Janie Stamfordmeets the family behind the long-standing success of a prizewinning pub, the Lamb & Flag in Abergavenny
Need to know
While Dave and Ange Lewis were no strangers to the food service world - she used to run a delicatessen in Barry and he used to be a chef at a restaurant across the road - the Lamb & Flag was their first pub venture together. The idea came up after post-dinner chats with a regular in Dave's restaurant who was an area manager for pub company Brains.
"Back in those days you did a probation period of two years before you were given a pub," he explains. "We joined Brains in August 1990 and we had this place by November." Despite the Lamb & Flag being given to the couple as a "holding pub", more than 20 years and four Brains Pub Manager of the Year awards later, they're still holding the fort.
The Lamb & Flag offers a range of facilities including a family-friendly restaurant, a function room capable of accommodating up to 100 people and five en suite guest rooms.
The pub's location (see Spotlight panel) invites a broad demographic of visitors to the Lamb & Flag, with the clientele changing as the day wears on. Workers at the Nevill Hall Hospital across the road often phone their lunchtime orders through in advance, while visitors to its patients frequently escape to the pub.
There is also a healthy tourist trade as a result of the large number of visitor attractions in the surrounding area.
Two menus are offered at lunchtime - a main and a snack menu - which are replaced at 3pm by an "early bird" menu brought in at the height of the recession. "People still wanted to come out to eat but they had fewer pounds in their pockets to spend," explains Ange. "Our spend per head dipped slightly but we were able to still attract the same number of covers."
Why our customers choose us
Without doubt, the Lewis couple's lengthy tenure at the pub has proved a major draw for its loyal customers. In their two decades in charge, Dave and Ange feel they have been able to stamp their mark on the Brains pub in terms of consistency, quality and approachability.
"We've got a lot to offer," explains Ange. "As well as the function room and accommodation, we've recently started offering breakfasts to non-residents. We were doing them anyway, so why not?" The service was launched in January and the couple have high hopes for it in the summer thanks to a nearby popular campsite.
Staff turnover has been kept remarkably low. Supported by central training provided by Brains, the couple manage their team like they would a large family. "We go through everything together," says Dave.
Indeed, chef Matthew Lewis (pictured) is the couple's son - and a Brains award winner in his own right, taking its Chef of the Year title two years running - and his wife is the front-of-house team leader. There are three long-term employees whose tenures at the Lamb & Flag range from eight to 21 years, and the couple believe this consistency is welcomed by their regular punters.
The five en suite bedrooms boast an average weekly occupancy of 85-90% and demand during the peak summer period is often so high that the couple are forced to turn business away. Ange says: "Five rooms just aren't enough. It's frustrating turning away business."
Adding more rooms to the property would be a sure-fire way to boost business, and the Lewises believe the acre of land on which the building sits is ripe for development.
"Brains is investing at other properties at the moment so there is a good chance that eventually we'll get the cash needed," explains Dave. "Sometimes we say we're victims of our own success because we still take the money. If takings fell, they'd need to address it."
The pub underwent a full internal refurbishment 10 years ago and attention is now being turned to the Lamb & Flag's exterior, which, according to Ange, has never done the business justice.
Best business advice
"Don't wait for something to happen; make it happen," says Ange. "You need to be proactive and responsive to the changing market and act upon it right away."
The pub has team meetings with other Brains pubs, which keeps the couple abreast of different activities and opportunities, but just as important are the team meetings held internally.
Front-of-house staff are incentivised to up-sell with the promise of 10p for every starter, side order, dessert and coffee order they take. In a good month an employee can receive £100-£150, which is given to them as retail vouchers.
Kitchen staff don't miss out on the opportunity to bag a bonus; they're measured on hygiene, checked by independent auditors twice a year (the most recent score was 99.6%), and gross profit targets, with the potential to pick up £50 in vouchers.
"This was only introduced 12 months ago and the improvement we've seen has been very impressive. It motivates staff, definitely," says Dave.
Spotlight on location
Location plays an enormous part in the success of the Lamb & Flag. It sits at the base of Sugar Loaf mountain and adjacent to the Sugar Loaf Vineyards at the gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park. The pub is also just 40 minutes away from the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
The natural beauty of the surrounding area attracts many hungry and thirsty campers, walkers, cyclists, golfers and fishing enthusiasts, all keen to drop into the Lamb & Flag for refreshment.
In addition to the transient trade, its position on the outskirts of the thriving market town of Abergavenny and across the road from the Nevill Hall Hospital ensures there is a steady flow of regular punters too.
DAVE LEWIS'S REVELATIONS
Favourite hotel The Penhelig Arms, Aberdovey (a Brains hotel)
Favourite restaurant The Hardwick Arms, Abergavenny
What book has inspired you? What You See Is What You Get, Lord Sugar's autobiography
Motto Time to lean, time to clean
If you weren't managing a pub, what would you be doing? Owning our own deli - always food
Whom do you most admire? Rick Stein - I like his no-nonsense cooking
Describe your business in five words Welcoming, homely, personal, consistent, positive
Facts and stats
Owner Brains (25 years)
General managers Dave and Ange Lewis
Average weekly occupancy 87.5%
Room rate £40