How we got here
It’s where James and I are originally from. I did some agency work here when it was called the Hare and Hounds — just before we set up Tanners in Plymouth — so I knew the site, which is close to Royal Tunbridge Wells. We’ve had businesses in the south-west for a good number of years but it was always our intention to do something in the south-east at some point. Tanners, which we have now sold, was a great business model for us because it was very relaxed and we had such an eclectic mix of people in. We felt it would be good to have that in a pub — with the addition of a bar menu and snacks.
When we first went to see the pub, the place had been gutted, so we knew it would be a massive development to turn it into a decent venue with a good food offering. It needed a complete redevelopment, which was great because we had a blank canvas. We had a vision of what we wanted to do and we had free rein to do it. We put in an open plan kitchen, a new roof, new fabrics and interiors to breathe in some new life. The whole process took just under 12 months before we opened last May.
How we turned the business around
We decided to adapt our formula from the Barbican kitchen, also in Plymouth — our casual-dining site. We were very conscious about keeping it a pub, serving everything from bar snacks right through to full-on, three-course menus and tasting menus. It was quite an undertaking. We hit the ground running because there was quite a buzz and we were so immersed in getting it going and getting the team bedded in. We’d already had the menu format, so the next step was to assemble a new team. We were fortunate enough that head chef Sam Spratt had previously trained with us at Tanners. Even so, I took Sam and manager Melvyn Strange down to Plymouth to see how Tanners and the Barbican Kitchen operated, which allowed them to get some knowledge of those businesses. Now, we can swap staff between our sites, share the recipe bank and offer some variety — which is great for younger team members who are eager to learn.
How we grew the business
We’ve been running the Kentish Hare for 12 months now so we know where the lull months are and when business is best. It was a big one to put together from start to finish. The pub is in a lovely spot overlooking the valley, so people knew it was there. It had been pub a long time and people had watched it while it was in development — so, on the local side, attracting customers took care of itself. We also promoted it within our existing businesses. We’ve built up quite a reputation during the past 16 years and it’s nice for us to drive business from the south-west back to the south-east, and vice versa. Our businesses may be 240 miles apart but we can split our time and we’ve got great staff working across all the sites.
We’ve started to gain recognition for our efforts. Last autumn, our pub went straight into the Michelin Eating Out In Pubs Guide 2015 and shortly after we found out we were named as ‘One to Watch’ in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser’s Top 50 Gastropubs 2015. Then, a day or so after that, the AA came in and awarded us Two Rosettes. It was really great for staff morale.
How we stand out from the crowd
Consistency, that’s what really drives it. What we tend to do is get staff to put lots of ideas in the melting pot so we don’t restrict their creativity. I’m also regularly on site or on the phone to chefs, doing lots of forward planning. We like to make lots of little additions to keep things fresh. We also stand out by having a big outside area, which is great for when the weather changes. During the summer, the local cricket team often come in with other teams.
Aims for the next year
Now we’ve got the 12 months under our belt, we want to push forward and maintain consistency. Space is always a premium, so we have to make that a consideration because all the food is fresh and made on-site. We’ve done a few tasting evenings, which have gone down really well, and we’re starting to do cookery masterclasses — with a lunch included in that. It’s interesting exploring our potential and we’re all excited to see how far we can take the site.
In the know
Staff and training
If we’re hiring for a senior management role, we’ll bring the new member of staff down to see the south-west operation to watch what we do and learn what’s expected. Now the pub’s up and running, we have proper training programmes in place and we’ve always been very big on internal promotions rather than trying to bring in people. If a number two is ready to be a number one, we’ll make sure they have the opportunity for progression. It’s an open-plan kitchen and new chefs are on show, so you can usually tell in a short space of time how somebody will perform.
We’ve got a pretty varied selection of drinks. We have a well-matched wine list with bottles including: Domaine Pierre Naigeon, Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes (France 2010, £69.95); Chateau Beau Site, St Estephe (Bordeaux 2009, £49.95); and Tedeschi, Amarone Della Valpolicella (Italy 2009, £54.95). As well as this, we brew our own Kentish Hare ale with the help of Tonbridge Brewery. We have a local cider, Biddenden, which is very popular, as well as three draught lagers and a local beer called Curious Brew, made by Chapel Down. We get our tonics and ginger beer from Fever-Tree and juices from Frobishers.
We don’t have a PR agency but we’re quite on it with social media. So far, we’ve built up 1,255 Twitter followers, 675 Facebook likes, and we put out a newsletter every six weeks to keep people up to speed. It features staff interviews, events and recipes. We like to keep up a nice line of communication with our customers, otherwise things can get a bit stagnant. You’ve got to stay active and speak to people because it keeps the name out there.
Couldn’t live without
It’s got to be my I.O. Shen knives — I’d be lost if I didn’t have them. If not those, then I’d have to say a Microplane grater. It’s crazy, but we get through about a million of those a year.
Making the most of local suppliers and what’s on the doorstep. There are some great producers in Kent, so the only thing we buy in is beef from Cornwall. We use a great company called Warren’s and the quality of the beef, which we get in twice a week, is stunning.
Devilled whitebait with spiced tomato mayonnaise (£4.95); chorizo-poached cod with white bean cassoulet and romesco sauce (£16.95); whole lemon sole with brown shrimp butter and pink fir potatoes (£22.95); roast loin of pork with crispy crackling, apple sauce, vegetables and roast potatoes (£14.95).
Steaks from the Kamado Joe barbecue (£23.95 to £53.95); coronation West Country crab with apricot purée, chicory and golden raisins (£9.95); wild garlic risotto with pickled mushrooms and mascarpone (£13.50).
Last year did a little cherry tart and paired it with Devon clotted cream — we wanted to incorporate little influences from the south-east and the south-west into one dish.