Matt Bigland and Marc Sheldon took the plunge to go it alone in 2006 and buy the freehold of the derelict Milestone pub in Sheffield. They spoke to Janet Harmer about their achievements
Need to know
Matt Bigland (32) and Marc Sheldon (28) met in 2004 when they both worked at All Bar One in Sheffield. Bigland was the general manger and Sheldon was earning money to support his final year at university, where he was studying computer science.
"After Matt took me under his wing and trained me, I discovered I loved the industry and wanted to stay in it," said Sheldon. Together they decided they wanted to open their own business and in 2006 they took the plunge by buying the freehold of a pub, which had been derelict for 15 years, in Kelham Island, which was then the red light district of the city.
"We took an educated risk," explains Bigland. "We always knew that if the business didn't work out, we could do up the property and sell it at a profit - as the area was on the verge of being redeveloped."
The early days
The initial intention was to create a gastropub, but Bigland and Sheldon ended up trying to please everyone, offering pizza and tapas, alongside pub food - as well as Sky Sports. "People were confused so after 18 months, we decided to go with what we were really passionate about - good quality, hearty food, with a focus on offal and unusual meat cuts - and ditch everything else," says Sheldon.
"We were breaking new ground for Sheffield, but it was the best thing we could have done. By focusing on a strong, local sourcing policy, we found our identity and we began to see a slow, steady increase in trade until our appearance on Channel 4's Ramsay's Best Restaurant series last year, when business sky-rocketed."
The Milestone's customers are wide ranging, from young professional couples who work in the city to retired couples who travel from all over Yorkshire to enjoy a meal at what is a cross between a pub and a restaurant. "We offer high-quality food, within a casual environment," said Bigland. It is not unusual for visitors from London to eat at the Milestone during a weekend break to Sheffield. And the pub has also been sought out by diners from France, Switzerland and Sweden.
Bigland and Sheldon employ a Sheffield-based PR company, MK Things Happn, which they work closely with in thinking up ideas. "For example, we have invited journalists to do a service in the kitchen, to help them understand the ethos of our business and as a result we have developed a good relationship with our two local newspapers, the Sheffield Telegraph and the Sheffield Star," says Sheldon. "You have got to think of new and fun things for people to write about." Articles have appeared in the Yorkshire Post, Manchester Evening News and The Times, with Jay Rayner writing a glowing restaurant review in The Observer.
The Milestone also sends out a monthly newsletter which includes recipes and promotes up and coming events, as well as engaging with customers on Facebook and Twitter to keep the business fresh in people's minds.
"We went through a lot of staff to begin with as we have got very high standards," says Bigland. "The key is to offer good on-the-job training and they will stick with you."
The Milestone has developed its own training programme called the Gift of Gastro. As well as including product knowledge, it teaches staff how to greet customers, read body language, and go that extra mile.
"The training has been very successful in creating an enthusiastic team of staff who really care about the business," says Bigland.
An opportunity came Bigland and Sheldon's way at the end of 2010, which they felt they could not turn down. After the Wig & Pen pub in the legal quarter of Sheffield went into administration, they took on a 15-year lease of the Grade II-listed Georgian building in December.
Business at the Wig & Pen by the Milestone, which has 100 seats with two private rooms seating 20 each, is already exceeding the partners' expectations. The pub serves a more sophisticated version of the original Milestone menu to a largely corporate clientele at lunchtime, boosted by leisure business in the evening.
"We definitely would like other locations and are currently close to getting a third site in Sheffield, where we want to launch a cookery school/café/deli operation," says Sheldon.
Head chef of the Milestone, Simon Ayres, has moved to run the brigade at the new pub, with his former sous chef, James Wallis, now promoted to head chef of the original operation.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PIGS
In an attempt to ensure they obtained the best quality pork for the Milestone, Bigland (pictured on the right) and Sheldon (pictured on the left) went into partnership with arable farmer Andrew Hardman who was looking to introduce some animals to his farm. Over the past couple of years, they have reared Large Blacks, Oxford Sandy and Berkshires, but their favourites are Gloucestershire Old Spots.
To make sure the business obtained the best value from the herd, the partners created a Pig Week, in which every part of the animals were used. The result was the Milestone's busiest period outside of Christmas, with 200 covers being served daily.
Dishes included rolled ham hock with seeds and deep-fried duck egg, boned and rolled pig's head with mashed potato and caper jus and stuffed pig's trotter.
The pigs have even inspired the Milestone's cookery book called First Catch Your Pig, a collection of 160 favourite recipes from the pub.
FACTS AND STATS
Business mix 60% food, 40% wet
Average spend on food £20
Average number of covers per day 150