Pulling power

01 January 2000
Pulling power

A pub with no passing trade relies on its reputation. Situated along a lonely lane, up a hillside overlooking the village of Thornton, on the outskirts of Bradford, the Ring O' Bells is just such an establishment.

With seating for 60 diners in the bar and a similar number in the restaurant, the pub turns out 1,000 to 1,500 covers a week, at an average spend of £13 a head.

"Everyone who comes here has made a special trip," says owner Ann Preston. "There aren't any casual callers because of our rather isolated position. We have a broad range of regular customers drawn from a wide area, particularly local business people entertaining clients. At lunchtimes, it's very much a traditional pub, while in the evenings the restaurant comes into its own."

Since taking over the Ring O' Bells five years ago, Preston has garnered a clutch of awards, including its most recent triumph, the 1997 Booker Prize for Excellence in the Pub Caterer category, for the second year running.

"We're the first company in the six-year history of the competition, out of thousands of entrants in 20 categories, to have achieved two wins in succession," she says. That's not bad going for someone with no previous experience in the catering industry.

Preston was the London-based national sales manager for Proctor and Gamble when she first went for a meal at the Ring O' Bells with husband Clive, while on a trip home to her native South Yorkshire.

"Our daughter was a part-time chef here and told us it was coming up for sale," she says. "I thought it must be lovely running a place like this with time to spare and a good quality of life. Within a few months, we had bought it - and it very soon dawned on me what sort of business I had taken on. Suddenly, I was working 17-hour days, with no weekends off, and where we had previously been used to three or four holidays a year we are now lucky to get even one."

The Ring O' Bells was already well known locally for its good food and wine, but Preston knew she could not sit back and wait for customers. "Taking over a successful business can put you at a disadvantage because you have a reputation to live up to. When people hear a pub or restaurant has changed hands, they assume it's not going to be as good as under the previous owners. It was a huge challenge and, with no catering experience, I had to learn the ropes in a short time."

The Prestons invested £100,000 in refurbishing the pub, redecorating and replacing carpets and furnishings, as well as installing air-conditioning and new kitchen equipment. Turnover has grown steadily over the five-year period and now stands at £600,000, 68% of which comes from the food, with the remaining 32% from the bar. Gross profit is about 60% on food and 54% on the bar.

Staffing levels have increased from eight to 11 full-time staff - five chefs, two porters, a bar manager and three front of house - as well as 10 part-timers.

Clive manages the accounts and looks after the extensive wine list, which ranges from a £7.95 house cuvée to a 1973 Château Latour at £59.95 a bottle. Mindful of the Yorkshire penchant for getting good value for money, the average price on the list is £11 a bottle.

There are real ales on tap, with a choice of draughts, including Black Sheep from a local, independent brewery in Masham, and Theakston's and John Smith's bitters.

"The business has been built on word of mouth," says Preston. "We spend relatively little on advertising, but we have been able to introduce a high level of marketing expertise."

Speciality menus

Preston has targeted those who are concerned about their weight by introducing special menus, such as the low-fat/low-calorie Slimmer's World - "less sinful but nevertheless satisfying". In addition, for cost-conscious customers, there is an early evening table d'hôte priced at £6.50 for two courses and £7.95 for three.

Regular gourmet theme dinners with guest speakers have proved particularly popular, at a price of £25 a head for four courses and selected wines.

"We don't make anything on the wine, and the food is extremely good value for money," says Preston. "The idea is to get people here, show them what we are capable of, then let them tell their friends and business associates about us."

The menu is both English and traditional, according to Preston, including a daily specials board and a compact à la carte menu.

Pies are a speciality of the pub, which won the Egon Ronay Beef Pub of the Year award in 1994 and has been runner-up twice in the British Meat and Livestock Commission's Steak and Kidney Pie competition.

All ingredients are fresh and the menus are mapped out by head chef Paul Gillat, who often adapts recipes suggested by other members of staff.

Starters are varied, with dishes as diverse as shark steak niáoise, black pudding with mustard mashed potato and white onion sauce, and minestrone of prawn with bacon and garlic. Main courses include pasta blanquette of chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach, bound in white wine sauce and topped with Parmesan crust, and roast monkfish wrapped in bacon and set on a nest of creamed baby spinach in a pepper sauce.

The Prestons also plan to add a conservatory running the full length of the restaurant, "to provide customers with an arrival and departure lounge where they can have an aperitif in comfort and a relaxing coffee after the meal".

"One lesson I have learnt in this business is you can't afford to become complacent," says Preston. "You've always got to be on your toes, paying attention to the fine detail, as well as being innovative. If customers see standards slipping, they'll stop coming here - it's as simple as that. They've got to feel that everything is just right, from the quality of the food to the friendliness of the staff.

"Running a good pub and restaurant isn't only about the quality of the food and drink. If you ask me, the success of the business is its consistency, and continually striving to improve and enhance our total customer package."

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