Tom Martin is on the warpath. A barman hasn’t set up properly (the cocktail shakers have a few finger marks and the pump clips aren’t perfectly straight) and within a minute of entering The Jugged Hare – ETM Group’s latest pub on the fringes of the City – we observe a firm but constructive dressing down.
“Not acceptable,” says Tom, leading a now rather nervy Frenchman around the other side of the bar. “Always think about the customer experience. When you set up, always come round and look at it from the customer’s point of view.”
It’s precisely this constant attention to detail that has seen the London-based ETM Group, helmed by Tom and younger brother Ed, go from a relatively low-key single site – The Well, in Clerkenwell, opened in 2000 – to perhaps the most respected pub-restaurant outfit in the capital with a 10-strong estate that incorporates some of the city’s best known and most successful venues.
The pair have very specific responsibilities within the business. Tom, a former lawyer, looks after legal, food, PR, marketing and the final interior details, while Ed, who studied finance at university, oversees funding, beverage and site design. With the aforementioned eye for detail and focus on quality control, Tom tends to visit sites while Ed is more office based.
As well as this borderline obsessive attention to minutiae, the brothers’ other great attribute is an innate ability to blend in with their surroundings.
They are true chameleons, operating a diverse portfolio of venues carefully tailored to suit a specific customer base. “Our niche is being independent and not having a one-size fits all approach. We’re flexible and create what’s needed for the local clientele, rather than just plonking the same old thing everywhere,” says Ed.
ETM Group’s aforementioned inaugural pub on St John Street is a high-quality but straightforward boozer, offering pie and mash for £10 and a good
selection of real ale. The Botanist, a restaurant/cocktail bar on Sloane Square, in Chelsea, couldn’t be more different. Trust-fund types in boating shoes bray cheerfully at one another and knock back mojitos and Champagne. The food is restaurant orientated with prices to match – coq au vin (£19.50), lemon sole meunière (£26).
The Gun, out in Docklands, is representative of the estate’s middle ground, retaining a pub feel and offering a gastropub menu with bar dishes
– sausage roll (£4.50), devilled whitebait (£4.75) – mingling with higher end fare such as cod, chorizo, borlotti bean and confit garlic stew (£18). A mixed bag the estate may be, but ETM does prefer the capital’s flusher areas with concentrations in and around the City and Chelsea.
Staying within its geographical comfort zone has paid enormous dividends for the group. The ETM business is in great shape: current group turnover is £21m, like-for-like sales were up 13 per cent in December, 5 per cent in January and 7 per cent in February, and the group’s best performing site, The Botanist, takes a mighty £110,000 a week. The estate is made up of three freeholds – The Gun, The Well and The Prince Arthur in London Fields – five free-of-tie leases and two tied pubco leases. The brothers also have a minority stake in six-strong Vietnamese chain Pho, which is currently in talks for a major private equity deal.
An ad hoc expansion strategy
Entirely debt-backed by the bank, the pair describes ETM’s expansion strategy as “entirely opportunistic”, dictated by availability of appropriate sites, strength of cash flow and finance, with no set targets. Despite this ad hoc attitude to growth, things have become a little more strategic in recent years.
“We’ve invested heavily in head office structure,” says Tom. “We now have a strong layer of management below us, including an operations manager, beverage operations manager and food operations manager. We went through a few years of being overstaffed, but we now have the capacity to expand much quicker than we did before.”
There might be no set expansion goals, but it’s clear the pace of ETM’s growth is only going to increase. The brothers have opened three sites in the past 12 months and a site in Canary Wharf is in the pipeline. “We could probably fit one more in this year, but it has been a very busy time,” says Ed. “London will remain the focus. We’ve no idea what trading in Manchester would be like, but we do know it will be a different business model. There are so many more opportunities in town anyway.”
The Angle and Crown on St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden, marked the group’s entry to the West End in late 2011. The other two newcomers to the portfolio, Chiswell Street Dining Rooms and The Jugged Hare, are both within the former Whitbread Brewery – the two sites, appropriately, are the former brewery taps – and part of the high-end Montcalm Hotel. Opening two sites in such close proximity is a sign of genuine confidence in their own product and the market and - although a hotel-based operation is breaking new ground for the group - the two offers on Chiswell Street feel like a highly-effective distillation of everything ETM has done to date.
Hybrid venues, vertical drinking
Much like The Botanist, Chiswell Street is not a pub, in fact it’s essentially a modern British eatery that also functions as the hotel’s breakfast room. The Jugged Hare, on the eastern end of the street, is probably best described as a gastropub, although like a lot of ETM sites it’s a bit of a hybrid.
“The original plan was for most of the corner site to be bedrooms,” recalls Tom. “But we managed to persuade the hotel that it would be far more profitable to add in a proper restaurant and private dining room into the space, which would only have housed about four bedrooms. It also rescued the beautiful tiled vaulted ceiling, which would have been plastered over.”
In the evening the bar area is entirely given over to vertical drinking. Ed describes it rather poetically as 'the melee'. For those not familiar with pub trade lingo, that means lots of people standing up. Even in this hectic environment, the brothers Martin insist that staff don’t let the quality of the offer slide as it regularly does in high-volume boozers. “You get a proper welcome, you get a smart, clean and well-presented venue, the toilets are regularly checked and the quality of the drinks is consistently high,” says Tom.
In sharp contrast to the taxidermy-lined walls and barrel tables in the bar, the restaurant area at The Jugged Hare has more of a brasserie feel: red banquettes, mirrors, dark woods and original brickwork. The space has a high-end look and it’s immediately obvious that serious cash has been invested. “Being on the fringes of the City and close to The Barbican, it was essential that The Jugged Hare was able to pull people in from further afield at the weekend. It needed to feel like a destination venue,” says Ed.
Look into the open kitchen and you’ll see head chef Richard O’Connell – formerly of The Groucho Club – behaving much more like a restaurant chef.
“It’s not people opening packets, we employ serious chefs and we absolutely see ourselves as restaurant operators as well as publicans. The lines have become blurred anyway,” says Tom.
The restaurant offers a small plates/starters section with prices ranging from £5 to £9.50 and dishes including Bath chaps, langoustine and breaded skate knobs with garlic mayonnaise. There’s a rotisserie offering monkfish tail, cockles and caviar butter (£21) and Tamworth suckling pig (£17.50), and main plates include oxtail, kidney and tongue hotpot (£11) and braised rabbit legs with faggots, peas and bacon (£14.50).
The offer is seriously foodie and indicative of operators that understand the market and are paying attention to current trends. ETM group sales are split 45:55 in favour of wet across the group, but it varies from site to site with the The Hat & Tun, in Clerkenwell, 20:80 and Chiswell Street Dining Rooms the most food-led at 55:45.
Mixing up menus, quality control
Each menu is entirely different and the style of offer varies considerably across the group. All the food is made fresh on site every day and the brothers believe the standard is consistent throughout. The menus for the majority of the estate change once every two months, and to keep things up to scratch a regimented but collaborative procedure has been introduced.
Menus are written by each site head chef and checked for seasonality and general content by Tom and food operations manager James Lyon-Shaw, formerly at The Ivy. When all are happy there’s a full tasting of the menu. It’s a staggering amount of work for all concerned. “I’m doing eight menu tastings this week and each takes about three hours,” says Tom. “There are always issues to iron out and sometimes we have to redo the entire thing if it’s not good enough. But you can’t allow anything to slide in this business.”
This article first appeared in the May issue of Restaurant magazine, out today. Subscribe here.