensgate Arms in Ramsgate (December 2014), which has its own craft beer shop on the side called the Cap and Cork.
We moved our Gipsy Hill site next door to secure a long lease (from a private landlord) in October 2014.
Our business philosophy
Building a strong team of like-minded, humble people to help us develop all sides of the business. Our personal ethics have to align with our business ethics and the people who work with us need to share these. But it’s pretty simple: if you are creative, personable, hard-working and have real care for people and the environment, you’ll fit in.
Standing out from the crowd
We take run-down places that are not always pubs and aim to design each differently, focusing on the bar space — our Brockley site doesn’t have a bar at all — because we believe that promoting and strengthening the connection between staff and customer is our most important asset.
My girlfriend, Bethany Warren, undertakes most of the design with me. So far we’ve taken on two run-down bookmakers’ premises, one wine bar, an Italian restaurant and a pub in which to work our magic, maximising our business and opportunities through those we employ and whose ambitions we share.
We take all our people — customers and staff — seriously, promoting a hands-on, reality-based attitude among staff across our company and producing and selling our own and other producers’ top-quality food and drink.
Working with our outstanding team and other committed businesses enables us to look at opening a brasserie, alongside our definite plans to open a bakery, cinema and community farm within the next year. We build business from the communities surrounding us: it’s by listening and working with them that opportunities arise.
Quality food and drink
We only stock products from small independent producers, sourced as locally as possible. Fostering good relationships with suppliers, from cider and soft drinks to beef and bar snacks, is crucial to our success.
We produce a core range of seven beers in bottle, cask and keg, including an IPA made with Polish hops, and our spicy winter stout is welcomed as a seasonal ale. Because we sell most of our Late Knights beer in our pubs, we involve all our staff in working in our brewery, where they enjoy brewing our beers themselves.
Our great beer-flavoured snacks, such as beerkins (beer-battered gherkins) (£3.50), beer sticks (spicy pork sausages) (£1.50), and hot dogs served with IPA mustard (£6), help to increase wet sales and dwell-time. Our burgers sell very well — especially our Wilson Pickett cheeseburger (£6). We only use local free-range meat and locally baked organic bread. The grind of the meat and the addition of ox heart is a secret recipe, that makes all the difference.
Positive staff relationships and motivation are my top priorities. Our staff work across all our venues, giving them plenty of experience of our whole operation and motivating them to remain engaged. We enjoy working with other breweries on various collaborations, such as live brewing events.
‘Other breweries are also available’ could be our motto. Some people are quite shocked at the way we push other people’s beer, but we are committed to it. Not only do we price all our ales at the same level, but also encourage our staff to recommend other local beers to our customers. Most of our customer engagement works at floor level: our staff are our front line, representing our values and ethics in real time.
Our outside events bring our ethos and brand to people who usually don’t get down to south-east London to see our bars. All our pubs manage their own Twitter feeds, with plenty of promotional activity and 10,000 followers across the company.
Our popular live brewing events are free to attend, each attracting an average of 100 guests. We take our mini brew-kit to our pubs and show people how to brew our beer at home — it’s really interactive and educational. And we do quite a bit of outside catering, taking our amazing burger to the streets of London, as well as to small festivals.
Best advice we’ve received
When I was trying to persuade Fuller’s to let me operate outside the norm and asked my previous M&B area manager, Alex Shepherd, how he did this, he replied “sheer bloody-mindedness”.
If there is something I want to achieve, and it seems a bit unusual, I’ve learned that you have to put your foot down and make it happen, no matter what.
We have five thriving pubs and another two in the pipeline in the next six to nine months. We are also joining forces with a local housing organisation to open our new brewery, bakery, café, cinema, music venue and 30-acre farm in south-east London.
We’re working on opening a brasserie upstairs at our latest addition, the Ravensgate Arms. I’d like to open a delicatessen in one of our pubs, so we’ll see what happens...