Duncan Ray and his partner Manoli Gonzales have taken over 18th-century coaching inn the Five Alls in the Cotswolds and are confident they can create a destination pub. Aaron Morby reports
Need to know
The Five Alls is an 18th-century coaching inn set in the picturesque Cotswold village of Filkins in Gloucestershire.
The old-world character of the country inn with its flagstones floors, open fire and wooden beams is what many a landlord dreams about. But during the last two years the inn had lost direction under a regime of six temporary managers.
New tenants chef Duncan Ray and his partner Manoli Gonzales, who is general manager, have put the business back on track with a clear idea of where to take the inn.
They worked together running an "A-list" home catering business for several years after meeting at the Pennyhill Park hotel and spa in Surrey before that. It was here that Ray, then a 23-year-old head chef, won the country house's Latymer restaurant three AA rosettes.
The couple were eager to settle down and develop their own business, and decided a pub/restaurant was a better bet than a standalone restaurant.
Last June, the couple jumped at the opportunity to take the Five Alls three-year tenancy with Brakspear. "After years of looking for a place of our own, the Five Alls had everything we had been looking for - a restaurant, lounge and bar area, guest bedrooms, a private function room, lovely garden and original features," says Ray.
"We had our work cut out because the pub had been closed, so we faced the daunting task of building the business from scratch," he explains. "It was a successful carvery in the 80s which showed there was great potential."
While it was the couple's first foray into pubs they were confident they could stand out from the crowd in a region already boasting a good helping of pubs and restaurants.
The couple threw themselves into the Five Alls, pooling their funds and finding backers to support a £100,000 upfront investment.
This included a £39,000 entry fee, a revamp of the kitchens and bedrooms, with Brakspear helping on the bathroom upgrades.
"It took time to convince locals we were there to stay. But they soon realised we wanted to do things differently," says Ray.
"We are in a relatively affluent area, with many local people commuting to work in London. This creates its challenges for mid-week, evening business because commuters tend to rest at home.
But I think the Cotswolds is outstanding for local produce and we wanted to build the business on the strength of our food," explains Ray.
The rooms side of the business is supported by weekend break couples. Mid-week custom comes from businessmen and people visiting nearby RAF Brize Norton, the largest station in the airforce. Fishermen are also drawn to the area's local trout farm.
The four rooms have been carefully styled to broaden its appeal. One offers a take on a Cotswold modern style, the other is furnished as a "duck-egg tone" country classic, with shabby chic and modern monochrome style completing the offering.
Ray says: "We decided to try to tick every box. Younger people are attracted to the more funky monochrome, with our shabby chic coming a close second. Interestingly the country styles do slightly less well, although there is little in it."
Occupancy is running at 30% on average, with weekend rooms booked up to 20 March.
The Five Alls serves up a modern take on hearty English pub food with a stylish twist.
"When you look at who succeeds, they are producing loosely what you would expect in a pub, but done in their own way," says Ray.
"What I want is fine quality, traditional food, cooked with a degree of accuracy with a Michelin take on it, served in a pub environment.
"I've spent my career trying to refine food to the highest level, now I am trying to unrefine it without losing quality and essence," he explains
"For example, we don't batter our fish. The chips are triple cooked and served with pea purée. The customer still gets beer batter, but used for pea fritters which add an individual extra."
The Five Alls also serves home-made bread, smokes it own salmon and charcuterie, as well as making its own chocolates.
Ray admits the challenge is keeping prices within reach of pub-going customers. All starters are priced at £7, with main courses ranging from £14 to £18.
"This is competitively priced for the area, with regard to the quality of ingredients," he says.
The restaurant can feed up to 30 people. Business through their first winter is picking as word spreads and at weekend services, Ray is cooking about 25 covers.
While still early days, restaurant and bar business is picking up as local people respond to the special touch. In three weeks in January, drink sales reached £8,000 and food rose to £6,500.
"We expect to make a profit in April, and haven't seen the summer season yet."
Ray says that the transition from chef to landlord has been very hard work. "I never had to look after beer, but we managed to earn the Cask Marque a few months ago."
Looking forward, he is confident they can create a destination pub. "We are aiming to get to £8,000 sales a week and with a good summer, there is no reason we can't achieve that."
Longer term, the couple hope to make use of existing planning allowing building of seven rooms in its large car park.
"If we can show a high enough occupancy of rooms we have got real potential to expand."
Spotlight on English tapas
The Five Alls uses a menu of quality "bar bites" to tempt in customers.
Old-fashioned pub favourites are restyled to offer a selection of English tapas plates, priced at £4.
On the bar menu are fresh whitebait, Welsh rarebit, Scotch quail eggs and half a pint of prawns or a small bowl of soup.
"This is really popular with the locals and keeps people coming back," says Ray.
"Importantly it is a taster or what we are trying to achieve and encourages our pub trade to give the restaurant a go."
duncan ray's revelations
Favourite hotel Pennyhill Park hotel & spa
Favourite restaurant Michel Bras, Laguiole, France
Favourite pub Hand & Flowers, Marlow
What book has inspired you Nico by Nico Ladenis
Motto If in doubt throw it out
If you weren't a pub owner, what would you have been Something artistic
Which chef, hotelier or industry person do you most admire Heston Blumenthal
Describe your business in five words Modern food, classic country inn
Facts and stats
General manager Manoli Gonzalez
Head chef Duncan Ray
Staff 7 (5 full time, 2 part time)
Average weekly occupancy 30%
Average cost of two-course meal (no drink) £23
Average number of covers per day 20