The Surrey site scooped the Star Pubs & Bars Pub of the Year title in 2022. Here, co-operator Steve Orme tells The Morning Advertiser all about the pub, some of the keys to its success and what the future holds for Orme and business partner James Thomson.
James and I were both born and bred and schooled in Shepperton. We met when we were 12, at secondary school, which is round the corner from where the Red Lion is so we’re both local lads. We both went off and travelled the world. I actually went backpacking with James when we were 21.
After backpacking, we came back and the village of Shepperton felt even smaller so James moved into London and started carving out a career as a chef.
I went off for another round-the-world trip and then moved into London and ended up flat sharing with James before returning to Shepperton when we both had children.
We saw the Red Lion was up for lease and we ended up making an offer on our old local pub.
It’s a 300-year-old building but it’s been developed to a modern standard that is open plan and beautiful but when we took it on, it was very tired, very inward-looking, very dark wood, it was of a different time and it was in quite a sorry state from the pub we remembered.
We were running two restaurants in London at the time, which we’d opened in 2003 and we’ve done OK having won Timeout awards, Observer food awards, done TV work with Channel 4, Channel 5 and various stuff with restaurants called Fish Club where we had basically put fish and chips back on the map.
So we took over the pub in September 2013. We did a redevelopment on it and wanted to try to drag the trends we learned in London such as standards of service and food style to the Red Lion Shepperton so we opened what, effectively, is a London-style gastropub in Surrey on the River Thames.
We always joke James is an ex-chef and I and I’m an ex-electrician. James was schooled in home economics and went off to catering college and then got real break and was trained under Albert Roux so he had an incredible grounding at The Grand in Amsterdam.
He also worked in South Africa and went to St John in London, under Fergus Henderson and carved out quite a name for himself in the restaurant industry.
I was an enthusiastic home cook who learned to cook through Ready, Steady, Cook but I was an electrician so James taught me to cook properly.
I’m more front of house though. I learnt that when I worked at Doyle’s in Australia.
It’s a Star Pubs & Bars site but we make, bake and shake everything. We bake our own bread, we make our own pork scratchings, we make our own mayonnaise.
We picked up a very good chef six months after opening. Our original one didn’t quite cut it so we brought in a sous chef who has an incredible amount of talent and he’s been with us ever since. And we’re nearly at year 10.
We retain our staff because we try to look after them, pay them right and treat them right and [head chef] Robbie [Borst] is key to that if it.
We actually now employ a lot of Aussies and Kiwis who come over here on working visas because staffing is an absolute nightmare – Brexit is hell.
As long as you’ve got live-in positions, getting Aussie, Kiwis or Canadians is really good. I love taking these guys on because they’ve always got the right enthusiasm.
James and I are ops managers, we’ve got a general manager who runs day-to-day now but for the first seven years, I was pulling pints and pretty much doing the the general manager’s position.
We have lots of part-time and full-time staff. We have about 40 members of staff but some of them might only do two shifts a week, so real core, full-time staff, is probably about 20. There’s more people towards the front.
Head chef Robbie has been with us nine and a half years while Liam has been with us seven years. They are the absolute engine of that kitchen.
I’ve got another great guy called Max who’s joined us as a chef de partie.
We’re in a fairly good area so we’re a higher end pub – we are, ultimately, a pub. I think the word ‘gastropub’ has become a bit bastardised because Wetherspoon thinks it’s a gastropub because it serves a burger or a steak.
Our average customer is probably aged 35-plus.
We always wanted to be a pub where you can come down after work in a pair of shorts and work boots, get yourself a pint and sit down at a table – and when you order something to eat, it just happens to be great food. We are not a restaurant in a former pub.
Sometimes you’ll go into food-led pubs and it’ll be white tablecloths and you wouldn’t feel right just going in for a pint.
We have a good pub trade but if you’re ordering food, it will be great and I reckon we make cocktails better than the Dorchester.
It’s all about the 1%. If you want to make it 100% correct, there are 100 1%s within that You have to do each one of those 1%s correctly and that starts with saying hello as you enter, passing your pint with the brand label facing you and so on.
Our ice cubes are 26mm x 26mm x 32mm because you never want to serve pebbly little bits of ice. I learned that off Ed Theakston. Smaller ice can dilute the drink whereas you want it to remain chilled.
