Given the credentials of the gastropub company’s executive group head chef Ronnie Kimbugwe, who has spent much of his career working for Gordon Ramsay in some of his most high-profile kitchens, this could be construed as arrogance. But it is, in fact, for the opposite reason that the menu is bereft of the crowd-pleasing dishes you might typically find in a pub group such as this.
“We don’t have a burger because everyone else has one on their menu and they do them very well. How are we going to improve on it?,” says operations director Hector Ross.
“We did toy with the idea of doing a very different kind of burger, but there are already two other places that do bloody good burgers in this village, so why take them on? It would only clog up the menu.”
The village in question is Cookham in Berkshire, the location of the first of the group’s pubs, which it took on in 2011 as part of its transformation of four former Punch leases. One of the oldest coaching inns in England, it is from this once booming gastropub that the company took its rather unusual name.
Cookham has provided more than nominal inspiration for the group, however. The affluent town is close to a cluster of very well-respected gastropubs and restaurants, not least Tom Kerridge’s The Hand & Flowers and The Coach in Marlow, Heston’s The Fat Duck and The Hinds Head in Bray and The Royal Oak Paley Street in Maidenhead, and this has helped inform the menu not just at Cookham but across the whole group.
Its food offer is the same in every venue, and the menu reflects the well-heeled nature of its patrons.
“Bel & the Dragon provides a relaxed but also a fine dining experience,” maintains Ross. “It is good quality English grub made from scratch complemented by a lovely wine list. The high quality of food is very much part of our DNA.”
Restaurant food, pub surrounds
While Kimbugwe hasn’t totally avoided pub favourites – the fish pie is a big seller as are the crispy Cornish whitebait and Josper-cooked steak and chips – the menu at Bel & the Dragon has more of a restaurant than pub feel to it. Rotisserie dishes on its winter menu include roasted suckling pig; and partridge with braised red cabbage, with mains such as English veal bolognese and lobster and crayfish risotto.
The group is also big on its larger plates, with salt-baked saddle of lamb and rib of beef both available as sharing portions.
Having one menu across all its pubs enables the group to be adventurous while remaining consistent. While other groups of similar size tend to give head chefs at each site free rein, often resulting in very different menus to meet the needs of each specific local community, Bel & the Dragon has stuck to its original, winning formula.
“We always wanted to work off one menu as a core,” says Kimbugwe. “Our view is that if it works in Cookham then let’s do the same elsewhere. Why change it?” With the exception of Windsor, which serves afternoon tea and where fish and chips does put in an appearance to appease the tourist crowd, the group has retained this approach as it has grown.
This doesn’t mean that the group’s offer is immutable. Menus are altered on a monthly basis, with around 70% of dishes changed each time. “We essentially rip up menus and start again each month,” says Ross. Each site chef can also put on daily specials that are tailored more to the local clientele. Every head chef is afforded £500 of stock each month to play with, while Kimbugwe gets £2,500.
“Our typical customer is someone who eats out at least once a week,” says Ross. “We have historically kept certain dishes back for customers, but people generally want a menu that always offers something new.”
For the winter menu the group has concentrated on bringing back traditional British dishes including spotted dick and rice pudding to share. It also does a baked alaska, which it flames tableside. “I’m forever writing risk assessments for trying to burn things at tables,” says Ross.
Room for growth
This one-size-fits-all approach with the menu has dictated the growth strategy of the group, with the company sticking to affluent areas in the south of England, in particular Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire, where Ross says veal bolognese and blackened cod with miso and lime are not considered out of place. The company’s second opening was in Windsor, followed by locations in Godalming and Reading, with around £1m invested in each site to give them the premium, country feel that is standard across the group.
“The spend has to be there,” he says. “If we tried to do a Bel & the Dragon in Dudley, for example, then it’s not going to work.”
With seven sites, a turnover last year of £10.2m and EBITDA of £2.4m, growth is in line with expectations. Like for like sales were up 13% on the previous year and the company reports strong trading at all of its sites over the past 12 months.
Expansion has, in part, been motivated by the ability to add rooms to the pubs to boost both midweek and weekend trade, which is particularly important in some of the more remote locations. The Churt site, the company’s fifth acquisition, was attractive because it had 12 bedrooms – six more have since been added – and rooms have now become a key pillar of Bel & the Dragon’s expansion strategy.
