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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Paul Milsom

10 April 2013 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Paul Milsom

Paul Milsom is the managing director of Milsom Hotels & Restaurants, which was launched by his father, Gerald, more than 60 years ago. He tells Janet Harmer how the East Anglian-based business has successfully combined fine and informal dining with a boutique hotel offer

How would you sum up the enduring success of Milsom Hotels & Restaurants?
Well, the growth hasn't been as steady as you would think. In fact, it has been a roller coaster at times. But we've stayed on the treadmill. I think the key fact is that we've never lost sight of what our customers want, and hence they've continued to come back to us time and time again.
The restaurants are central to the success of the business, with 85% of our turnover coming from food and beverage, which has helped us tremendously through the recession, as people have still wanted to eat out.

You refer to a roller coaster ride. When was the lowest dip and what did you learn from it?
The low point was way back at the end of the 1980s at Le Talbooth. It was the era of nouvelle cuisine when portions were getting smaller and food and staff costs were rising. The food was becoming so complex that we had to take on more chefs. And, of course, we then had to increase our prices. But then recession hit and our covers started going down. We had become far too serious and too chef-dominated.

Come the 1990s, we reinvented ourselves. Le Talbooth remained our fine-dining restaurant, but we made it more fun and the food more accessible. We expanded by opening an outside catering business alongside the restaurant and installed a marquee in the grounds. By diversifying the business, with dinner dances and parties in the marquee and barbecues on a Sunday night during the summer, we have stood the test of time.

While we've never allowed the chef to dominate the business again, we're very excited about the food our current head chef, Zack Deakins, is cooking. He's been with us for just over a year.

Another low point was the opening of the Pavilion restaurant in Colchester in 1988, which turned out to be an unmitigated failure, despite changing the formula three times.

Was it always expected that you would follow your father into the family business? I was brought up around the business and was always fascinated by what my dad was doing. I've cleaned cars here from the age of 13, then moved on to gardening and pot-washing. So, yes, I guess it was inevitable. I joined the company full-time in 1987 after studying hospitality at the University of Surrey.

What are the challenges of running a family business? It is great when the business is going well, but when things start to go wrong, the pressure starts to build up. When I first joined the company my brother David also worked in the business. With the three of us, it proved to be difficult to make decisions and it was decided that one of us should go. It was all very amicable and David is still non-executive director of the business and has gone on to have a very successful career in education.

Your father, Gerald Milsom, died in 2005 at the age of 74. What did you learn from him about running restaurants and hotels? He always believed in leading the staff by working hard himself and considered the staff and customers his priority. But, most importantly, he wanted to create a sense of fun, as that is what he believed the restaurant business is all about. Gerald was so right when he spoke about the "theatre" of restaurants, as people primarily come to us to have a good time and be entertained.

We had a great relationship. I shared an office with him for 18 years. When he died I not only lost my dad but also lost my business partner and best mate.

How do you ensure the business remains relevant to today's customers and guests? Primarily by talking to the customers all the time. I live on-site at Le Talbooth and am always here, and Stas Anastasiades [operations director] is always in one of the restaurants. The managers and supervisors are banned from being in their offices during service - they need to be on the floor with customers.

We also spend a lot of time looking at what is happening with our competition and further afield. I go into London a lot and stay in hotels there to check out the latest designs. Dad taught me the importance of looking at what everyone else is doing. It is too easy to get dragged down by the day-to-day business and let life going on around you pass you by.

How are the menus devised for the restaurants? We run a rigid menu-tasting programme, with dates set in the diary well in advance. This involves bringing together all the chefs and managers in the group every season at each venue to taste the new dishes proposed for that establishment. There are usually around 12 of us. We don't allow any dish to be added to the menus that hasn't gone through this tasting process, apart from the dish of the day or those on the weekly menus. It allows everyone to see what everyone else is doing and creates a lot of useful discussion - as well as some criticism.

What are your thoughts on the trend towards a more informal approach to eating out? It is a lifestyle thing. We no longer live in a regimented way where we eat between 12 noon and 2pm and again from 7 to 9.30pm. We also don't always want to dress up or eat a formal three-course meal.

Out of the six restaurants we run, two of them are fine-dining: Le Talbooth and the Harbourside fish restaurant at the Pier hotel in Harwich. Le Talbooth is the oldest part of the business, having been opened by Dad in 1952. I think it continues to work today because it is part of a much wider catering operation that includes the outside catering business and the marquee; while the Harbourside works for a similar reason in that it sits alongside the more casual Ha'Penny bistro. There is still a good market for proper dining, as people do like to celebrate at special occasions - but we always do it with a sense of fun.

