The best things in life take time, and that’s certainly true for the Shibden Mill Inn, near Halifax. A labour of love for more than 17 years saw the 350-year-old business come into its own and take the title of Great British Pub of the Year in 2015.
Having earlier struck gold in the Freehouse category of the Great British Pub Awards, run by the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, owner Simon Heaton was delighted to find himself walking away with the ultimate prize. The pub has since added to its trophy cabinet, following its success with a place in the Top 50 Gastropubs list at number 44 for the first time, as well as awards including Yorkshire Pub of the Year and Les Routiers Inn of the Year.
With a history stretching back to the English Civil War, the current owner Simon Heaton took on the operation 17 years ago, initially as a side project.
“I was in a different business completely, oil and gas, but I used to come down here and it was a lovely old building. When it came up for sale, I was able to get it for a good price.”
Initially, Heaton stayed out of the operation, turning to an old school friend, Glen Pearson, to head up the business as general manager.
“Glen was a friend from school who’d worked as a chef originally, then worked for a big catering company. So I asked him if he’d be interested in coming to run this place. He was and it went from there.”
The business was, and is, a family affair with Simon’s wife, Caitlin, drafted in to help with the refurb and his son, Max, now on board as a duty manager.
Heaton said he mainly left the team to it in the early days, contributing ideas and influences gathered from his travels during his day job: “In my other job, I was travelling a lot and I brought back those experiences in terms of looks and service.”
And that dedication to seeking out new ideas hasn’t changed. “I’m always looking at what other people are doing, and try and bring good things into the business.”
However, the lure of the pub proved greater than the lure of oil and gas, and Heaton soon decided to focus full time on his acquisition: “I was on a plane, travelling somewhere and I thought: I don’t want to do this any more.”
He sold his operation, but said initially, the move caused consternation for the team at the Shibden Mill Inn: “I think Glen panicked because I was coming, but I said ‘don’t panic, I’ll do the marketing and accounts!’”
Having joined the business, Heaton made sure he worked through all areas and aspects. “I wanted to work all around the operation, so I understood it all.”
Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength, under the winning team of Pearson,
Heaton and other family members. “We’ve grown turnover every year,” says Heaton, although he admits it has been challenging at times, which has forced the business to make tough decisions.
“We used to do a lot of weddings,” says Pearson. “We were doing around 60 to 70 a year and it was good business. But it was upsetting others and the buildings and kitchens were just not suitable.”
Weddings would invariably take over the entire operation on the day, pushing regular customers out. Heaton and Pearson took the hard decision to put an end to wedding parties, and while Heaton admits it was hard to turn the business away, in the long run, they didn’t lose out, and they’ve rebuilt the lost revenue.
Heaton has also not shied away from investing in the business. The site now boasts a separate upstairs Grill Room and Pearson’s former flat from the early days of the operation has been turned into the Wine Loft, a boardroom-style function room. With space to host parties now developed, afternoon teas and baby showers have now replaced weddings and Heaton says the investment has more than paid for itself.
The accommodation is also an area that Heaton and the team have worked hard on.
“The inn had six rooms when we took it on. We increased it to 13 but we’re now down to 11.” Refurbishment of the rooms to a first-rate standard has seen the business earn a five-star rating from the AA and the facilities, along with their modern, luxurious feel, are proving popular with guests as well, with repeat business very strong. Heaton says the AA stars were difficult to gain, but they help maintain discipline and keep everyone focused on maintaining standards.
“But there’s still things we want to do,” he adds. “There’s still two or three rooms we’d like to refurbish.”
Running the accommodation op-eration alongside the pub brings other challenges, however. “We need four duty managers as we’re a 24-hour operation. We also took the decision to run a separate reception, rather than run it through the bar. It costs more, but works well for us.”
Recruitment is a challenge given the pub’s rural location: “We don’t have space for staff accommodation,” says Heaton, but a strong focus on good working conditions, training and sharing tips throughout the business, from top team to the kitchen porters helps to retain good people.
And good people are important in running an award-winning pub, he adds: “It’s about having a great team. A lot of our success comes down to the staff, they are unbelievable.”
Winning the award brings the business full circle as well, Heaton points out: “The first award we ever won was with the Publican’s Morning Advertiser in 2001! Winning the Freehold award this time was quite something, but to go on to take the overall award was incredible and we’ve had some great publicity from it as well.”
And Pearson says the win still resonates: “Winning the title gave us a massive sense of pride, and we’re still feeling that now. It’s also been a great help when it comes to recruiting new staff.”
Shibden Mill Inn was a deserved winner of the Great British Pub Awards and its strong focus on building a first-rate business around the core principles of good hospitality and great service stand it in good stead for a long and healthy future.