Breakthrough Business: The Stable
This family-run brand can be surmised in five words: West Country pizza and cider. But despite its chilled premise, it's growing fast, says Hannah Thompson
WHAT IS IT?
A small, family-run, West Country-based chain combining freshly-made sourdough pizza topped with locally-sourced ingredients, plus a tantalising array of ciders.
Initially started in Bridport in 2009, The Stable now has five sites, all aiming for a cool, relaxed feel and to be a venue where "I'd like to hang out", says co-owner Richard Cooper.
Exposed wood, blackboard menus, hand-written signage, open kitchens with super-fast pizza ovens and a bar menu offering over 65 kinds of cider give the restaurants a chilled, home-grown feel that keeps the relaxed atmosphere intact while still being recognisable as a strong brand.
WHO OWNS IT?
Husband and wife Richard and Nikki Cooper, and Richard's brother Andy Briggs. Richard was initially in the commercial music business before he decided he wanted to do something different.
The couple's first move had nothing to do with pizza: they bought and renovated the Bull hotel in Bridport, Dorset (which they still own), which just happened to come with a separate stable building. The abandoned, dark and dingy stable lay untouched until the couple saw its potential as a restaurant where they could champion produce from the local area. The Stable was born.
WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT?
The Stable's menu changes with each site and, although similar, no two menus are the same. Instead, they are designed to showcase the local produce. For example, the Bristol menu will have the Portishead Piggy pizza with smoked bacon and the Clifton Suspender pizza with chicken and pepper. The Poole menu has the Ford Farm Four Cheese Special, while the Bridport menu has the spicy Bridport Blaster.
When the brand was new, the Coopers and Briggs would trawl the local area for suppliers and small-farm produce. Now, it's as likely that suppliers come to them - although they still make fresh discoveries: when Briggs noticed a local cheese stall at Bristol's Harbourside market, he snapped up some for The Stable.
"That's how it works," says Cooper. "We land, and we start ferreting about, asking questions. It's not complicated; it's very organic."
Cider is just as important. Over 65 local varieties line the walls, plus there are several temporary "guest ciders". There is even a £7.50 tasting board option with five different kinds.
There's also free Wi-Fi and plugs at all the tables. It's clear: these venues are designed to be easy to spend time in.
Although steadfastly West Country, the brand has recently opened in Weybridge and Poole and a new site is planned for Falmouth. And while owner Richard says London and further afield may be on the cards, he is clear that the chain should remain manageably family-run and he envisages eight to 10 restaurants maximum.
"This whole venture is done because we love running restaurants," he says. "We're staying in the South West for the immediate future so we can pop in regularly. If we spent too much time in a car, we'd be struggling."
Each site also has a very capable manager in charge, such as James French, who is manager of the Bath site, but also one of the main drivers behind the brand's cider offer.
The Coopers look for three key things when scouting out a new site: original buildings that do justice to the brand's relaxed concept; easily-accessible, "destination" locations for high footfall; and "lovely" staff.
"We haven't sat in a boardroom thinking 'We're going to be a rustic pizza and cider place'," says Cooper. "We just have fun - we don't take ourselves too seriously. We do what we like in the hope other people will like it, too."
The brand's penchant for architecturally-rare buildings - including the underground site of former restaurant the Hole in the Wall in Bath - has often posed problems, as old sites are naturally less amenable to renovation than newer, purpose-built boxes. The founders do not have external capital, so each site was bought with personal finance and landlords have often shown goodwill, such as waiving rent fees.
It could be argued that the pizza market is saturated, and that London-based names with significant investment, such as Pizza Pilgrims or Franco Manca, have the artisanal side of things covered away from the West Country. And yet, the brand is booming. The buzzy restaurants are in central locations, and their offer of super-quick "tear and share" pizzas and original ciders is simple yet sellable. The menu's middle-ground price point also makes the concept smart but inoffensive, while the focus on local produce appeals to the farmers' market-going, undeniably middle-class foodie clientele.
Combine this with the owners' fast-moving expansion aims, and The Stable looks set to go from strength to strength.
Cost to open a new site £200,000
Number of sites 5
Year founded in Bridport 2009
Average amount of covers 100-180
Annual turnover £5m-6m
The number of ciders on offer 65+
Average margin 68%