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Better Business – Preston Park Tavern and Chimney House

21 October 2011
Better Business – Preston Park Tavern and Chimney House

Preston Park Tavern and Chimney House in Brighton both hold a two-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Aaron Morby talks to owners Helen and Andrew Coggin

This week Preston Park Tavern and Chimney House, both in Brighton, East Sussex
Why? Each business holds a two-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association, making them the first pubs in the city to hold a star

Need to know Andrew Coggins met Helen nearly 20 years ago when he was working for Hilton International in Dubai and she was organising international trade exhibitions in the Gulf State.

After a spell on the international hotel circuit in South Africa and Malaysia, the couple returned to the UK to settle and have a family.

"We both wanted to own a restaurant or pub and were prepared to spend a few years looking for the right place," explains Helen. "Andrew's decision to take the job as general manager at the De Vere Grand hotel in Brighton led us in the right direction."

The couple stumbled across the Preston Park Tavern in 2006 and bought the lease for the Punch Taverns-owned Victorian building for £130,000. After spending a further £150,000 on a commercial kitchen and full building repairs, they opened their first pub.

This proved the start of a food pub love affair, which has seen the talented couple expand to two premises: the Preston Park Tavern, where they now own the freehold, and another nearby Punch Taverns site called the Chimney House where they are leaseholders.

Target audience

Preston Park interior
Preston Park interior

Both pubs are situated away from the city's thoroughfares in quiet residential streets.

"We knew the area very well and it was ripe for a really family friendly local pub that was serving honest food in nice surrounds," says Helen.

Formerly an old sports boozer, the Preston Park Tavern (pictured) now fits the bill as a stylish, bright and spacious food pub that concentrates on serving its locality.

"We are often confused as a restaurant," confesses Helen, "but we still keep the pub character. Our customers are local people, we are not a destination pub, but draw in suburban residential young families."

Word of mouth has driven business at both pubs as the Coggins' reputation for reasonably priced food in a warm, friendly atmosphere spread.

The emphasis is on keeping both pubs children-friendly and crayons and colouring books are dished out to keep kids entertained. The pubs also boast a special child menu with favourites like meatballs in red sauce, pasta, free-range chicken goujons and chocolate crispie cakes.

Loyalty cards "Because we rely so heavily on our local trade, we wanted to give something back to our best customers and decided the best way was through loyalty cards.

"They've proved hugely successful," says Helen who estimates around 10 free meals are served a week at each pub.

Every time a customer spends over £30 they collect a stamp and after nine they earn a free two-course meal.

"We are very genuine about this and it applies to any meal on the menu and at anytime. We believe the cards are invaluable to us and keep the good will flowing."

The Coggins prefer to market themselves through free residential directories, which closely target the local community. They also use local mailshots of about 3,000 cards and make sure they always carry a good offer.

Growing the business

Chimney House
Chimney House
Two years ago the Coggins decided the time was ripe for a transformational change. Fixed in their sights was the then closed Chimney House in the Seven Dials area of Brighton, just a mile from the Preston Park Tavern. They secured the lease from Punch for a snip at £20,000, based in part on their track record as successful landlords.

The Chimney House sticks to the winning formula of serving the local community with reasonably-price food in a stylish setting of Victorian cosiness.

Around that time the couple also realised Punch was selling off freeholds.

"We had already invested a lot in the Preston Park Tavern and wanted more freedom to develop the site. So we put in an offer and bought the freehold for £530,000. We hope to convert two floors above the pub into five flats for rent," she explains.

Both pubs now deliver in the region of £1m turnover a year, with the Preston Park contributing about 65% of this, from an average 70 covers a day, supported by 50 at the Chimney House.

Food and drink

Preston Park squid
Preston Park squid

Food accounts for 56% of total takings. The pubs stock up to eight red and white wines and three rose, all served by the glass and priced in accordance to the cost of the list price of a full bottle of wine. This open-bottle policy has helped to lift wines sales ahead of beer.

The pubs operate with a total of five full-time chefs, delivering a relatively small menu of six main courses, priced about £12 to £15.

Both offer a daily changing menu featuring local, high-welfare meats, free-range chickens and eggs, sustainably sourced fish and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Favourite supplier Using a local middleman acting for small independent farmers in the region, the couple are developing a strong but not exclusive buy-local policy.

Nick Sandford runs the small Brighton-based business, trading as Fin and Farm, which delivers Sussex-sourced seasonal fruit, vegetables and fish to commercial kitchens, and specialises in award-winning Ringden apple juice.

Helen adds: "He sends us a newsletter each week, with an entertaining commentary on what's in season and it best cooking use. He keeps the kitchen very seasonal."

Spotlight on sustainabilitY

Preston Park dessert
Preston Park dessert
"We've always believed in ethical sourcing, but perhaps didn't make enough of a noise about it," Helen confides. Now it is a firm business commitment.

This means buying high-welfare beef from a local Sussex farm and giving mackerel a more frequent outing on the menu.

Their fishmonger, P&H Fish, is MSC certified and can demonstrate a chain of custody on all supplies.

Nowadays menus are made from recycled paper, as are the notepads used by waiting staff. Energy-saving light bulbs are installed throughout the premises, and toiletries provided to customers are equally eco-friendly.

All waste is recycled. As times have changed, both pubs can now sell used cooking oil rather than having to pay somebody £2 a can to take it away.

Helen has adopted a progressive attitude towards the business' environmental credentials and now even measures water use.

The effort has paid off with both restaurants being the first in Brighton to be awarded a star rating by the Sustainable Restaurant Association.

Facts and Stats
Owners Helen and Andrew Coggins
Head chefs Jack Beer (Preston Park Tavern), Dan Cropper (the Chimney House)
Number of staff over two sites 35 (10 full-timers, 25 part-timers)
Number of covers a day 120 in summer (both sites)
Average spend per head on food £20 (dinner)

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