Sticking to one thing is not something that Paul Newman and David Mooney are very good at. As founders of New Moon Co, formerly known as New Moon Pub Company, they operate a business that, across its eight sites, serves more cuisines than an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffet. From hearty ‘modern Manchester’ food at its Beef & Pudding site and old school Italian at Casa Matta, to ‘pan-Gulf’ dishes at Mockingbird Taproom and traditional pub grub at The Old Sessions House, it has it covered.
With hundreds of different dishes between them, New Moon is the antidote to the rash of limited-menu restaurants that have now become de rigueur.
If this sounds a bit haphazard then there’s method in the pair’s madness; with each site bespoke to the location. But there’s also a touch of madness in their method, with Mooney and Newman having built a company often led by instinct and opportunism rather than careful planning.
It all started back in 2011 when chef Mooney drove past boarded-up pub the Morris Dancer in Kelsall, Cheshire, on his way home from work and, beguiled by the board outside that read ‘You could run this business’, was disposed to take a look around. Impressed with the potential of the site, he then approached his friend Newman, with whom he had previously spoken about a restaurant venture, and encouraged him to take a peek. Before they knew it they had signed a lease with pubco Enterprise Inns and thus New Moon was formed.
“It was ludicrous money,” recalls Mooney. “It was a 70-seat pub with a 100-seat restaurant and 110-seat function room, but it was so cheap it was untrue because it was unoccupied and in a pretty bad state.”
The pair eventually decided against Newman’s original plan to open a restaurant, opting instead to reopen the space as The Lord Binning Pub & Kitchen following some landscaping, a deep clean and a cheap fit out courtesy of items bought on eBay. “We formed the company in August and opened the pub on the bank holiday to get some cash in, and it just flew,” adds Mooney. “It turned over £900,000 in the first year.”
Making the pubco model work
Following on from this success, New Moon’s early growth was centred on the pubco model and its relationship with Enterprise. Its second site, The Old Sessions House, which opened in Knutsford, Cheshire, a year later, and which “had been a shit hole for years,” according to Mooney, was another Enterprise lease, as have been subsequent openings.
“We made a decision that we’d go down the pubco route because the entry level is low,” says Mooney. “It’s the only way we could grow the company.” And while some are sceptical of the model, which sees tenants obliged to buy beer from the pubco, often at an inflated price, as well as pay rent, Mooney believes it has helped the business grow into what it is today. “I know everyone moans about pubcos, but the lease is often sub-market rate because they make money on the beer and we’re not tied on wine or spirits, which is where we make our money. You have to take the view that you are selling beer on commission for Enterprise, but if your cellar cooling breaks down, your roof collapses or your drains overflow, someone comes out and fixes it. It’s a very cheap way of opening a business and, if you’re successful at it, the returns are there.
“If you’re not happy paying more than market price for beer, don’t do it. Go and buy a freehold pub in Barrow-in-Furness or Scunthorpe for £135,000, work your arse off for 10 years but lose money every year and then sell it for £135,000. But that’s the market we are in. A lot of chefs have caught on to the fact that they can take on pubs. Look at Tom Kerridge. The Hand & Flowers is about as much a pub as I’m an Olympic athlete. People are realising that they don’t have to operate them as pubs.”
This is typical straight talk from the 52-year-old who is not one to mince his words, whether describing the positives or negatives of his company. While The Old Sessions House went on to be another success,
New Moon’s third venture, The Hanging Gate pub in Weaverham, Cheshire, went “spectacularly arse up”, to use his vernacular.
“A customer at The Lord Binning said what a great job we were doing and that we should take on a place up the road. Someone pandered to our egos and we thought we were terribly clever opening another pub. But it was the wrong concept in the wrong place.”
Managing the Manchester market
This misstep relatively early on in the company’s existence helped form the basis for Mooney and Newman’s approach thereafter, with the pair realising the gastropub model wasn’t necessarily the best fit for all its future locations. Its first city-centre site, in Manchester and yet another Enterprise lease, saw New Moon move in a different direction, one that would eventually lead it to drop the word ‘pub’ from its title.
With Beef & Pudding, New Moon created what it describes as its first ‘urban’ offer, with a grill-style restaurant serving ‘modern Manchester’ food. The wide-ranging menu features numerous references to its northern location, including Lancashire cheese bon bons and Manchester ‘calamari’ (tripe dusted with cayenne pepper and served with a potato cake).
There’s also a ‘British and proud’ section on the menu, superfluous considering the majority of the dishes already fall into this category, with the likes of cottage pie and fish and chips alongside more leftfield offers, such as a keema lamb pudding. Manchester’s most famous drink, Vimto, also makes an appearance on the menu, and is offered hot as an alternative to tea or coffee as part of Beef & Pudding’s brunch menu.
The company’s first city-centre operation has not been without its challenges. Increased competition from many large restaurant brands and the resultant rise in rents is making it a tougher environment and New Moon has struggled to find additional sites in the city, having been beaten to them by local rivals.
