Patrick (P): I worked in hotels and catering in Bordeaux, before I went to work in Texas where I met Julie. She was working as a waitress and I was a waiter. Then we came back to England and I got a job at the London Hilton as head of back of house – it was quite a big position for a young person. After that we went to work for Conrad Hilton in the Caribbean.
Julie (J): We were always saving for our own restaurant. My mum used to lecture at degree level in hospitality, so it was in my blood. It was a dream to have our own place. We had a fabulous restaurant called Jack’s, in St Annes, in Lancashire, in 1994. It was only 50 covers, we really were at the top of our game. We brought fresh food, made to order, to the area. Patrick would buy whatever was on the market that day.
P: In between, I went to work for a big leisure development as a director, where I learned a lot about property development and the business side of the trade.
J: At that time, I’d just had our second baby. We’d just sold [Jack’s] and I said I wanted to enjoy this one. The first baby we used to put in the cellar with a baby monitor on the bar and, when she needed feeding, I would run downstairs. So when our second came along I said ‘we’re just enjoying this baby’ and Patrick went for that job.
P: We’re both very creative, so after a while – although the job was very interesting – when things got quite settled, we wanted our own place. I was enjoying the work but there was a lack of creativity, because ultimately I was working for someone else.
Pub: The Cartford Inn
Address: Cartford Lane, Little Eccleston, Preston, PR3 0YP
Awards: Winner of the 2016 Great British Pub Awards - Best Inn
J: We were watching this pub for five years. My mum and dad have a farm just over the bridge, so we knew the freehold was going to come on the market. We’d approached the guy for three years to try and buy it. We knew he was under pressure – every time you drove past, another drainpipe had fallen off.
P: The pub had never really been invested in. We were lucky and unlucky – we paid a lot of money for it, £840,000. If it had been another 12 months, we wouldn’t have been able to borrow as much because of the financial crash but it probably would have been reduced. But there were a lot of other people that were after it and he only let us have it because he wanted to deal with a private buyer rather than a group.
The early years
J: The first few years were fun but horrendously stressful. It was a great time.We had a lot of customers follow us. The more people you know, the better.
P: Luckily we both had the skills and the expertise to make it a success. It was just a matter of getting over the hurdles.
J: We got a lot of money back from a PPI case. We knew something was wrong, we were being charged thousands of pounds.
P: But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because when we got that money back we were able to invest it right back into the business.
J: If we’d had the money at the time (rather than overpaying PPI) we would probably have hired more staff. We were literally working 24/7. I was making beds, answering phones and being the Maître d’ all night. Patrick was in the kitchen every day, and out front. We had a head chef as well although we could only really afford one chef.
P: Now we have nine. But we could do with 10!
J: We really began to feel things were coming together after about three years. We were getting busier week by week and takings were really going up.
P: Before we did a major extension, we were working out of a tiny kitchen and we were already doing 120 covers. You could only fit two plates on the pass. But the menu had to be restricted at that time – consistency is fundamental. It doesn’t matter how low or high you set your standards – if you are consistent, you will get a customer base. If you are inconsistent, it will fail. And then eventually we entered the Michelin Guide with some very, very small facilities.
On the menu
- Marinated pork belly and watermelon with pickled cucumber, mint, basil and goat curd (£8.50)
- Beer-braised Jacob’s Ladder with rosemary polenta, carrot and onion (£15.95)
- Fresh crab and nori gnocchi with Enoki mushrooms, yuzu and wasabi foam (£8.50)
- Miso-glazed, pan-fried cod and octopus with pak choi, aubergine and black garlic potato purée (£17)
- Ovaltine panna cotta with dark chocolate mousse, espresso foam and cinnamon doughnut (£6.25)
- Best-selling drink: ‘Giddy Kipper’ – the inn’s own ale
The food offer
P: It’s a mix. It’s international and British. There is definitely a French influence because I am French, but I’ve lived half of my life in England and I am a lover of local produce. The produce here is great and, because we’re where we are, we are friends with all the farmers.
J: We can literally go and buy a cow. We’ve got one hanging at the moment at our butcher’s.
P: If you have a rural business, you have to support local businesses. Your suppliers are your customers as well, because word of mouth travels through them as well. So we have suppliers telling people about us who are then booking tables. It’s very important – you have to nurture that network and communication.
Expanding the business
J: We also have our shop, Taste of the Inn (TotI), attached to the pub. It opened a year ago. We’ve got some very big plans for it. We had the building – it was the old cellar. So we built a new cellar. We just thought it would be great to be able to sell our own cakes. We just wanted to give customers a way to take something with them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hard sell because when people arrive they are too hungry and when they leave they are full. We up-sell in the pub – you go to the shop and get 10% off. The hardest job in the world is convincing someone to buy a chicken for their tea after they’ve just eaten a meal. But things are beginning to sell more and more. We are seeing a progression and it’s paying for itself now.
P: It sells a mixture of our own products, takeaway meals, fine produce you can’t find anywhere else, and wine and spirits. It also works as a kind of pantry for the pub. And we can play with the business and use any produce we don’t sell in the kitchen.
J: There’s no wastage because the kitchen will use anything before it hits its sell-by date. We’re planning to turn TotI into a brand – we’re going to start putting chocolates and crackers into retail businesses. We’ll start off locally with farmers markets and local retailers.
P: The next step will be to select a few products and test them in the online market, because that’s the only way we could make it a bigger and more sustainable business.
P: We’re building two eco-lodges. A year ago last June, we developed our car park and landscaped it. But the car park was big, so I fenced a portion off and, when we looked at the river from the plot, we thought we could definitely do something good with it. So I spoke to an architect to see what we could do – there are some restrictions because some of it is a flood-risk area. Julie originally wanted to do treehouses but unfortunately there were no tangible trees we could use. All the trees are protected. So we designed these elevated lodges. With the landscape they will look very beautiful. They will be done by June. [The local authority] is being very proactive about supporting local businesses. We had a grant that we have used to develop the hotel. The grant is European so it looks like it will disappear eventually, but we were in the perfect situation because we were investing in quality and accommodation, and in a rural area.
The drinks offer
P: We have our own beer, which is currently brewed for us.
J: The emphasis is local. Everything we have in spirits is premium and we have a big wine list. We have about 30-odd gins and a huge range of cocktails. We do gin-tasting events.
P: It’s a very big mix. From very local people who live just down the road to people who visit us from the little towns around. We do get people now coming from Southport and the Ribble Valley because of our reputation and people from the Lakes. A lot more people are using us as a destination venue. The hotel aspect gives us a totally different dimension. We even have customers from China.
P: Dealing with red tape. All the banks, the councils, that’s what makes it frustrating sometimes. The running of the pub, yes it does put stress on the family because you don’t get to have that much of a family life. But that is the price you pay.
J: It’s hard – we become business partners sometimes. Everything is about the business. We rarely have time to ourselves.
P: There are a lot of sacrifices you make. Our standards are very high and we have a big business to sustain. We can’t just get by doing 40 covers a night.
J: Not a word of a lie, I tweeted two years ago that my husband had promised me he would take a day off. I’m still waiting.
P: In my defence, if I’m not in the kitchen she makes me get back in there!