Brucan Pubs boss talks putting pride back into hospitality

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Excellent food: Brucan Pubs is built on passion and integrity
Excellent food: Brucan Pubs is built on passion and integrity

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For the director of Brucan Pubs, which won Best Food Offer at the Publican Awards, hospitality needed to work on raising its profile as a career to be proud of.

The Publican Awards judges said Brucan was the undeniable winner of the Best Food category: the business was commended for its unwavering passion for food, menu innovation and sense of purpose.

Winning the Best Food Offer award was “amazing”, said Brucan Pubs founder James Lyon-Shaw. It was also genuinely unexpected.

He described the moment the team was called up on stage: “It was one of those very corny moments when I was sitting at the table, not quite focused, perhaps, topping up my glass, and they said ‘Brucan Pubs’, and I was like ‘oh crikey, I better stand up and do something about that.

“It was great – a nice surprise.”

Throughout the challenges of the past year, Brucan Pubs has managed to hang on to its integrity.

When margins are squeezed, and money’s not being made, it’s easy to drift away from your core values, said Lyon-Shaw. But the company has always maintained its passion for British produced seasonal produce, with menus including dishes like wild fish.

Sustainability equals quality

“We would rather operate and not make money, than make money and not have that as a core value," he said.

Sustainable produce also led to quality dishes. Wild fish, caught the same day it landed on the plate, will always be fresher than fish flown across the world, Lyon-Shaw gave as an example.

Meat arrived from farms as whole carcasses, fruit and veg was sourced from local farms in Kent and Surrey and a significant part of the wine list was English. Traditional fabrics, materials, woods, textiles and leathers were also procured from British companies.

The business’ name, Brucan, is derived from the Old English verb meaning ‘to use’. “That Old English tradition is a tone that runs through our entire business,” explained Lyon-Shaw. Let’s do things properly, was a value shared by the staff.

An excellent food offer, for the founder, was one built around passion and integrity. He said: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a street food truck or an oyster shack, or whether you’re a pub or a fine dining restaurant: as long as the people in that operation are committed to what they do, and do it because they love it, it will always be great.”

Industry advocate

Brucan Pubs had scored an impressive round of accolades in 2023. The Publican Awards win was the cherry on top of the cake of ceremonies that included Best Greene King Pub and Licensee of the Year Awards.

But Lyon-Shaw was also proud of keeping the business in good order and retaining its teams. “It’s certainly bene a year where you question what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and whether it’s time to compromise on your morals a little bit.

“So, the fact we’ve managed to stick in a good place is actually something I’m quite proud of.”

Ramping up the company’s apprenticeship scheme was also a source of pride, with eight apprentices currently working their way through the ranks.

Lyon-Shaw wanted Brucan Pubs to help change the face of hospitality and tackle recruitment issues. “Rather than just sitting their moaning about it, let’s doing something about it,” he said. “’Let’s make sure we’re part of bringing people forward.”

Hard graft

However, for all its success, the pubco wasn’t immune to the storm of challenges facing hospitality. “We’re working really, really hard to not making any money,” said Lyon-Shaw.

The business model was very broken, he believed, and said the industry needed to see a commitment from the Government to keep hospitality on its agenda.

Business rates needed to stay discounted, and Lyon-Shaw said the sector needed to raise its profile as a sector worth working in, to cope with staffing struggles posed by Brexit. He believed this would be a long-term mission rather than overnight fix.

“I'm not saying we are akin to doctors and nurses,” he continued, “we're not saving lives – we're serving dinners.

“But it should be a career that you can go into and be proud to go into. It shouldn't be a job that's done just on gap years, or while you think about what you’re going to do – it should be something you can go home and tell your parents, ‘I want to be in hospitality.’”

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