“We added five bedrooms at Cookham and that was a game changer for us,” says Ross. “We immediately had 10 people dining with us on a Monday night. Rooms bring enormous opportunities; they are profitable and they get the corporate diners in during the week and the leisure customers at the weekend.”
Rooms have since also been added at its Odiham and Kingsclere pubs – its sixth and seventh openings, both in Hampshire – with the company now up to 55 rooms in total. The aim is to double capacity to 100, with all sites having rooms by the end of the year – currently Reading, Windsor and Godalming don’t offer accommodation. Occupancy is at 79% across the estate, which Ross attributes to the company’s commitment to keep prices below £125 a night including breakfast.
There are some logistical issues the company needs to address, the ‘higgledy piggledy’ nature of the 13th-century Windsor site being one. “The layout makes it a challenge,” admits Ross. “It’s a very touristy location and we can’t see people wanting to use shared facilities.”
As well as rooms, the group plans to move into other areas through expansion. At Cookham the adjacent building is under offer with plans to not only use the space to increase bedroom capacity but create an additional downstairs private dining room and also a multi-use space that could be used for conferences or to house a cookery school. Ross also wants to make his first foray into the world of retail with the opening of a deli in Cookham that will sell dishes that are on the menu in the pub.
“We are looking at other revenue streams,” he says. “Each site now has a general manager and a head chef who have been with us at least a year, so why not acquire freehold properties adjacent to us? A cookery school would help push the chefs to next level and there is no deli in [Cookham] or even a Waitrose, so there is the opportunity to create a shop that sells our food and wine, but not take the emphasis away from what we do. It would be great to sell another 40 of Ronnie’s fish pies every week in retail.”
A move into retail
The deli idea also ties in with the company’s potential move into central production for some of its dishes. Longshot Country Inns, Bel & the Dragon’s parent company that is run by entrepreneurs Joel Cadbury and Ollie Vigors, doesn’t have ambitions to grow beyond 10 sites.
This is a target which it hopes to reach in the next two years, with plans to buy threes sites and open two of them by the end of 2017. Once it reaches this figure Ross believes that centralising certain operations would improve efficiency without compromising on quality.
“Ten is our magic number and then it makes sense to think about a central production kitchen.” This wouldn’t be for primary dishes, which will always be made on site from scratch, he adds – “otherwise the chefs would get bored” – but some could get the central treatment.
“We used to cut our own steaks but because of volume we have to buy them already cut, but we still trim our own fish. We’re selling 1,000 tiramisus a week; should we be making them all at one site and distributing them around the country? The same with stock and gravy. It makes economic sense from an efficiency and consistency point of view.
“We’re not going to go to a big boy supplier, we want to retain control, but 10 pubs means we can have a dedicated production team and a van on the roads. With a central production kitchen we can also make extra fish pie and sell them in retail. We get about 50 request a month for ‘meals on wheels’ across the group and we can’t do it. That service is a natural digression for us, and something that our competitors aren’t doing.”
These extra efficiencies will become increasingly important in the face of rising costs, particularly given the margins the company works to. Average spend at Bel & the Dragon is £25 for lunch and £40 for dinner with dishes making a 65% GP rather than the 70%-plus found in comparative pub groups. Margins touched 70% for the first time last December, but this was down to agreeing turkey prices in May, according to Ross. Although the company says it is happy to take less money to ensure quality remains high it is unlikely to want margins to slip further.
Getting creative with wine
The group takes a similar approach to wine. Bel & the Dragon runs two wine lists, a standard eight red, eight white one, where mark ups are typically four times cost price, and a cellar list where the mark up is only one and a half. It also has some fun with its house wine that is served in a magnum and where customers pay only for what they drink.
“If three people order a glass of wine, no one orders a second, but this essentially means the more you drink the cheaper the bottle becomes,” says Ross. “It’s rather good fun. We plonk a magnum on the table and charge £42 for it, or £4 for a 125ml glass. Weights and measures had lots of fun with us in the early days but it’s perfectly legal.”
Getting an already opened bottle is not everyone’s cup of tea but the wine is changed daily and any leftovers go to the kitchen. The reason the magnum was chosen, says Ross, is that no one will feel compelled to pinch it or try to drink from it. You also get the feeling that the company just likes to be different.
“Some people don’t like it,” Ross admits. “My mother, who’s 80, would be terrified by it. But on a Friday evening we usually have eight of them on the go.”
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