Village pub the Five Bells has grown into a profitable business thanks to its owners' attention to detail, commitment to the local community and a decision not to go down the gastropub route. Janie Stamford reports
Need to know Darran Lingley and his wife, Caroline, took over the Five Bells in Colne Engaine, near Colchester, nine years ago. They'd been Greene King tenants at the Rose & Crown at Great Horkesley for three years when they decided they'd learnt enough and had enough financial backing to buy their own freehold. Located in Caroline's home village, the property was one they knew well.
"It was pretty run-down when we took it on. The owner had been quite ill and struggling for a few years," says Lingley. "We had to renew the entire pub."
The first thing they did was refit the kitchen and refurbish the toilets to show the public they meant business, and since they opened they've invested about £400,000 in the pub.
Wet sales made up about 80% of the business and, although that fell to 54%, Lingley says the Five Bells is still very much an ale drinkers' pub. "We had a firm vision to keep it as a pub, not turn it into a gastropub. Real ale is the only real USP pubs have got, so we built on that reputation," he says.
Target audience The pub's demographic isn't defined by age. Young drinkers prop up the bar alongside customers as old as 80, because the Five Bells encourages socially responsible drinking. The pub has a long layout, with football and Sky viewing at one end and the restaurant at the other, but patrons are invited to eat or drink in any area.
From Monday to Thursday the customers are largely locals, but from Friday to Sunday the Five Bells becomes a destination pub, with visitors drawn from a 15-mile radius. While the pub attained fame for being the local, and former workplace, of 2010 X Factor winner Matt Cardle, it would be wrong to presume that he has been the reason for its success.
Of the 1,097 people who live in the village, Lingley says that around two-thirds use the Five Bells on a regular basis. This loyalty to the local pub has come as a result of how much it invests back into the community: Lingley chairs the parish council, works with the school, helps with the football club and sits on the festival committee.
How it stands out The Five Bells is by no means an isolated pub; there are three within less than a mile of each other and about 15 a little further out. But Lingley doesn't consider them to be competition.
"I've got around 140,000 people in the region to pull my trade from, and I only need a very small percentage to make a living," he explains. "I look at what the other pubs are doing - I think that plagiarism is a good thing - but we innovate, too. We look at what upper levels of the trade are doing and work out how we can bring it down."
One idea he had was to offer a take-away fish and chips service at the pub. While the recession had made punters more wary about how often they went out, Lingley was still keen for them to get a taste of the Bells and began offering the fried favourites on Thursdays and Fridays, to great success.
The pub sells 30-50 portions a night, which had added another £30,000 in turnover to the business by the end of the last financial year.
Future growth The Five Bells has reached its maximum size but it doesn't operate to capacity, mainly because pubs tend to do 70% of their trade in just three days of the week. But Lingley spies an opportunity to reward the talent and efforts of his hard-working team.
"We're producing some great leaders in our business, and we need another venue to gain our investment back."
As a result, he has taken on an agent to look at other local businesses in order to roll out the systems in place at the Five Bells.
"We want to take on other pubs and make them viable, profitable and provide perfect hospitality in their village, and we want to install someone to run it," Lingley explains. The key teams are in place to seed another pub and the plan is to have the first one by September.
Best business advice "Measure everything. Don't forget your gut feeling, and always trust yourself - but make sure you measure it. You can either prove that you're right, or stop," says Lingley.
When he took a punt on running a voucher promotion in the local paper, he didn't rely on wishful thinking. Every element of the exercise was scrutinised, and when it was found to be unsuccessful a line was drawn under it and he moved on. "Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups," he points out. "Don't assume anything; base it on facts."
I couldn't do without…
The Five Bells team has a breakfast huddle every day to chat ahead of a day's service but also to answer the same three questions: How are you doing? What's going on? Any problems?
It's an opportunity to discuss the night before and the day ahead and tie everyone in. "It's harder with part-time staff but you need to cascade information down to your staff so that they know how the business is doing," says Lingley.
Spotlight on Action Coach
When the Five Bells suffered a dip in trade, Lingley says he received a fortuitous call from a business coach. While many business owners may balk at the outlay, he committed to investing £20,000 in employing the services of Action Coach for the next 12 months because, he says, that was the sort of cash the pub could lose in a month if trade didn't improve. The couple learnt to set targets, systemise and measure everything.
Lingley (pictured) explains: "We're coming up to a year and we've found that we've had a return on our investment of £130,000. The systems are in place and they'll stay forever. We'll continue to work with Action Coach for the time being.
"While my team was sceptical at first - some of their processes are quite Americanised - they bought into and understand it. We relay everything that we do with the coach to them."
Facts and stats
Owner Darran Lingley
Head chef Steven Fleming
FOH manager Gilly Ryan
Full-time staff 14
Average weekly turnover £15,000