We'd like to think we were a little ahead of the game when it comes to informal dining. When we bought back the Dedham Vale hotel and Terrace restaurant in 2000 [the company had sold them in 1994] and renamed it Milsoms, we completely changed the way we ran the business from how we operated it before. The all-day dining brasserie, which has a large bar as its focal point and a no-booking policy, has been a great success from the outset, serving up to 380 covers a day. We serve everything from sandwiches and wraps to grilled dishes and slow-cooked favourites, such as British lamb shank with pearl barley and roasted carrots.

Milsoms has been so popular that when we opened Milsoms at Kesgrave Hall, just outside Ipswich, in 2008, we launched a similar dining concept to Milsoms and it has turned out to be equally popular.

You have already mentioned your focus on staff. How do you inspire them? We have a team of about 350 in total, many who are quite young, but we always have many who have been with us for some time, and we celebrate long service. We have held a massive party in the marquee for the past seven to eight years, to which customers, friends and industry figures are invited. Staff who have been with us for five or more years - there are usually 80-85 of them - come to the event, with awards presented for every five years of service. We also hold team-building events for the managers.

How important is the style and design of the restaurants and hotels? Design has increasingly become more important, with more emphasis being placed on the way a restaurant or bedrooms look. The pace of change has also quickened, which means that you constantly need to freshen up the interior. My wife, Geraldine, does all the interior designs and makes sure that we always have a rolling programme of refurbishments for the bedrooms.

The Pride of Britain marketing consortium was started by your father. How important is it to your business today? My dad launched Pride of Britain after falling out with Relais & Chateaux. The business was only the second in the UK to belong to Relais. Dad wanted more emphasis placed on marketing the British properties abroad.

As an independent hotelier, he realised the value of aligning himself with a group of like-minded hotels and so he decided to set up Pride of Britain, which now has nearly 50 members. It has actually got stronger during the recession as it has provided us with the extra marketing clout that we've needed. Having the brochure in 2,000 bedrooms among member hotels is very useful. But Pride of Britain is not just a marketing organisation; it also gives a brand stamp of quality, and being associated with other hotels of a certain standing is really important

Alongside Pride of Britain, our own website is key to bringing in business. We have 45,000 visitors to the site each month, and it is fascinating to watch the huge spike in hits when we are in the news - such as when a group walked out of Milsoms without paying their bill and when Prince Harry came for dinner.

You are a board member of the new Edge Hotel School, alongside the Wivenhoe House hotel, which opened last summer. Why have you got involved? The creation of a proper hotel school in this country was discussed for years and it is great to see that it has now happened - and so near to us in Colchester. It really is a unique offering and looks amazing, but it has had a challenging start with such poor weather over the winter.

We have sponsored one of the rooms, as we believe it is important to put money back into the element which makes or breaks our business - people. We certainly hope to be able to employ some of the students at a later date.

Do you expect Milsom Hotels & Restaurants to expand further? We have no outside shareholders, so we have no one pushing us to grow. And getting finance in today's climate, even with a profitable business, is difficult.
I'm not saying that we wouldn't expand further - maybe we will if we find the right freehold property in East Anglia - but the banks are not making it easy.

How do you see the year ahead? 2013 is very tricky to predict. There is a feeling of uncertainty. Wedding bookings are slightly down, but I think that is because, understandably, not many people want to get married in 2013. We expect 2014 will be much better for weddings. This year will certainly be harder on the bottom line, as the increase in costs - particularly for food - will make things tricky. British beef costs have gone through the roof. This means that our chefs may have to take fillet off the menu or make it a smaller percentage of a dish. At times like this it becomes even more important that we work harder at giving people a good time.

Do you expect that Milsom Hotels & Restaurants will be run by a third generation of the family? There is certainly no pressure for my sons, Charlie [14] and Jack [10], to enter the business, but they say that they think that is what they would like to do. It is certainly a great business they could learn from the bottom up.

MILSOM HOTELS & RESTAURANTS

Managing director Paul Milsom
Operations director Stas Anastasiades
Annual turnover £11.5m
Annual covers 300,000

Le Talbooth Dedham, Essex
Opened 1952
Seats 80, plus 60 on the terrace
Average spend £55.95

Maison Talbooth Dedham, Essex
Opened 1969
Bedrooms 12
Room rate from £210

Milsoms Dedham, Essex
Opened 2001
Bedrooms 15
Seats 80, plus 80 under the sail on the terrace
Room rates from £120
Average spend £36

The Pier Harwich, Essex
Opened 1978 and expanded in 2000
Bedrooms 15
Room rates from £115

Harbourside restaurant
Seats
80
Average spend £46.75

Ha'penny Bistro
Average spend
£35.95

Milsoms Kesgrave Hall Kesgrave, Suffolk
Opened 2008
Bedrooms 23
Room rates from £125
Seats 100, plus 100 under sail on the terrace
Average spend £38.20

â- Average spend figures are for three courses and a half-bottle of house wine
â- Room rates include full English breakfast

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