Two years after Knife and Fork Food took on the New Conway pub in Cardiff, it was listed in the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs guide. Director Sean Murphy tells Neil Gerrard how it was achieved
Need to know Sean Murphy left London for Cardiff 10 years ago to become head chef of Woods Brasserie. After several years behind the stove he became general manager of the whole restaurant before being made a director - one of three - of Knife and Fork Food, the company which owns the brasserie.
He was then tasked with growing the business and took on a pub, the Old Swan in Llanwit Major. "When we bought that I had never pulled a pint in my life," says Murphy, whose background was in Michelin-starred restaurants.
But the business built up a substantial real ale following and confirmed to Woods and the other directors that they could run pubs successfully. It was then that the Conway in Cardiff caught their eye, and two-and-a-half years since Knife and Fork took on the site, having renamed it the New Conway, it is the only pub in Cardiff to be listed in the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs guide.
Murphy, who lives in the Conway, now has an involvement with all three sites, as well as a delicatessen and event catering business.
Negotiating a free of tie lease But taking on the Conway was not all plain sailing. Murphy approached Enterprise Inns about taking on the lease for the business and although Enterprise were keen, he then had to convince the pub company to let Knife and Fork take the business on a free of tie basis.
"Our wine offering is a big thing for us and Enterprise's wines aren't particularly great so there was a lot of negotiation getting the ties released on wines and spirits so we could use the buying power across our group in order to buy wine at the quality end," he says.
There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing over the deal and at one point Murphy and his team were close to walking away from the whole deal. But in the end, Murphy built up a good relationship with the area manager and Enterprise were keen to take on an established operator.
As a result, the pub company agreed to lease the pub free of tie, albeit for an increased rate of rent.
Target market When Knife and Fork took the venue on it was "pretty run down" according to Murphy. Despite that it had a strong client base of regular drinkers, including one man who has been drinking at the pub for nearly 50 years. Fortunately, the New Conway, as it is now known, managed to retain that crowd while increasing the mix of food sales by putting in a new kitchen and more of a focus on food. Previously a predominantly wet-led pub, the New Conway now has a split of 50% food sales and 50% wet sales.
Marketing To get the New Conway off the ground, Murphy and his team planned a clever marketing scheme, with a "drip-drip" to keep locals guessing. "We whitewashed all the windows so no one could see what we were doing and then we sent mailshots to every house within a two mile radius," he says.
The first mailshot told locals that Woods Brasserie was taking over the Conway, prompting rumours in the community over whether the Conway would remain a pub. The next mailshot, aimed at smoothing over the fears of those who worried the Conway would become a posh wine bar, told locals that it was still going to be a pub and invited them to come and try the food.
The last mailshot announced the opening of the Conway as the New Conway, a local pub with "good, fresh, honest, home-sourced food at a reasonable price" and once again invited locals to try it. The response when the pub finally opened after its six week refurb was huge, according to Murphy.
Future plans Murphy and his team are looking for new sites at the moment. Since each business within Knife and Fork Food is different, they are willing to consider all sorts of different sites.
"I'd really like to focus on a bigger venue in the centre of town," Murphy says. "I have got the infrastructure, I have a head chef and manager lined up. I am just looking for a venue now. It is all about location for me. A venue can be turned into whatever you want it to be so we are open to anything."
Business advice Murphy's advice is simple: "education, education, education". "There are so many people in this industry who get made redundant, have a big pay off and think oh, I will open a pub," he says. "They haven't got a clue what they are doing and that is why so many pubs are shutting down. I have studied my craft for 20 years, I am passionate about food, I have an understanding of business financials, the cost of running a business. The more knowledge you have got the stronger you will be."
Sean Murphy's revelations
Favourite restaurant The Ledbury, Notting Hill
Favourite hotel The Angel, Abergavenny (mainly because of customer experience - excellent service and attention to detail)
Book that has inspired you Humble Pie by Gordon Ramsay
Motto Work hard, play hard
Describe your business in five words Foodie, soulful, atmospheric, dining experience
If you hadn't been a chef or pub owner what would you have been Something rewarding - charity work or work with children
Spotlight on design
Murphy brought in a local designer, Roger Witchell, to get the design right for the New Conway, which had previously looked like a very traditional pub. "My whole ethos was that it should remain as a pub. The challenge was to have its soul put back into it and not be turned into a restaurant," he explains.
The aim was to send the pub's design in the direction of "shabby chic" but Murphy admits he did worry about whether or not the new look would be accepted in the marketplace, and whether customers would still recognise it as a pub. "Fortunately, the day we finished I sat down and thought it was exactly what it needed. It is fresh, it's light, it's got a contemporary, cosy feel in the winter. And it has still got the fireplace," Murphy says. "A lot of people have described it as like having dinner in your lounge."
Facts and stats
Average spend per head (dinner) £20
Fish and chips served in two years 9,000
Owner Knife and Fork Food; and Enterprise Inns
Manager Neil Delahay
Head chef Stefan Nilsson