I get bored easily,” says Joycelyn Neve, foot hard on the accelerator of her sports car as she speeds along the winding roads of Pendle Hill in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. “I’d like to cap the number of Seafood Pubs we have at eight, but that’s not going to be enough to keep me satisfied,” she adds, manoeuvring swiftly around a slow-moving bus. “I want the company to be bigger than that.”
The 29-year-old founder of The Seafood Pub Company, the burgeoning group of gastropubs centred around Lancashire, isn’t one for hanging around in the slow lane – both physically and metaphorically.
In just four years, Neve has built a multi-award-winning, six-strong pub group that has a formidable reputation for its food, in particular, that which has come from the sea. So much so, in fact, it is often mentioned in the same breath as the leviathan of Lancastrian cuisine Nigel Haworth’s Ribble Valley Inns. Put that in your hot pot and simmer it.
The dual approach
We are carving our way through the roads on the drive from the Assheton Arms, the company’s newly refurbished pub in the village of Downham, to the Barley Mow, its more drink-led, hunter’s lodge-inspired pub. The four-mile trip is significant in that it encompasses the dual approach The Seafood Pub Company now takes.
The Assheton exemplifies its food-led approach, with a wide-ranging à la carte menu to rival any high-end local restaurant. The Barley Mow, on the other hand, serves more classic, pub-friendly fare, with lower prices to match. As such, the former sits under the Seafood Pub banner while the latter is what Neve describes as a ‘pubco’. At the seafood pubs, the split is 70:30 in favour of food; at the Barley Mow it is 50:50.
“If we’d done another Seafood Pub four miles from The Assheton it wouldn’t have worked. So when the site came up we knew we’d have to do something different,” says Neve. “The customers at the Barley Mow are very different. People spend £25 per head on food at The Assheton while there it is £18 to £19. But they drink more, so the total spend
is the same.”
It is this fledgling pubco branch of the business that will keep Neve occupied, with plans to open a total of 12 in the coming few years. “With eight Seafood Pubs, this will give us a company of 20 sites,” she says. “That makes a good round number to be getting on with.”
If this sounds like an ambitious plan then it’s because straight-talking Neve has a drive as powerful as her car. She founded the company in 2010 at the age of just 25, cleverly combining her father’s extensive fishing expertise and contacts with her own love of food and appetite for success.
Until then her family had been solely in the supply side of the industry; Neve’s great grandfather was a celebrated trawlerman and her father Chris – known locally as the ‘Codfather’ – ran a hugely successful fish business. But despite having no knowledge of hospitality save from a stint working in restaurants and bars in Manchester – and with a geography degree from Liverpool University – she decided her talents and a love of food instilled from her ‘sea dog’ lineage were best put to use in the pub world.
“I’ve always been around food – it’s in my blood,” says Neve, recalling as a young child her father sitting her on a lobster tank with a fishing net. “At the time no places near me were serving great food and ingredients done simply. There were posh restaurants – I was hyperactive as a child so they were not places my parents could take me – and drinking pubs, but nothing in between.”
While that hyperactivity remains, it has been channelled into a vibrant, persuasive force, with Neve convincing brewery Thwaites, which owned the lease on The Hordens pub in the village of Feniscowles in Blackburn, to do a £500,000 refurb for her first project. Thwaites put in £350,000 while Neve, after re-mortgaging her house, stumped up £150,000. Thus, in March 2011, the first Seafood Pub, called The Oyster & Otter, opened.
With six sites operating and a seventh, Town Green Brasserie in Aughton, Ormskirk, launching this month, history suggests that Neve, and her partner and executive chef Antony Shirley, hit the sweet spot from day one. The reality, however, wasn’t quite so straightforward. In a bid to rid the pub of drinkers and replace them with a more food-oriented clientele, Neve and Shirley ended up ousting the locals as well. “We didn’t engage with them,” she admits, now seated in the company’s beautifully converted HQ in the picturesque town of Clitheroe. “The food was over their heads. It took 18 months to sort it out.”
Landing some early wins
Neve’s unstinting belief in the quality of her ingredients, in particular the seafood sourced from her father’s company, twinned with Shirley’s ability at the stove, has ultimately proved a winning formula. And support quickly followed in the form of Devonshire Pub Company founder Andrew McLean, now executive chairman of The Seafood Pub Company, and Lancashire entrepreneur Matthew Riley, founder of telecoms company Daisy Group and griller of finalists on BBC1’s The Apprentice. With McLean’s extensive pub knowledge and the pair’s early backing, the business has flourished from the start.
Neve has also scored some early coups along the way. For her second site, The Assheton, she saw off a rival bid from Marco Pierre White to take the keys to the Grade II-listed building, the ambitious-girl-beats-moody-chef proving to be a PR masterstroke. “He [Marco] was pulling out of The Swan [in Aughton, Lancashire] so I told them that he’d probably leave this site as well,” recalls Neve.
The purchase of the 250-year-old Fenwick Arms in Claughton, in 2013, a pub that appeared on TV programme Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, also helped keep the brand front of mind.
The Assheton Arms’ prestigious postcode in the conservation village of Downham, which is under the auspices of Lord and Lady Clitheroe, also paid dividends, with Neve’s personable nature impressing the distinguished family. Since then, the relationship between them has blossomed, and the company has just finished building new guest accommodation at two sites close by – including in the former post office – on the Clitheroe’s approval.
The high-end fit-out of each site has also impressed, with much of the furniture made in-house to keep costs down, but also to ensure a high-quality finish.
Beating Marco to the prize wasn’t the only hurdle that Neve had to face, however. The purchase of The Assheton went through three days before Christmas, and Neve and Shirley decided it wouldn’t be propitious to close the village pub during the festive season. Instead, they kept it open and got to know the locals and based their food decisions on the experience.
The pub closed after Valentine’s Day and reopened 40 days later for Easter – Shirley was tempted to do a ‘second coming’ marketing campaign but thought better of it. “We opened on Good Friday and were fully booked until Monday but it just never stopped,” he says. “We did 1,000 covers in the first four days.”
The opening of site two threw up further challenges, with Neve and Shirley discovering that, without their presence at The Oyster & Otter, standards were slipping. “Even now, the hardest thing was going from one site to two,” says Neve. “The team at the Oyster wasn’t strong enough. We went away for six weeks [to open The Assheton] and when we returned it had really wobbled. We got rid of 80% of the staff once we opened number two.”
Recruitment remains a challenge and while Neve says it is proving relatively easy to recruit at present, she acknowledges it might get harder in the future. “You need a specific type of chef to cook seafood – fish is quite unforgiving,” adds Shirley. “It takes a certain chef with a good touch.”
With two new openings last year, the Derby Arms in Thornley, Longridge, and the Barley Mow, and at least one new site this year, staff numbers are on the rise and the company’s evolution will continue. The Town Green Brasserie will be its second pubco, but it isn’t going to be a replica of the first. The food and drink split here will likely sit between the two at 60:40 in favour of food, with a focus on good-value fish dishes. “People who live there like their fish so we’re going to have plenty of seafood on the menu. But it’s going to be more casual and lower priced than the Seafood Pubs,” says Neve. “Each pubco site can be very different, that’s their beauty.”
After that, the company is looking in areas such as Cheshire, the Lake District and Merseyside for sites for further openings. Destination sites or very affluent areas will suit a Seafood Pub, while Neve says that a pubco can go “almost anywhere”. Judging by her company’s progress so far, this statement shouldn’t be taken lightly.
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