You had a successful career in the city, what led to you making the transition to hospitality?
I had been working in financial services in London when I got divorced and ended up moving to Suffolk, to Moulton, just outside Newmarket. I was still commuting into London, but was thinking about doing something different.
The eureka moment was on Guy Fawkes night in 2010. We had some people staying and went down to the local pub The King’s Head and watched the fireworks display over the Packhorse Bridge bridge. The village pub had two people working there that night and it was packed. There was a queue about 100 yards long to get a hot dog. I thought ‘there’s got to be a better way to do this’.
About two years’ later we were having some building work done on our house and the builder said ‘did you know the local pub is about to come up for sale?’ so I bought it with a friend of mine who was in property.
I ended up buying him out because my vision and his vision were at the opposite ends of the spectrum, but we went on to successfully transform it from the King's Head into the Packhorse Inn. It now has eight bedrooms and was awarded three AA rosettes and five stars for the rooms, and we've grown to four sites.
With no experience of working in hospitality, how did you go about setting up your first pub?
I spent eight months getting planning and I had a crystal clear view of what it was going to look like and end up as. Everyone thought we were mad, because what the pub was then and what it is now is very different. Amanda my wife did the interiors and fortunately she shared the same views as me.
We started the whole project without a manager, chef or anyone with an operations experience. I look back and it was lunacy. Would I do the same thing again? No.
However, if we had tied up a relationship with a chef or manager before opening, they may have dictated how they wanted to do it, but as we didn’t it meant we ended up with it how we wanted it to be. When we hired a chef and a manager, it was on our terms. For us, it was about understanding what we wanted in the place’s design, look and feel and then translating it into the food, the type of service and the environment we wanted to create for people.
Do you think hospitality operators sometimes forget the customer when they are creating a new concept?
Our approach was from the experience of being on the other side of the counter, knowing what we liked. The biggest risk was hoping that other people liked what we liked. We just did it in the only way we knew how and fortunately other people like it.
Now when I'm at our two building sites (The White Horse in Easton and The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds) I do look at the sites from an operator's perspective, such as the the optimum route from the kitchen to the tables and the best place to put the till, but I still look at it from the end user's perspective. Before we did this we had no experience as an operator, so we looked at it as a customer would. I now look at it both ways.
What have you learnt about running a hospitality business so far?
We started out thinking we were going to create a family of places that would have a common theme, but that isn't happening any more.
We purchased and refurbished the Rupert Brook in Grantchester a year after the Packhorse Inn opened and we learnt that despite them being only 19 miles apart, the eating habits and the customer demographic are completely different. We haven’t been able to translate the same food offering to that site and we’re in the process of a complete revamp of the menu.
All the sites will have some operational synergies, in terms of HR and training and the like, but these are mostly things customers would never see. We've realised it’s incredibly important that each site has its own soul and its own personality running it, so our head chefs are tasked with establishing relationships with suppliers, menus reflect the local produce available and the general managers run it in their own way.
I think consumers are a little bit exhausted by chain restaurants. They provide a function, of course, when you go, you know what you'll get and roughly what you'll pay, but diners want to be more adventurous and creative with the type of food they order and the environment they’re going to experience that.
The perceived lack of independent sites is concerning to some people, so we want to scale the business and grow it so we have to have synergies, but we want the end user experience to be unique to each individual site.
You refuse to define your businesses as a pub, restaurant or hotel, why is this?
People want to pigeon hole businesses – is it a pub, a hotel or a restaurant? they ask. I took the view early on that I didn't want to do that. I want a room at any of our sites to be as good as any you'd find in a boutique hotel, I want the food to be as good as you'd find in a really good restaurant, I want the environment to be as good as you'd expect to experience in a local pub.
You are appealing to lots of different people and we were told early on you can’t do that, you need to pick your market and follow it and stick to that, but I said I don’t buy into that because the guys coming in to spend a lot of money on wine and expensive food want to feel the atmosphere of the guys standing in the bar. The guys in the bar want to show off their local to the people sleeping in the rooms upstairs.
The ambition of the brand is to encapsulate every single feature of what a hospitality experience could be and make sure we do it to the best of our abilities in each area.