We do a seasonal menu. The burger is always going to be the biggest seller on any pub menu so we make sure our burger is cracking.
My guys even peel the tomatoes. I once asked why we do that and was told the human body doesn’t digest tomato skins and it can be stringy so why bother serving it in the burger?
We make our own burger sauce, which makes a big difference. We get great burgers from a butcher in Chiswick. But then we’ll do things like soft shelled crab burgers, we have a Chateaubriand on at the minute.
We make the gravy for Sunday roasts over three days.
Robbie is very clever. I say it’s almost like restaurant-quality food we’re doing here and he looks at me with a wry smile.
It doesn’t matter what we are doing, we do everything at a certain level.
We have a moving and changing menu. We do a £17 hot dog but it’s about the right money because no customer has ever said anything about the price and one said it’s one of the best hot dogs they’ve ever had.
We get a lot of repeat business. It’s all fresh, homemade and high end.
We have a great wine list as well and we go through to doing cracking cocktails as well.
Draught beer is always going to be out lead seller though. The biggest seller is Birra Moretti by far and we always have two real ales on – currently it’s London Pride and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
We’re a Star pub so we’ve got Heineken, Moretti, Amstel, Guinness and Neck Oil, which does really well – it regularly comes in 3rd or 4th biggest seller while being the most expensive pint on the bar and we also do Gamma Ray from Beavertown as well, plus a cider.
Events are great to create good trade on quieter periods. Friday, Saturday and Sunday look after themselves so we always look to try and fill those quieter times.
Most recently, we’ve introduced live music on a Sunday evening from 6pm till 9pm. It’s at the back end of Sunday roast because we’ve got a full pub but people are beginning to drift off then.
To avoid what we call “the ghost ship”, we put in live music on to keep them here.
We also do events such as flower arranging, candle-making courses, wine tasting evenings and meal nights.
We’ve introduced a boat company where I’ve built a whole new area because we are on the river.
We do Christmas wreath making for their front doors. I get a florist to come in and last year I sold out for five nights. There’s about 30 people per evening. They all pay money to take part and I only make about a fiver from the actual wreaths but it puts a lot of people into the pub – they all have a drink when they arrive, most of them eat too, and you create a busy Tuesday evening at the back end of November.
We’ve also done flower arranging nights in the summer or spring and we’ve held candle making classes too. At about 12.30pm, about 20 people have made their candles but they take 45 minutes to set. People can collect them from her shop or hang around and I would say out of 20 people, 19 of them order lunch. I make no money at all for the candle making and give the lady the space for nothing – we even chuck in a free glass of Prosecco.
We introduced a boat company called Pub Tub at the Red Lion last year because we’re right on the river. It was an idea we had for six years. We have two beautiful electric boats. It’s a self-drive, self-hire boat company and we have people come from far afield to use them.
If you and five mates have just finished your two-hour beautiful boat ride, you’re going to have a pint and have lunch.
We had a fish and chip takeaway running from the car park for the past seven years but we’ve just closed it because the absolute living nightmare of Brexit means I cannot get anybody to cook anymore so we just do takeaways from the bar.
At the moment the Red Lion is probably where it is for the minute but we our focus is being switched to a brand new site, the Golden Grove, which is in Chertsey – about four miles down the road.
We’ve taken the trends of what’s happening in London and are bringing them out to where we are now. We’ve put in Smart Darts, which is like Flight Club. We put in only one board due to space but have added a 16-ft shuffleboard as well.
We’ve also put a smokery in. There’s two of this type in the whole of Europe, one is in Denmark and we’ve got the other. They have come from Texas and are so big you can put a whole pig in it.
We are going to start doing ‘low and slow’ and we also installed a pizza oven so we are cutting our cloth a little bit to the type of chef you can expect to get these days but we still have a great chef there but they won’t have to be to the depth of what Robbie and Liam can do.
The price point will hopefully be right there as well. For example, you can use the greatest tomatoes, the greatest mozzarella, the greatest ingredients on a pizza but you can still only charge £11/£12 for it. However, the margin can be as high as 80% to 90%. You don’t have to skimp. You can get make the greatest pizzas ever and still have a really keen price point.