Parkinsons' lore

17 January 2002 by
Parkinsons' lore

Chat show host Michael Parkinson's son may have grown up with the stars, but Nicholas Parkinson's passion is catering. Rosalind Mullen talked to them about their joint pub venture.

Arguably, chat-show hosts and publicans require similar talents - a love of meeting people and a knack of keeping them entertained. But there the similarity ends. Whereas one job is long hours and hard work rewarded by fame and fortune, the other is long hours and hard work rewarded by more customers, a skills shortage… and lots more hard work.

So how did Nicholas Parkinson persuade his father, chat-show host Michael Parkinson, to open the Royal Oak pub in the tiny Berkshire village of Paley Street last July? And why, when careers in catering in this country suffer from such a bad press, didn't Nicholas follow his father and two brothers into journalism - or even try for TV? The short and encouraging answer for all those battling to attract staff is that Nicholas, 37, has always preferred the hospitality industry - and his father, 66, has always liked pubs.

"With a father called Michael Parkinson you can't do much without being compared with him, but I always liked catering," Nicholas says. "When I was young I used to work in pubs collecting the empties. I had no real interest in journalism and was mortified on the two TV appearances I made - This is Your Life and Disneytime. When I first went into catering, though, people would say ‘You're waiting at tables' in a derogatory way."

Nicholas, who is the licensee at the Royal Oak, started out as an apprentice chef at the Savoy Grill and, following a stint at the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris, returned to the London hotel to retrain as a barman. This stood him in good stead in Australia, where he has spent the past 13 years working, among other things, as food and beverage manager at the InterContinental hotel in Sydney. It all resulted last year in the realisation that he'd prefer to work for himself.

Michael was happy to help, taking almost as keen an interest in the hospitality industry as his son. In fact, although as a sleeping partner he remains firmly on the drinking side of the bar, he has strong views about what pubs should offer: "You're hard-pushed to find rural pubs," says Michael. "Forty or fifty years ago you went to a pub for the company and the beer. What's happened in the majority of pubs has horrified me."

Far from keeping the Royal Oak as a drinking man's boozer, however, the Parkinsons, who have taken the pub on a 10-year lease from Fuller's brewery, have set out to meet the needs of today's new customers - namely women and diners. Michael describes the Royal Oak, with its beams and country-cottage feel, as "pretty" and singles out the move towards female-friendly and restaurant pubs as being changes for the better.

"I am very much in favour of expanding the role of the pub to the requirements of the 21st century - and fewer people eat at home nowadays," says Michael. "Having spent a large proportion of my life in pubs, I also believe women are a civilising influence on men."

Father and son have thus tried to create a community pub with dining. Certainly one of the things that attracted Nicholas to the Royal Oak was the potential to add a restaurant. A £40,000 refurbishment saw him achieve his goal. "At first sight the pub was a dive, but it suited my purpose to bring in my own style and create new customers rather than take on an established pub and possibly lose clientele," he explains.

Despite his roots in the kitchen, Nicholas leaves the cooking to his two chefs and confines his own role to menu design and costings. The menu offers "good English food" such as roast rack of English lamb or bangers and mash as well as the more exotic-sounding red cobra chicken curry. And at prices of £9.95-£15.75 for a main course the pub has found a gap in the local market between the nearby Michelin-starred Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn restaurants at Bray, and surrounding traditional pubs. The nearest competition in the latter category is the Bridge House pub down the road. "We are more expensive so I give them a lot of trade," jokes Nicholas. "In a village it's good to have the other pub on your side."

Protective of his niche market, Nicholas is steering clear of foodie awards: "I want customers to have a nice bottle of wine and good grub. If I try for awards it might not be what the customer wants," he says.

While Nicholas has concentrated on the food, Michael has put his energy into the beer. As a Yorkshireman, he judges a pub by the pint it serves and so is horrified that many publicans have replaced "proper" beer with lager, pandering to a younger clientele and driving his own generation out of many of the former community pubs. The bitter served at the Royal Oak is Fuller's London Pride, with guest beers such as Red Fox last autumn and Jack Frost in the winter. "He's my quality control man - and he's pushed my beverage cost up by 10%," jokes Nicholas.

Far from resenting Michael's influence, however, Nicholas respects the fact that his showbiz father has a wide experience of dining out and - fortunately - agrees with many of his pet hates. As a result, for instance, the pub has a policy of not adding tips to the bill.

The family bond is tangible. Nicholas's decision to open his first venture close to the support of his parents and brothers, meant, for instance, that he had to leave Australia, where he has two daughters.

But there's also a more practical reason for opening a pub on his father's doorstep: "I wanted to use Dad's name to get the publicity - because obviously that's what most people starting their own business struggle with," admits Nicholas. "Dad's name pulls in the press."

Needless to say, he hasn't had to do much marketing. Besides coverage from national papers and Hello magazine, the pub has also had an unexpected boost from Radio 2 DJ Terry Wogan, who started a joke on air about being supposedly banned from the pub.

Publicity aside, there's plenty to remind those who never read a newspaper that Parky is involved in the pub. The walls are covered with memorabilia and photos of him with many of the stars he has interviewed, and occasionally a famous friend drops in, such as George Best, Sue Barker or Kenny Lynch.

