A man walks into a bar. He's a chef. He gets chatting to the barman and, after a few drinks, he agrees to come and run a restaurant at the pub. Eighteen months later, the same two men are having a drink at the bar. This time, the barman is saying goodbye, and the chef is taking over the pub.
Not much of a punch line, but that's how it happened at Caterer‘s Adopted Business Strawberry's@theDoll, the restaurant at the Wooden Doll pub in North Shields, near Newcastle, where chef Dean Eccles has been running the kitchens for the past year-and-a-half. Former licensee Terry Mellor did his last shift on 30 June, and Eccles became the leaseholder on 1 July, after concluding several weeks of negotiations with brewery Jennings. He's now in charge of the whole pub, with its staff of 20 and weekly turnover of about £9,000. The chef and restaurateur is now a publican as well.
Eccles has signed a 20-year lease with Jennings and will pay the brewery £36,000 a year in rent. He has paid Mellor the same amount for the pub's fixtures, fittings and stock.
As soon as the deal went through, Eccles closed the pub down for two days in order to redecorate. The walls have been repainted and the light fittings have been replaced. Eccles has also invested in some new furniture: he has bought some Chesterfield couches and armchairs to go in the bar area, along with a set of old flip-up theatre seats, bought from a salvage company.
His first strategic decision is to cut the number of restaurant seats available at lunchtime from 50 to 38, freeing up the area closest to the bar, and giving the restaurant a more informal feel during the day. In the evenings, he will continue to lay out all the tables and serve his slightly more formal menu.
Other than that, the restaurant side of the business should not have to change much. Eccles has built up a loyal clientele for his high-quality, freshly prepared pub food, and will carry on serving the same sorts of dishes. His leaseholder status means he is no longer tied to Jennings for drinks, however, and he has already organised his new wine list, with a selection of six whites, six reds, a ros‚ and a Champagne, all supplied by Pagendam Pratt, based in Wetherby, West Yorkshire. He'll be charging from £9.95 to £15.95 per bottle. It's a pricing strategy that - like the menu - shows Eccles's determination to offer good-value food and drink to local people.
"The next step is simply to build up sales," Eccles says. "I want to increase the number of functions and business parties we cater for, and to make sure we get a lot of Christmas bookings this year. I'll be spending a bit more on marketing, with a series of ads in local papers over the next few weeks."
"In the longer term, we still need a kitchen refit, but it can't go ahead for a few months yet. If all goes well, I might look at closing down for refurbishment in January or February."
Now that he's in charge of the whole pub, though, does Eccles really need to keep the separate name for the restaurant? After all, it's all one business now.
"I'll probably keep it as Strawberry's @theDoll," Eccles says. "It's quite well known, and I think it makes sense to stick with the brand."
Brand recognition? Perhaps he's thinking of a chain after all.
The Wooden Doll Hudson Street, North Shields, Newcastle NE30 1DL
Tel: 0191-258 1235
Head chef (and pub leaseholder): Dean Eccles
Restaurant opened: February 2002
Kitchen staff: 2
Average weekly food sales (May-June): £3,000
Average weekly covers (May-June): 380
The story so far
Landlord Terry Mellor has decided to call it a day at the Wooden Doll, and chef Dean Eccles has started negotiations with the brewery to take over the pub as the leaseholder. It will mean he has less time to spend in the kitchens of the pub's restaurant, Strawberry's@theDoll, which he originally opened for less than £5,000. However, it will also give him the scope to develop the business as he likes - and even the chance to pay himself a proper salary.
The restaurant itself has now established a regular local clientele, who come to enjoy Eccles's brand of high-quality, good-value pub food. He serves brasserie-style dishes at lunchtimes, and a more elaborate menu in the evenings.