Chef Tim Bilton took a leap of faith when he acquired the Butchers Arms in Hepworth. But he got the money together, put in plenty of hard work, and now the former run-down boozer is an award-winning gastropub. Neil Gerrard reports
Need to know
Tim Bilton got the bug for hospitality early, when he started washing up at his local restaurant, just outside Pontefract, at the age of 13.
"I was completely and utterly hooked by the chefs searing meat, and fish, and the flames, and the steam," he says.
After a three-year day-release course at college, he spent two years working for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in the early 1990s, a period he describes as the best two years of his working life.
After a stint working in France and Italy, he returned to his native Yorkshire to be close to his family and worked for several years in local restaurants before, at the age of 30, embarking on a university degree. He became a cookery teacher and worked at Leeds Thomas Danby College. But the call of the professional kitchen proved too much to resist. He took some work at Bibi's, the Italian restaurant in Leeds, because he needed some extra income after the birth of his first child, and before long he was offered the post of head chef. He took it and that in turn fired him up to start his own business.
Starting from scratch
Bilton began looking at one or two properties, but had an "epiphany" when he walked into the Butchers Arms in Hepworth near Huddersfield.
"I will never forget it. It was on a cold, wet February in 2009. When I walked in it was such a grotty, horrible, tired, run-down sort of a pub. But I could envisage everything."
He took a big leap of faith, despite the relatively cautious decision to take on just a five-year tenancy with Enterprise Inns for the site. He and his wife sold the family home, generating about £50,000 of equity to start the business, while he and his father-in-law embarked on refurbishing the site - doing everything themselves, from sanding floors to finding odds and ends of furniture.
"We ploughed all our money into what was a failing business so things were stacked against us," he says. But after moving in in August, they had managed to open the bar area in September and opened for food in the middle of October.
It was touch and go, however. "When I opened the bar we were down to our last £150 in our bank account," he explains. Fortunately, in the early days, break even point was at around £2,500 per week and Bilton quickly got the business on its feet.
The Butchers Arms has never tried to be all things to all people and aims itself squarely at the upper-middle to high end of the pub market.
"The quality of the wine and food offering is, I would like to think, up there with a lot of great gastropubs," Bilton says.
The average spend is £30-£35 including drink and the pub draws people in not just from nearby Huddersfield but other towns and cities further afield, including Leeds, Harrogate, Sheffield, Hull, Grimsby, Manchester, and Oldham.
The business took off quickly, thanks in part to a simple but effective marketing campaign where Bilton ensured that flyers went to houses across the whole of Hepworth so that people were anticipating the new pub before the doors had even opened.
Bilton also found advertising in newspapers and magazines useful in the early days, although he does less of that now that the pub has established itself.
"The way I marketed the Butchers Arms was I marketed myself," he explains. "It was Tim Bilton at the Butchers Arms. Everyone else was marketing their place and I thought we have to do something a little bit different."
He helped that along by entering - and winning - plenty of competitions, including the Yorkshire Chef of the Year 2009 in November, just months after the Butchers Arms opened. Awards, as he explains, generate plenty of publicity.
"They are very good," he says. "They don't pay the mortgage or the bills but they get your name out there. If you are not singing and dancing about what you do then no one else is going to do that for you."
Bilton's advice is simple - first of all, you only get back what you put in. That was particularly true in his first year at the Butchers Arms when, he says, he worked "25 hours a day, eight days a week" to establish it. The second is another fundamental - concentrate on your gross profit rather than just looking at turnover.
"Turnover is a great thing but it is the GP that makes the world go round," he says.
Future plans A few months ago, Bilton took on a business adviser called Dave Cooper who used to run Huddersfield-based Coopers Coffee. Since selling the business earlier this year, Cooper has been acting as a consultant to small businesses.
"His advice has been invaluable for where I want to take the business," Bilton says. "I have been absolutely fine for the past three years - give me a set of knives and some pots and pans and I am away. I am completely in my comfort zone but what I need to do now is start working on the business instead of just working in the business."
He is currently considering his next move and has plans to take on a bigger site in the same area - somewhere with a bigger car park, some bedrooms, and possibly the space for a private dining room or cookery school. He is hoping to put the plan into action in the next 18 to 24 months.
Spotlight on Suppliers
The Butchers Arms prides itself on the fact that 75% of everything used in the kitchen is from Yorkshire. "Being in the heart of Yorkshire and being a Yorkshire lad myself I think it is important," Bilton says. "We have got so many artisan producers out there I feel like we need to champion them."
It started when local ice-cream firm Yummy Yorkshire invited Bilton to try their products, knowing that he spent hours making his own ice-cream. "I had a two-litre ice-cream machine and I used to start this thing at about 7.30am and it never used to stop until 10pm," he says. "But I tried theirs and I said to myself, these people are masters at what they do - why aren't I using their product?"
Now the Butchers Arms offers a range of products, not just on the menu, but for sale, too. He even sold Yorkshire hampers for Christmas and could barely keep up with demand.
Tim Bilton's Revelations
Favourite gastropubs The Star Inn, Harome, and Freemasons at Wiswell, near Clitheroe
Favourite book Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Motto How can we make it better?
If you weren't a publican, what would you have wanted to do? Professional footballer
Who do you most admire? Raymond Blanc and Marco Pierre White
Facts and stats
Owner/head chef Tim Bilton
Freehold owner Enterprise Inns
Staff 10 full time/10 part time
Covers per week 450
Average spend per head £30-£35
Capacity (covers) 50