The suggestion that Nicholas might have been tempted to overmilk the Parky connection and give the pub a gimmicky name is a non-starter, however. "There are a million Royal Oaks in Berkshire so there was pressure to change it," says Nicholas, "but I like old names so, no, I wasn't tempted to call it the Slug and Parky. And in the end I run the pub, although dad is an equal partner."

Nor will he be churning out a series of Parky-themed pubs, although he does have plans to expand in the area. The only pub that serves food of similar quality nearby is the Cottage Inn at Maidens Green, but Nicholas reckons there is still room for a further five or six pubs of the same ilk.

Business at the Royal Oak bears this out. Evenings are "terrific", with an average of 40-45 covers served in the 60-seat restaurant, but Nicholas concedes that lunch trade "like everywhere is hard", and reckons it will be another two or three years before he is happy with it. As Paley Street is such a tiny village, he's working on building up business from office workers in nearby Maidenhead, Windsor and Bracknell.

Having a famous dad doesn't improve staffing problems, however. Nicholas employs four in the kitchen and seven in the bar and restaurant, but the rural location of the pub means he has to look further afield for staff or rely on students, who tend to be seasonal. It's frustrating, but Nicholas notes the situation isn't much better in London: "The ops director at [Gordon] Ramsay's says he has problems - wow, if he has problems there…"

That's not to say he's resigned to the situation. He bemoans the attitude to serving and service in this country compared with what he's seen during his travels and tries to emulate the service attitude in the USA. Despite his glamorous upbringing, he has no problem serving tables or paying attention to customers who complain. In fact, perhaps one advantage Nicholas has over other first-time landlords is that he's used to being with famous people, so he isn't overawed by customers - particularly difficult ones.

"People are just people. The technique with difficult people is to keep the lines of communication open," he explains.

Despite the boost from the Parky connection, Nicholas has found the first five months hard work. Living above the pub, he says he doesn't know how other publicans juggle work and family life. "It's great fun to be in charge of everything you do, but it causes more anxiety. When it goes well you love it, but when it doesn't you get stress attacks."

Now that business is under way, however, does he feel tempted to shake off his famous dad? "No. I won't ever kick him out because I owe him too much," says Nicholas. "He's a good dad that way. It's a nice way to work. I read about family businesses that go wrong, but we get on well, he's supportive, he likes style - and he likes the look of this pub."

Yes, but surely there must have been some cross words? "Well, I won't forget his birth year," admits Nicholas, "because I came back late one night from the pub and drank his 1935 port."

Nicholas off the cuff

What's one of the worst things about running your own pub? "I don't get five weeks off so only see my daughters, who live in Australia, twice a year."

How did the 13 years you spent working in Australia help to consolidate your views on catering? "Like dad, I love the style of traditional pubs. In Australia they have bars and I missed the quaintness of English pubs. I do like informality, though, and so find pubs more attractive than restaurants."

Do you dislike any of the trends that gathered momentum in the UK while you were working in Australia? "We've become a nation of franchisers, which I find odd. I find the idea of franchising terrible. I love the styles of these places as a one-off but the repetition is irritating. Café Rouge, for instance, is a great look but I find its success amazing in a country that was a few years ago at least leading the world in terms of cuisine. I'd like to see a lot more entrepreneurial people come in and stamp their own authority on the industry."

Selection from the Royal Oak menu

Baked crab and artichoke aioli, £8.50
Creamed red pepper soup, £4.75
Pan-seared scallops, £9.20
Gamekeeper's casserole - duck, lamb and guinea fowl in a rich red wine leek and mushroom sauce with new potatoes, £11.50
Fillet of butterfish served on a bed of garlic mushrooms, £14.75
Loin fillet of lamb with a fresh rosemary and redcurrant sauce, £15.25

The Royal Oak

Paley Street, near White Waltham, Berkshire SL6 3JN
Tel: 01268 620541
Opened: 13 July 2001
Lease: 10 years from Fuller's
Seats: 60
Covers: dinner, 40-45; lunch, 25
Average spend: £30-35
Refurbishment: £40,000, mostly on cosmetic decoration

Potted Parky

  • Michael Parkinson was born in 1935 near Barnsley, Yorkshire. His father was a miner and wanted his son to play cricket for Yorkshire.
  • Parky started his career in journalism on the school magazine when he was 13.
  • First TV work was as a current affairs producer at Granada TV.
  • In 1965 he began writing a weekly column in the Sunday Times.
  • In 1969 he presented Granada TV's Cinema series.
  • In 1971 he hosted regular afternoon show Teabreak and the Parkinson show began. It ran for 11 years.
  • In 1998 the Parkinson show was revived.

Parky's perspective

As an enthusiastic diner at some of the country's top restaurants, Michael Parkinson has had plenty of opportunity to observe the industry. In his view, service is the main problem in this country.

"People aren't proud to be a waiter and the British lack a certain style about eating out," he says. "As customers we don't complain enough because we know it would be taken the wrong way. And if you do, you sometimes get the feeling the waiter would take the food into the kitchen and spit in it."

Another bugbear is the mark-up on drink. "I see wines with 60-70% mark-up and then they add a tip on top of that to the bill. If I pay £40 for a £15 bottle of wine I think they should deduct the wine from the [percentage you] tip."

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