My Pub: The Dukes, Leighton Buzzard

By Georgina Townshend contact

- Last updated on GMT

My Pub: The Dukes, Leighton Buzzard

Related tags: Village pub, Public house

Two entrepreneurial sisters realised their dream when they helped return 200-year-old village pub, the Dukes, back to its former glory after spending time as failing Indian and Thai restaurants – before sitting abandoned for years. Co-director Jo Carter reveals all from leasing the property to completing the site purchase last month.

The Pub

The site has a lot of history, it dates back to the 18th century, and is a thatched-roofed village pub. In 1745, it was allegedly registered as two cottages and, in 1755, it was registered as a pub – but back then it was known as the Duke of Cumberland’s Head.

We first came across it in 2007 when my sister, Sarah, who is the co-director and the general manager at the Dukes, had her children’s christening party at the Duke’s Head – as it was called back then when it was a Thai restaurant.

The Thai restaurant didn’t do so well, and so the woman who owned it rented it out to an Indian restaurant – only for that to fail as well. Another Indian restaurant tenant came in and also failed. The building then sat empty for two years before my sister started making enquiries about it.

We got the call on Christmas Day 2015, everyone grumbled a little, but she was so excited. She jumped up to take the call and that was when she found the owner was willing to give her a lease on the property.

There was a lot to do on the building. There was painting and plastering, so much cleaning and tidying and furniture and stock to buy, all sorts. The rooms needed to be decorated, and that’s without mentioning legal costs.

We got the keys in March 2016 and opened the doors the next month.

We got through the Christmas and New Year rush and, despite the input of capital that was required at the beginning, we made a profit in year one.

After spending a large amount of time looking for a mortgage, we completed the purchase of the building at the beginning of August 2017.

It was such as shame for the village pub to have been through failing Thai and Indian restaurants.

We really wanted to turn it back into a pub. We kept the Dukes, but dropped the Head – we wanted to put our own stamp on it.

The publicans

Sarah was a full-time mum at the time, but before she had her family she ran restaurants for 12 years.

My sister is a very headstrong, determined person. She has always had this ambition to have her own restaurant and pub with rooms. She always had this ideal in her head of what she would want for her own place. What size she would want, covers, what kind of building – she always wanted a walk around fireplace as well.

I run a recruitment company in Newcastle, and because I had been running a business for 15 years, she began to talk to me about the business. I got involved because I was helping her write a business plan, and what she needed to put in place to safeguard the transaction, and the legal documents.

The more I looked at the business plan, I thought this really does have quite good potential. I had some money set aside for property, but instead of looking for investors I decided that I would back Sarah financially and we would run the business together.

She runs the business on-site seven days a week and I help her with business strategy, looking at the overview and the big picture – marketing and finance, dealing with the tax office.

Inside the Dukes, Sarah and Jo

The trade

Some of the locals came and helped us redecorate, it was really heart-warming to have the backing of the village from day one.

The pub is five minutes from the town centre, 15 minutes from Milton Keynes, and five minutes from Woburn where there is a big safari park and Woburn Abbey. We are also only an hour from Heathrow Airport, and 20 minutes from Luton. In terms of the pub and restaurant, we get a lot of local custom, people coming for lunches and dinners.

Then we have six bed and breakfast rooms. We get a lot of people coming for business purposes through the week and we get others who are tourists, walkers, or who are here for the local attractions or looking for somewhere to stay on their way to the airports. All the reviewers on Facebook and TripAdvisor who have come and used the rooms and restaurant have praised us. The reviews mean a lot to us, it’s very important.

The team

We have an assistant manager, an assistant general manager, and then we have three chefs, one apprentice chef, front-of-house bar staff, housekeeper and various casuals.

It is vitally important that they are well trained and engaged. It’s one of the most important things when anyone comes to the pub, whether it’s for a quick drink, or to use the rooms or restaurant, everyone is always greeted with a friendly attitude. The service is of just as high importance as the quality of the ingredients and the love that goes into the food.

A customer’s experience for us starts as soon as they walk in the door.

The food

The Dukes is a gastropub and we do traditional English pub food with locally sourced ingredients. We do not scrimp on ingredients – we want to provide high quality for affordable prices.

My sister knew exactly the type of food she wanted to do. When we first started we had a chef to help her get established, and to help with the menu, the quality, and source the ingredients. They worked together to find the right suppliers. The butcher, for example, is an award-winning butcher in Leighton Buzzard.

The menu now changes regularly with seasonal produce. It is also purposefully small, but really high quality.

There have been dishes that have been on the menu since the start, including the Dukes burger and the ‘proper fish pie’.

The drink

We use a local brewery called Leighton Buzzard Brewery and we have a selection of real ales from them. We also have cocktails and have a really good wine list.

Sarah has a couple of different sup-pliers for this wine list – the quality of the wine is just as important as the quality of the food.

I insisted on really nice wine glasses, that’s really important. If you’ve ordered a lovely bottle of wine, the last thing you want is for it to be served in a school dinner glass.

We also have a selection of craft beers and gins.

The events

We have live music events with local bands and an open mic night on the last Friday of the month.

We have quite a big car park, and every second Tuesday of the month we have a classic car and bike meet.

This has started to get really popular. We give a free soft drink for any-one who brings their car along.

Sarah then has a competition where everyone can vote for what they think is the best-looking car, finally posting the winner on the pub’s Facebook page.

We have a jazz night, where she has a jazz and singer supper event.

Sarah also has a cabaret-style drag queen act. It was so popular on the first night she had to put on an extra show, which also sold out immediately – we had to put on an extra night to accommodate everyone.

The future

Now that we have purchased the freehold, we want to start investing money into the property because it needs various different things done to it – including a new thatched roof – apart from everything else.

When we first took on the lease we did a lot of plastering over things and brightening the place up making it fit to open. Now it needs to be all gone over and be done properly.

The outside needs painting, it needs a bit of a spruce up now that we know the business is definitely going to work. We can start doing things to the property that will make it better for the customers and the people staying in the rooms.

The plan is to learn from year one, to do more of the things that were successful, and less of the things that were not necessarily so successful and grow the business like that.

What makes it special?

I think it’s my sister. Sarah is definitely what makes the business special for me.

It’s so nice for us to be able to do it together, but it was so lovely to be able to support her and her dreams, because the pub, the restaurant, the rooms, it was her dream and it’s so good to be able to see her realise her dreams.

In terms of what makes it different and special for the customers, apart from the warm welcome they get when they come through the door, I think the people in the village appreciate that they have their village pub back.

A lot of people have memories of how it used to be, and it’s nice to be able to bring that back for them.

What we wanted to bring to the area was a place where you can come and eat, where you are going to get well looked after with great service, really great-quality food with great prices, and have a really lovely evening in surroundings that are pleasant and enjoyable to be in – and we’ve done that.

The reviews certainly say we have.

Sarah tries really hard to listen to the feedback that she gets and implements what they want, and makes it so that the next time they come it’s even better than it was before.

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