My Pub: The Crown Inn, Farnham Royal

By Claire Churchard

- Last updated on GMT

Crowning glory: Food, bespoke weddings, garden and dog-friendly approach are seeing the Farnham Royal pub make a name for itself
Crowning glory: Food, bespoke weddings, garden and dog-friendly approach are seeing the Farnham Royal pub make a name for itself
Within a stone’s throw of the Burnham Beeches nature reserve in Buckinghamshire, the Crown Inn, at Farnham Royal, is busy making a name for itself – for its food, bespoke weddings, garden and dog-friendly approach. Licensee Ed O’Neill explains how he breathed life back into the site

Facts ’n’ stats

Address:​ The Crown Inn, Crown Lane, Farnham Royal, Buckinghamshire, SL2 3SQ

Licensee:​ Ed O’Neill

Tenure:​ 26-year lease with Star Pubs & Bars

Wet:dry split:​ 50:50 (more food in the winter)

Annual turnover:​ In excess of £1m last year

The pub

The Crown Inn is a 230-year-old pub and it’s really well known in the area – to the point that when I took it over everyone who initially came in either had a story about a family birthday they’d celebrated here or their first drink here. Before I took it over it had been neglected for some years. The dilapidations had been going on and on, and it had become known as a bit of a dive. But there are a lot of great features, so we made sure we kept all the original beams, pillars and three fireplaces.

I signed the lease in July 2015 and started renovation in August. The pub is split into four areas. We cut the bar in half when we refurbished it because the bar was huge and there was barely any restaurant space. Now you come into the bar, and from there there’s a smaller Barn Room which is a dog-friendly dining area. It’s very relaxed. It’s got a hard floor so muddy walkers, kids and dogs can go in there without worrying about ruining the carpet. It also has a log feature wall. I used to work for Cosy pubs and one day they stacked all the fire wood up against the wall in the pub. I said that looks great, you should take slices of the logs and glue them to the wall. They thought I was crazy but as soon as I had my own pub I decided to do it. A log wall belongs in this pub, we’re by Burnham Beeches, so we used wood from there.

On the other side of the bar there’s a snug area with banquette seating and a coffee station, then the fourth area is the restaurant, which is more formal.

We’ve decorated the pub in a modern country style; think Farrow & Ball paints, smoked greens and pastel colours. 

It is renowned for being a great summer pub because it has the best garden in the area – it’s huge. 

The licensee

I used to open pubs for other people. I’ve always been a chef by trade. My first job was with Peach Pubs when I was young. When I left school at 16, I went to Westminster Kingsway College in London where all the top chefs went. Then I did the fine-dining scene for a bit, before working for Marco Pierre White.

After that, I decided I wanted to do pubs so I joined a company called Home County Pubs and also did a bit of private cheffing. Then I went to work for Oakman Inns, where I was head chef of their flagship site the Red Lion in Water End, Hertfordshire. I became an area head chef for them, moving around and dealing with their new openings. I opened their Beaconsfield, Bucks, site, the Beech House. The people at Oakman gave me the chance to step up so, when I opened this site, I invited them along because I value their opinion.

At the Crown Inn, I’m a Star Pubs and Bars tenant. My investment partner and I did a big joint £400,000 refurb with Star when I took over the pub. We signed a long lease for 26 years from 2015.

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The trade

When I arrived, there was a lot of worry locally that this fancy chef was coming who was going to change it. That it would go too upmarket. The rumour mill ramped up and we heard that we were going for Michelin stars and that we wouldn’t let local people in, things like that. But the idea was always to be as accessible as we could be. So made it known that everyone was welcome and worked really hard to keep the regulars coming in. It is a community pub and a lot of our custom comes from the surrounding areas.

We also have a trading estate nearby with huge companies like Mars, which use the pub for business lunches. People from the estate from Jaguar Land Rover and Samsung also come in. We had 12 of the senior guys from Mars down here for a cocktail-making session recently. They created their own cocktails – one was called the Bees Knees made with a honey whisky and a ‘bee’ garnish made of fruit.

There’s a big spike in summer trade because of our huge garden. It has a full outside bar, dining service and children’s play area with rock climbing wall, ropes, a slide and two sandpits. This year we’ve gone to iPad ordering so the guys outside don’t have to move away from the tables to use the till.

