Pub Love was spawned in the midst of the trade’s darkest days in 2007 by founder Ben Stackhouse. The smoking ban had just kicked in, London was living in the shadow of the 2005 terror attack and handfuls of pubs were closing by the day as a result of the recession too.
Such a situation would have driven many entrepreneurs far from the sector, but not Stackhouse who saw the perfect opportunity to breathe life into a crippled trade, he tells the Publican’s Morning Advertiser outside his Exmouth Arms site in Euston.
The six-site company has since experienced an incredible uptick in turnover, with sales growing from £3.5m to more than £5m in fewer than 10 years, which is driven by the business’s three strong elements – wet, dry and accommodation.
“Most of our pubs are three storeys high and have the same square footage on the upper floors as the bar. In the pubs we took over, the space was being underutilised – they were mainly managers’ accommodation on the second floor and then empty on the floors above,” explains Stackhouse.
By utilising the additional space with bedrooms, the pub group founder knew he could boost income and make the businesses viable and tap into tourist demand for accommodation. This worked, he adds.
The wet side of the business is also doing well thanks to a focus on local beers and gins, which make up more than half of the group’s liquid portfolio. It is Stackhouse’s belief that the group should play on the locality of the city, despite it being a massive space.
Although the group had managed to turn around dying sites, which are now leased to PubLove by pubcos Punch, Enterprise and Greene King, the food offer wasn’t up to standard.
So, in 2013, Stackhouse decided to launch a better food offer in place of PubLove’s frozen pizza offer, which, he concedes, was actually quite profitable.
“Although the pizza offer did make us money, we wanted to do something that was going to grab attention.
“I gave a brief to Chris [Clawson, executive chef] for Burger Craft, which is a brand we set up. I told him not to tell me about the cost of anything and to start with the best ingredients.”
The brief, laughs Clawson, was the best a chef could get.
More than 80 staff are employed by the London-based group, with 19 of those now based in the kitchens as chefs.
A lot of chefs
There may be a lot of chefs across the group now, but the firm had the initial difficulty of building better kitchens in those pubs that only had basic facilities and finding space for ones in pubs that didn’t have any.
Kitchens were funded entirely by PubLove, reveals Stackhouse, who was also unsure about the viability of the company had it not been able to work with the pubcos.
While important, the kitchen wasn’t what PubLove was trying to sell. So getting the burger right took some time.
Stackhouse continues: “We tried and tested a lot of burgers before we got the offer right. It wasn't that one particular company inspired our burgers, it was more about what someone did, how someone did it better and how we could do that better.”
Meat comes from Walter Rose & Son’s butchers in Wiltshire and the bread used for the buns comes from London artisan bakery The Bread Factory.
Clawson changes the menu about four times a year, but ensures the popular styles – such as the Juicy Bastard (featured in the video above) are kept on the menu.
The executive chef says: “It was important that what we did was an improvement on what was already out there.”
Now, with the burger offer firmly in place across the estate – with each pub featuring the same menu and pairing local beers with each burger – PubLove’s food business has risen, pushing the wet:dry split to 70:30.
Working with Deliveroo
But where does delivery come into the mix?
Stackhouse explains: “I keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry and delivery companies like Deliveroo were cropping up more and more.
Burger Craft menu:
- The Juicy Bastard
- The Cheesy One
- Chicken Tricolore
- Pleasure by Veg
- Fish and Chips
- Pulled Pork
- Messy Mac 'N' Cheese
- All Day Breakfast
“We had been approached by similar companies and Chris had always said 'no' because it might be too demanding on the kitchen.”
However, after Stackhouse rushed from one of his pubs with a burger to go, things changed.
“Chris sent a burger up from the kitchen for me to go. I took it on the Tube and once I unwrapped it, because of the method we use to make them, it kept cooking and it tasted amazing. I got off the Tube at the next stop and called Chris.”
It was that moment that Chris was sold, he says. “That phone call did it for me and I got in touch with Deliveroo that day.”
Chris’s initial fears about working with a delivery company – extra pressure, a lower food quality and poor communication between the site and the delivery company – were all forgotten once he started to work with Deliveroo, he says.
Slight changes to the dishes were made to accommodate delivery, but that was expected, he adds. Also, after some experimentation, it was decided 1.7km from each pub was the furthest a burger could before the quality suffered.
“Deliveroo is our fourth biggest kitchen,” explains Clawson. “It’s also a great free marketing tool for us, as we can put leaflets in the bags that go out to customers.”
One of the largest orders the company has filled since partnering with Deliveroo, which takes a small cut of the profit from each delivery, was 60 burgers in one go.
And should a wet-led pub looking to create a food offer do it? Stackhouse says: “Create a new brand and make it look like it’s a resident in your pub. It’s worked for us.”
Watch the video above to get Clawson’s top tips on pairing with a delivery company, as well as why you should consider doing it.