Simply put, it is food’s increasing importance and popularity that is key to Paul Graham’s success with his pubs. And, he believes food will be the pub industry’s success, and indeed survival, in the coming new decade, but only with the right staff.
As owner of one of London’s newest pub companies – The Black Dog Pub Company, formerly The Rotherhithe Pub Company – Graham controls one of capital’s oldest riverside pubs, the Mayflower; one of London’s most recently built pubs, Leadbelly’s at Canada Water; and since the summer, 18th century the Prince of Wales on Cleaver Square, Kennington.
What all have in common is an emphasis on delivering a good British menu, and serving ales sourced within 50 miles of the pubs. Despite admitting to having no English kitchen staff, Graham is passionate the sector should be encouraging more youngsters into the cooking side of the trade, yet he does not believe Brexit, and its increasing likelihood post the general election and new year, will have a massive impact on the pub industry.
It was coming home in 1999 after a decade spent in New Zealand running his own bar and restaurant that Liverpool-born Graham saw the explosion in all things cooking.
Graham said: “It was obvious food was playing a bigger part in pubs: people were seeing the shows on TV, and they wanted more choice. The percentage of food sales to alcohol sales was getting bigger.”
But, says Graham, who went to work for Greene King on his return to the UK, added: “I don’t think the large companies got it. I was dismayed you weren’t allowed to have that freedom as everything was [controlled].”
That longed-for freedom came with the 16th century Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail exactly 400 years ago in 1620.
“Greene King had a lot of problems running the Mayflower as a managed house. The only way it would work is if they leased it out, so I took on the lease [in 2009].”
Investing in the food, and a ‘perfect storm’ of Rotherhithe becoming more residential, the London 2012 Olympics in nearby Stratford, and a glowing review from food critic AA Gill review in The New York Times that went international, propelled the pub’s fortunes.
“We don’t pretend to be a Michelin star operation at the Mayflower. But we do an amazing fish and chips, an amazing pie, and great sausage and mash. So what we do is very quintessentially British,” Graham said. Real ales, sourced within a 50-mile radius of the pub, are also important for Graham. “We buy from the Society of Independent Brewers – it’s made the choice a lot more interesting. Real ale is declining. But, not for us. Our sales are huge.”
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Taking over the lease of the Prince of Wales in July, Graham says: “Shepherd Neame had a manager in there, and, again, it just didn’t work so I’ve leased it from them. I’ve almost doubled the turnover within a few weeks, because we can put on good food, and a good atmosphere.” Upping the ante on the food, there are plans to turn the first floor of the Prince of Wales into a 30-seat restaurant.
“Kennington is an area with some really good ethnic restaurants, but what it needs is a really good classic British restaurant.”
Graham also believes the focus on food will keep the pub industry growing over the next 10 years. Graham explained: “There are so many young chefs out there now who are inventive.”
He doesn’t believe, however, the big breweries are doing enough to encourage this talent into pub kitchens.
“Big breweries don’t attract people to work for them because of poor salaries. And the skill factor in the kitchen is worrying, which is why people are opting for pizza menus: it’s quicker, easier, less labour-intensive. It should be a major concern with young people not wanting to do the hours in the kitchen.”
Among his own kitchen staff, Graham admitted: “We don’t have one English chef. We have tried with catering schools, but they haven’t lasted. Being a pub chef is seen as a last-resort position. Also, when they come out of the catering college with their City & Guilds, or NVQs, they automatically don’t want to start on the bottom: they want to be the high-flying chef.
“Someone needs to do something about this side of the pub trade.”
Having started with five members of staff a decade ago, Graham now has more than 70 employees from five continents. Given December’s election result and ‘Let’s Get Brexit’ done – the Conservative Party’s campaign slogan – now more realistic, Graham is not worried about retention of his existing multi-cultural staff.
He said: “All the guys have either got British passports or they have the right to remain.”
In general, Graham could see Brexit having something of an impact on the trade, but said: “People will come from different parts of the world [not just Europe]. With the Black Dog Pub co, we have many different cultures.
Leadbelly’s is more Italian, here – the Mayflower – is north African, and Prince of Wales is more South American.”
What he does want to see from the newly elected Tory government are tax breaks for the industry. “It should look at the tax on beer because, for independents, if you’re not surrounded by chimney pots and you’re rural, then it’s really hard.”
Expansion is certainly on the cards for Graham. Early in 2019, he almost added the Town of Ramsgate pub on Wapping High Street to the existing Mayflower and Leadbelly’s, but Graham says the significant amount of work needed for the 15th century listed pub, meant it “would have been never ending. It would have been a money pit”.
He then opted for the Prince of Wales, whose inclusion prompted the name change from the Rotherhithe Pub Company to the Black Dog Pub Company, named in honour of Graham’s Airedoodle pooch Ringo.
Graham said: “I’m always curious. I’m always ready to look at other opportunities, but they would have to fit with what I have got and be similar to the Mayflower and Prince of Wales. That’s my niche now.”
And any new pubs would have to be in the capital, as Graham added: “To keep it core, so I can get to them. That’s when people lose control of them. I make sure I go to the pubs every week.”