After a bout of pleurisy followed by a nasty trapped nerve in the neck causing him sleepless nights, Rob Gamble was not happy to find a £3,000 electricity bill on his doormat.
Apparently, since it opened last July the White Lion's bills had been underestimated due to a bureaucratic error by service provider Economy Power.
The bill, which Gamble has reluctantly agreed to pay in instalments, hasn't come at a good time. Turnover in January stood at £15,000.
With the White Lion's first birthday next month it would seem there's not a great deal to celebrate. The pub-restaurant will not reach its target of £300,000 turnover in its first 12 months, but, as ever, Gamble is positive and upbeat. "We keep striving and striding forward. We can celebrate still being in business after 12 challenging months."
To drive footfall, Gamble has a week of celebratory promotions planned in April, including special offers on beer and a kids-eat-free weekend.
Looking back, the week of Valentine's Day was "fabulous", and Gamble is encouraged by 70 bookings for Mother's Day but also strikes a note of frustration: "I don't want to have to rely on five days a year to make it work."
Gamble reckons every restaurant has peaks and troughs. "If trade shoots up by 50% one week and you're thinking ‘Ooh, we're rich' and then it's back down again, I'd be more of a nervous wreck than I already am."
He observes that in an ideal world all restaurants would have constant and steady business. The trick is to provide quality food and service when it's so busy the staff are stressed and the customers feel claustrophobic and also when it's so quiet that it's boring and you don't even cover your utility bills.
After a slow January, Gamble took the radical decision to pull the extensive menu of 13 main courses, 16 baked potato fillings and six grill dishes plus side orders. Apart from a handful of specials the whole menu is now tapas.
A targeted marketing campaign of leaflets through letter boxes is offering four tapas items for the price of five at lunchtime. But is the offer generous enough to generate more trade? "It's 20% off the bill. The increase in business is enough for me to know we're going in the right direction."
Particularly in the evening, Gamble has observed that there is the opportunity to upsell, because each tapas item retails for £2.95-£3.50 and waiting staff can recommend that a couple share three items as a starter or five to nine items as a main.
This has already pushed average spend on food up 10% to £9.
But the White Lion's conversion from a more traditional English menu to tapas is not without its detractors. Some have declared that tapas is a dated concept.
Gamble, however, is not one to be swayed by either the vagaries of culinary fashion or minority opinions. "Some things don't go in and out of fashion," he says. "Just because four guests say ‘It's not for us' I will not do the knee-jerk thing and say we've got to change the menu."
Sensibly, Gamble recognises the difference between customer comments and complaints and the need to educate staff of the difference so that they don't feel demoralised.
"If 24 people out of 1,000 say ‘It's not for us', that is only 2.4%. If it was 30%, then I'd take action," Gamble says, by way of example.
At the same time there are no plans for the White Lion to become a heavily branded tapas outlet. Unlike La Tasca, there is no reason why the White Lion can't start promoting a bangers-and-mash week or a Festival of Great Britain fortnight, as it will in May. "It allows us to buy in more cost-effectively," adds Gamble.
The story so far
The White Lion is Rob Gamble's third pub-restaurant in north Staffordshire - after the Noah's Ark, Hartshill, and Red restaurant and lounge bar, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Gamble acquired the derelict pub on an A-road outside Stoke for nothing in early 2005 and spend £175,000 on its refurbishment. From July 2005 he started paying a £25,000-a-year lease.
Working on the model of the Noah's Ark, Gamble transformed the run-down property into a food-focused pub with a large menu of traditional dishes and those "with a twist". The pub has been non-smoking throughout since it opened.
Following quiet trading in autumn and January, a new emphasis on tapas and freshly baked breads was introduced. In its first year of trading the White Lion will not meet its target of £300,000 turnover.