Appetite for Life stats
- So Bar & Eats, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
- So Bar & Eats, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
- So Bar & Eats, Rippon, North Yorkshire
- The Hart, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
- The Groves Inn, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
- The Tap on Tower Street, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
- The Devonshire Tap House, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Yorkshire-based pub group Appetite for Life began almost 17 years ago and has grown to a portfolio of seven sites over the years.
All are based in and around Harrogate, the business is headed by husband and wife team Robert and Alison Thompson, who have a wealth of experience in the hospitality trade.
Robert’s parents ran a seasonal hotel in Torquay, Devon, before completing a course in hotel and catering business management.
He went on to work his way up the ranks in several drink businesses prior to falling in love with a site he wanted to call his own.
Robert said: “The first site was 2002. We bought a pub on assignment, which was a Laurel Pub Company pub.
“Just as we bought the site, which is in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, Laurel was purchased by Enterprise (now Ei Group) and that delayed us doing what we wanted to do because we had planned to refurbish it ourselves, open it and rename it So Bar & Eats.
“We eventually achieved that in 2003 so, really, the business was treading a bit of water from 2002 to 2003, then it really took off .”
A significant amount of work was put into the business to get it where it is now, with several up-and-coming brands in its collection.
He added: “To begin with, it was tough going. We found it difficult to get chefs and found it easier to get front-of-house people, and for about three and a half years, I worked six and a half days a week, just had Sunday nights off.
“We built the business up from there. We went no-smoking a year before everyone else did. Then the second site was a place that came up near us (in Knaresborough) in 2005 and, in some ways, rather than having courage in our convictions, we thought we didn’t want someone else coming near us to do what we were doing, so we took it.”
Fast forward to 2019 and the group has plans to expand to 10 sites in total over the next few years. But, as Robert reveals, the company has faced its own set of challenges along the way.
He said: “The hardest part has been maintaining our ideals. One of our strengths, particularly when we started and allowed us to grow like we did, was the ethos we had.
“It was my wife and I, a family business, [we were] very hands on and the relationships we had with the staff were like friendships. It wasn’t just that employer-employee relationship.
“We wanted to maintain that as we grew and that was tough because, when we got up to about five [sites] and had to put in another layer of senior management, we had to make sure the person between us and the staff on a day-today basis has got the same ethos and it can be passed down and people still feel part of it.
“As you grow, it’s about trying to keep what the brand is all about because your business is a brand as well. It’s about maintaining that.”
Get staff up to speed
Keeping costs down is something all operators try to do but Appetite for Life has managed to provide guests with a simple and effective food offer.
Robert added: “Trading in small market towns, particularly when they are high tourist areas, always results in a lot of hospitality businesses yet the pool of potential staff is very limited.
“The So Bars (a collection of venues in North Yorkshire) are bars but they are big food operations with decent sized brigades and what we are looking at now is more intimate places we can have a food offer that is run from the bar so we can take that operational cost out of it.
“Two of our sites (the Tap on Tower Street and the Devonshire Taphouse, both in Harrogate) are like the Caffè Nero/Starbucks model where you can limit the amount of staff but have the broadest range of offer you can and we do pizzas from the back of the bar.”
When it comes to advice for operators who are considering taking the next step and becoming a multiple operator, Robert urged bosses to ensure their staff are at the top of their game.
He added: “Make sure the team you are leaving is as strong as the team you’re taking on. Don’t neglect where you’ve come from because that’s the thing that has got you to where you are.
“If you think about a house of cards, you lose that structure at the bottom, which are your first sites that are driving the business. If you lose focus on them, the whole thing could fall down.
“Making sure you’ve got the right teams in the right place and they are both strong. You’re sharing your time across the two.
“It does get harder as you expand in some ways, it’s just mathematics. If you’ve got three sites then you can only spend a third of your time in each. You’ve got to ensure that time is well spent and focused and you’ve got to delegate because you can’t do it all yourself.
“When we opened our first site, I was working six and a half days and I could do that then because I had one site. But as soon as you have two or three sites, you can’t do that. You have to rely on other people.”