In December 2012 I signed the lease of my first pub and now, as of three months ago, I have another. I had always planned on one day running several distinct and wonderful pubs but the myriad of challenges I had faced in opening The Bell and operating it over the last two years had made me doubt whether I would ever be ready to expand my business and question whether it would be worth it.
On top of all that, recruiting a team of chefs for one kitchen was enough to make me draw up business plans for a wet led pub with a pizza oven and a fridge.
The opportunity, when it came however, was too good to ignore. I felt that I had taken a huge gamble with my first pub and it had finally started to make sense. Unfortunately, it was on a relatively short 10 year lease, had some extraordinary costs involved, there was a rent review looming and the brewery had just launched its own managed section. If I had any eggs I wanted another basket.
As I was taking my first lease, the lovely village, 10 minutes down the road, had bought their local pub from Punch. They had refurbished it beautifully and set about recruiting their tenant under a free of tie agreement. Unfortunately, and despite everyone’s best efforts, the pub had been vacated and had remained empty since January of this year. Some of the shareholders appreciated what we had achieved at The Bell and encouraged me to go for it.
Taking my second pub was probably about 6 months too early but all the signs were good. I had bumped into my old boss Tom at Pub15 who, understanding the life of a publican, had shown genuine concern for my welfare before recommending an excellent Head Chef he knew who was looking. I had also managed to put an experienced team together who knew the pub and the village well.
Rolling out another branded chain has never appealed to me. I have long believed that each pub is unique and has its own ‘DNA’ defined by the people that use it and support it as their own. Even heavily branded, group pubs have their points of difference.
Managers, staff & customers have great influence on the service style and product mix. The Russell Arms had its own charming character and style and so we have worked hard to embrace that and reinforce it.
Three months in and both pubs are going well, we had a little quiet period recently but figures have bounced back. The strong teams in both pubs give me the confidence to focus on operating the businesses and, of course, continue the seemingly never-ending process of recruiting good chefs for two kitchens.
James Penlington runs the Bell in Stoke Mandeville and the Russell Arms in Butlers Cross.
Follow James on twitter: https://twitter.com/jpenlington