The team

Through the winter we have about 15 to 18 staff, but through the summer that easily doubles. That is a challenge in itself, but we get a lot of help from students in their second and third years that have a bit more experience and maturity. We bulk up on our management team in the summer as well and the kitchen gets extra chefs and an extra kitchen porter. We’ve just taken on a couple of apprentices as well, one in the kitchen and one front of house. It is something we will carry on doing to help combat the shortage of talent available for the industry.

On the menu

Our most popular dishes include:

Starter​ – Pork and leek Scotch egg. I can’t tell you how many of these we’ve sold – it’s a lot!

Main​ – Wild forest mushroom beef Wellington, for which we make our own paté.

Dessert​ – Fig and almond tart with salted caramel ice cream. It’s very simple, but we bake it to order. So we let the customers know in advance that it takes 15 minutes to bake. We tell them that with frangipane, if it’s not fresh out of the oven, it’s nowhere near as good.

The food

We’re a food destination pub. We looked at what we had available to us in the area. I’m from Berkhamsted, which is in Hertfordshire, not far from here, where I grew up on a farm. So initially I went straight to them and sourced half a cow every month that we would strip down and use. We would use our steaks on the core menu. We had to supplement this from local butchers as well because we sell 10 times more rib eye than we would flank for example. We would use all the trimmings and mince for our burgers and use the cheeks for winter dishes, then break that down and use the carcass for stock. Another local farmer brings us eggs.

Our fish supplier will de-list something, for example salmon, if it shoots up in price because there’s a shortage of it because it has been overfished. If something is no longer sustainable, then we will take it off our menu.

It’s part of our food philosophy to think about sourcing food responsibly. It’s similar to the way everyone is thinking about using less plastic.

Inside there’s 70 dining covers and another 25 bar covers. Then outside we have 75 à la carte dining on the decking, 60 on sofas and there’s another 100 on benches on the grass.

We do about 90 covers in the winter to the best part of 300 in the summer. We can do 300 to 350 roasts on a Sunday.

The drink

We’ve got all the Heineken products, obviously. We’ve got Maltsmiths, which is our craft ale, Birra Moretti, Foster’s, Amstel, Symonds cider and Guinness. We’ve partnered with the Society of Independent Brewers through Heineken, so we’re now offering four local ales. We keep one pump on for Cornish Tribute. We’re working with Caledonian to brand their 80 Shillings beer as our own Crown Beer. Then we usually have one on from Rebellion and one from the Chiltern Brewery.

In the summer, we sell a lot of the Heineken Old Mout cider. We can go through 50 cases a week. 

The events

We do quite a few wedding receptions and other private events. We’ve got nine weddings booked this year so far, costing an average of £10,000, which is half what a wedding venue would charge, and we offer better food and individuality. We do it by charging a minimum spend.

They range from 20 people in the private Barn room to up to 200 guests for a wedding, including the garden. 

We like to do the food bespoke, so when people come to us, they discuss with the head chef what they’d like us to do. Then we guide them from there, so it can be anything from hog roasts, to barbecues to a five-course, fine-dining, sit-down menu. If someone came to us and said we had this dish on our first date and we’d like to have it for the wedding breakfast so we can tell the story, we would absolutely do it.

In January, I didn’t have a single Friday or Saturday night free because I was private hired or partially private hired. I think any restaurateur would give their left arm to be fully booked out at that time of year, which is when the restaurant dining covers drop off.

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The future

We’re having three tiki huts designed for the garden to provide private bookable booths for drinks and or dinner. They’ll have a buzzer in them to call the serving staff and will sit six to eight people. You can plug your iPhone in and play your own music and control your own lighting. It will make use of some space we’re not using and will provide another revenue stream and point of difference for us.

We are also thinking about building a separate block with two or three rooms for guests to stay in to create accommodation. 

We are growing the number of events we do, so I’m currently looking for a great events co-ordinator. 

We’re speaking to a company called Hot Tub Cinema, which has done pop-ups in Shoreditch, east London, where they put up awnings and provide hot tubs and screen movies. You book yourself in and you have full table service and it turns into a bit of a party later in the evening. We’re speaking to them about doing a charity one of those.

We are also looking at acquiring new sites. Watch this space. 

To find out more about pubs for sale, lease and tenancy visit our property site​.​ 

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