The Sozzled Sausage
141 Regent Street, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, CV32 4NX
Tel: 01926 831111
Church Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire,WS13 6DZ
Tel: 01543 419111
Covers: 800 per week
Average spend: £9-£10
Covers: 500 per week
Average spend: £7-£8
"The Sausage is about fun - the staff love it, we love it and the punters love it." A typically confident statement from Mike Grey who, along with partner Nigel Langstone, is the brains behind the Sozzled Sausage empire, a chain of bars with a big personality matched with big success.
Their "empire" actually totals only two pubs, but the pair's enthusiasm and ambition makes it easy to imagine a Sozzled Sausage bar on every high street in the country, and a logo as famous as the golden arches of McDonald's.
The first Sozzled Sausage bar opened in Leamington Spa in July 1997, with the second opening in November 1998 in nearby Lichfield. The operation is expected to turn over about £800,000 this year.
The success is partially down to the simple but innovative gimmick that gives the pubs their name - alcoholic sausages. There are more than 15 different varieties of spiked banger on the menu including steak and Guinness, pork and gin and chicken liver with Champagne, as well as vegetarian alternatives. All come with mash and gravy at a set price of £5.95.
The Leamington Spa site, which seats 50, does about 800 covers a week and the 40-seat Lichfield site does about 500. The average spend is slightly different for each site: £9-£10 at Leamington and £7-£8 at Lichfield.
Neither Grey nor Langstone had any experience of owning or running a bar before opening the first Sozzled Sausage, and they approached Vanguard Pubs and Restaurants which stepped in as partner, leaving them to develop the business as lessees.
Their first-choice location of Londonwas ruled out as too expensive so, withVanguard's help, they turned their attention to the Midlands, Langstone's home turf.
"We saw the Warwick Arms, which is now the Leamington Spa site, and it was a run-down, awful place," Grey says. "But we just went for it and signed the papers and then got stuck in with a sledge hammer."
Grey estimates the entire refurbishment cost them £50,000, plus £100,000 capital investment from Vanguard.
The pair had no idea how they wanted the venue to look. "We colour-schemed the place by painting a wall and then painting another a different colour, and seeing if they went together."
The finished article is similar to many modern city centre pubs - colourful decor, big central bar, open plan, large windows - and is aimed at the same clientele - young professionals with disposable income. Grey is the first to admit they borrowed a few ideas from places in London to come up with the finished interior.
The introduction of the sausage menu is the original selling point for a provincial bar, but the initial idea came from a specialist shop in Covent Garden called Simply Sausages.
"We thought we could develop that idea and start making our own at some point, which we would still like to do when we've got a big enough outlet to accommodate it," Grey says. "The food didn't take off for a while because we didn't get it right at first, and we had to experiment with the mashes, sauces and sausages," he adds.
The overall branding of the Sozzled Sausage is so strong that many customers in Leamington Spa thought it was an established chain. The logo, a drunken upper-class twit of a sausage nestling in a Champagne glass, was designed by Langstone's sister and now adorns all the company merchandise and stationery.
"A big company will bring in a designer to create a euphoria of image in all their pubs. There was no set structure to anything we did," Grey says. "There was no pattern or plan, but it has worked out. People will say ‘we're going down the Sausage' and it's become a trademark brand."
Both Grey and Langstone see the chain as a growing business, going with what works and not being afraid to change. "Our initial business plan was nonsense if you look at what the place is now," Grey says. "It lasted about a month after we had opened and then it tripled our expectations."
The Leamington Spa site was expanded to the second floor after a year, with a comedy club and function room designed around a 1930s speakeasy theme. Regular promotions such as the beach party - where the entire pub is filled with eight tonnes of sand - have led to a steady base of customers. For £10 real devotees can buy a privilege card which gets them regular newsletters featuring full lists for the comedy nights and invitations for events and exclusive parties.
"Nigel and I wouldn't do anything that we wouldn't want to be involved in ourselves," Grey says. "If we're enjoying it then we know other people will, too."
The partners began to look for another site last September, taking the lessons learnt from Leamington Spa with them, such as the same colourful decor and the second-floor comedy club.
Size and local demographics were the factors that attracted them to the Lichfield site, but success hasn't been as instant as at Leamington Spa. "We're not there yet because we've only just started to capture the clientele," Grey says. "It has taken longer than it did at Leamington, and we're also trying to develop the food more."
The roll-out potential for the Sozzled Sausage is apparent not just to Grey and Langstone but to Vanguard as well, which is looking at possible sites down south - Brighton in particular, as well as searching east and west. But part of the reason for the pub's success is the personal touch of the two friends. Can that still work with a multi-outlet chain?
"We've talked about this a lot," Grey says. "We decided we'd go as far as we could until we weren't able to project our personality into them anymore. When we lose that,we'll stop." n