Winning the Best Premium Food offer award at The Publican Awards was “the cherry on top” of working hard through a tough year, said James Nye.
The East Anglia-based business impressed judges for its passion for premium food, creative menu innovation and commitment to making people happy.
“We felt absolutely humbled to win it,” Nye added. Anglian Country Inns (ACI) has bagged the accolade four times in the past 11 years. Being recognised, once again, in 2023 was a marker of the business’ longevity, and the fact it had retained food quality despite having frown so much, added Nye.
The family-run company first opened its doors more than 25 years ago after Cliff Nye was blown away by the view out the back of a run-down pub on the north Norfolk coast.
And the rest is history: since then, Cliff, joined by his sons James and Howard, has built the pubco into an impressive portfolio of eight establishments across East Anglia, as well as a coffee shop and a brewery.
Nye believed what set his business above the rest was its ability to deliver different offer simultaneously.
ACI’s infrastructure meant there was plenty of ownership of menus and decision making at site level rather than centralised. For Nye, this led to more creativity and freedom in the menus, which was hopefully reflected by the diversity and quality of food across the estate.
Growing the independence of each site empowered chefs through allowing them the freedom to make decisions.
“That’s been really engaging,” continued Nye, “especially as we went through Covid, it meant a lot of people would think autonomously and it helps us become more agile.”
Lifting up the community
The managing director was particularly impressed when, on his birthday, he sat down at the Farmhouse and was served “really special” dishes including a small artichoke risotto. He popped his head into the kitchen to say thank you and found out a 17-year-old girl had cooked the dish.
“I’m really proud we were giving the opportunity to such young talent,” he said: “the future is in good hands.”
ACI had also spent time investing in the mental health of staff since Covid. Cash had been granted to a team member in need of a new car, and meaningful infrastructure had been put in place to let people bring mental health issues to the table.
“In doing so, we’re just treating people as individuals, and where we can, accommodating their lifestyles,” added Nye. Since engaging with the workforce in this way, the company had noticed big improvements in staff retention.
But caring for the community doesn’t stop there. More than £100,000 has been raised for charities this year, with staff permitted one day off to go and fundraise. One coffee shop staff member, for instance, was able to raise a few hundred quid through skydiving.
“It’s a really nice way to give back to local community and also empower some of our teams to direct where that money goes,” Nye added.
Putting smiles on people's faces
The business’ mission statement was simple: to make people happy. “There’s a big kick out of making people happy,” he continued. “Doing nice things for other people releases oxytocin, which makes you feel good about yourself.”
Looking to the future, Nye hoped to invest more in staff welfare, and adapt menus to inflation rates while retaining quality. Sustainability would also be a key focus.
He said: “If we can carry the culture and our sort of sustained welfare forward, there'll be the people who are carrying the brand for us, and invest in profits sustainably, back into the business to grow it and make sure that we are laying down infrastructure for the next 27 years.”
Nye’s advice to other pub companies was not to give up because it’s hard at the moment. “Have faith and don’t dumb down menus,” he added, “you’ve got to stick to your guns and actually deliver real good value.”
He also advised businesses to invest in their people. “Give them ownership, get them in to help you solve the problems, and really put your people first” he said.