“The site thing is really hard. We found a beautiful site where Dishoom has also taken a space but it’s just too much for us. To break even we’d need to do £75,000 to £80,000 a week. But this is Manchester, not London.”
Fluctuations in trading at Beef & Pudding are another frustration. “Sometimes we do £20,000 to £22,000 a week, sometimes it’s £65,000 to £70,000. Weekends are great, Sunday lunches good, but midweek can be tough. We have to be really on top of hours and labour costs and, if it’s quiet, pull things back – it’s ebb and flow all the time.”
Mooney says he wants to create 20 extra covers to maximise space in busy periods and to kick start revenue growth.
“[Beef & Pudding] has not grown as much as it should. But it will.”
He’s also somewhat sceptical about the current hype surrounding Manchester’s restaurant scene. “Manchester is on the up at the moment, but that will change. Stats suggest that around 65 restaurants opened in Manchester in the past 12 months but the dining public hasn’t increased and there are not enough tourists for this number of new bars and restaurants. In the Corn Exchange, some places are very busy, some not at all. There will be casualties.”
Brands for all areas
New Moon’s diverse portfolio is one way the company is insuring against becoming one of these casualties. The company is chameleon-like in its approach, creating concepts led by the location and clientele.
“When people go out in Liverpool they go out and they go hard,” says Mooney. “Their average spend is high. In Manchester, if people spend a pound they want a pound’s worth, but they will spend the money. But in rural Cheshire, despite its reputation as being the Bentley capital of Britain, it is harder to get into people’s wallets.”
It didn’t drag its heels in turning the Hanging Gate into Casa Matta, for example, described by Mooney as a “bog-standard Italian”. “It has a menu that could have been written in 1974 – there’s melon, prawn cocktail, pizza, pasta, tiramisu. I make no apologies. It works really well in that area although I doubt we’ll develop any more of them.”
One concept it does intend to develop more of, however, is its Mockingbird Taproom, its smallest physical site, located in Chester. The restaurant’s ‘pan-Gulf’ menu, with influences from South America, Mexico, the American Gulf states and the Eastern Seaboard, features everything from Tex Mex classics such as nachos and fajitas to gumbo, Louisiana fried chicken and red snapper, as well as the hugely popular
trailer trash burrito, a combination of a burger, fried chicken and fries wrapped in a tortilla.
“Mockingbird is that little bit of me that still thinks I’m 18 and that I can go out till 3am and get up for work in the morning,” says Mooney. “Chester had loads of mid-range eating options that worked so we didn’t want to position it at the top end. We wanted something a bit different, but not so out there that people wouldn’t go near it. We had to really research new stuff for it.”
Its most ambitious site, the whopping 370-cover The Old Blind School in central Liverpool – named after its location in a former school for blind children – was initially intended to be a second Beef & Pudding but it “didn’t feel right,” says Mooney.
Split across two floors, it features a 200-seat pub downstairs and 170-seat restaurant above, with the pair opting to replicate the model of The Old Sessions House and create more of a pub and dining room.
The venture saw New Moon spend much more freely than before; its fit out cost £800,000 (The Old Sessions House was only £50,000, although it was redone 18 months later at an additional cost of £60,000) and rent is just over £100,000 (at Beef & Pudding it’s £38,000).
“Blind School was a massive gamble, it had the capacity to break the company. Liverpool is starting to gain that momentum that Manchester had a few years ago. It’s a city that likes to go out and enjoy itself. Spend per head there is great.” So far their gamble has paid off; Mooney says it will do £2.2m turnover in its first year.
Then there’s The Bronx, the company’s most recent site that’s styled around a New York dive bar. Aimed at a younger demographic than its other sites, The Bronx is the only drinks-led operation in the group, although it does serve a selection of pizzette – all at £5. Also based in Knutsford, it’s New Moon’s attempt to mop up a different crowd to that which frequents The Old Sessions House on the same street.
The next phase of the Moon
Despite having continued to grow the number of brands in its portfolio, New Moon looks likely to concentrate on its three key brands – Beef & Pudding, Mockingbird Taproom and ‘The Olds’, as Mooney refers to them – in the future, with the ultimate aim of operating all three in Manchester and Liverpool as well as Leeds, Harrogate, Sheffield, Birmingham and Newcastle. To this end, a second Mockingbird Taproom is
planned for the first quarter of next year. It has also simplified the business by introducing a single menu across its gastropubs.
So far, growth has been organic, but Mooney and Newman acknowledge they may soon need to seek outside investment for the next stage of development. “We have had private investors approach us, but there are pros and cons. We could do an Old Blind School-style operation in Manchester and self fund it by hook or by crook. Do you give away part of the thing you’ve created? It’s a decision we’ve got to make
in the next four to six months.
“We get asked once a month what our exit plan is, and we’ll know when the time is right. We do cultivate an image of being chippy boys who just sit there drinking wine and who got a bit lucky, but we are serious and passionate about what we have done and what we do next. And we are pretty fucking good at what we do, too. You can only be so lucky.”