More and more chef-patrons and owners are recognising the benefits of setting up gastropub companies to complement their Michelin-starred restaurants. Ben McCormack spoke to Northcote Manor's Nigel Haworth about Ribble Valley Inns
"Our long-term aim," says Nigel Haworth in his broad Lancastrian brogue, "is not to do anything gimmicky, like some gastropubs, but to make a long-term commitment to the community, embracing the producers, the suppliers and the people in the area."
He's talking specifically about his new pub, the Highwayman, which opened in April in the village of Nether Burrow just south of Kirkby Lonsdale, but his words are also a mission statement for Ribble Valley Inns (RVI), the company Haworth set up with Craig Bancroft, his business partner from Northcote Manor, when they launched their first pub, the Three Fishes, in Mitton, Lancashire, in 2004.
There's a significant overlap between the two businesses. For a start, had there been no Northcote Manor, there would have been no Ribble Valley Inns. "Northcote adds kudos to what we're doing with the pubs," Haworth says. "It's a sign of quality control. And I think the 20-odd years we've done at Northcote have helped the philosophy of what we're doing. It's fast-tracked us."
While Northcote lends culinary credibility to the pubs, the offshoots in return offer a great opportunity for investment. "There's no doubt that the two businesses are linked - they're owned by the same people," says Haworth. "If these pubs make good money, it helps us to develop Northcote. That's one of the reasons we did them. In a very twee way, we have a dream to fulfil with Northcote, but that takes huge amounts of money. We'll probably invest between £2m and £2.5m over the next five years to develop Northcote Manor to its full potential."
What's more, since a pub is cheaper to run than the money pit that's a Michelin-starred restaurant, and can serve more customers, the potential for profit is much greater.
"Craig and I really enjoy the process of doing pubs," says Haworth. "They're very rewarding. They're not as hard to run as Northcote Manor and they've been much more profitable more quickly. They have flag floors and painted walls - it's not about high-class carpets and fabrics, or bedrooms that cost 40 grand and dining rooms that are 70 covers - we can do 500 covers a day at the Highwayman. I believe that a pub can be very profitable. If you want to make a lot of money, you don't go into fine dining."
The 130-seat Three Fishes turns over £1.7m a year on 8,500 covers a month the 70-seat Northcote turns over £1.6m on 2,000 covers a month and the 130-seat Highwayman is projected to turn over £1.2m this year on 6,000 covers a month.
Michelin-starred Northcote Manor was obviously a hard act to follow but, in the three years since the Three Fishes opened, it has won an impressive haul of trophies, including a Catey for Pub & Bar Operator of the Year and a children's food award from Camra. So expectations of a repeat success with the Highwayman are high, though the mood is relaxed during my lunch with Haworth on a drizzly Friday.
A lot of thought, not to mention about £1m of investment, has gone into the Highwayman. It's the village pub in Nether Burrow, a mile or so from the market town of Kirkby Lonsdale and a stone's throw from the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks. Since the village is no more than a couple of terraces and a handful of houses, the Highwayman is being pitched as a "destination pub", with food the main reason for visiting.
"The focus is on the producers and the provenance," explains Haworth. "When you go to any other European country, you can eat the traditional food of that area - which is a reason for visiting. But where can you go in the major cities and beauty spots of the UK if you want to do that? There are very few places. I want our pubs to be recognised as somewhere that you can eat something that has local relevance."
For Haworth, buying local makes good business sense, not only as a way to differentiate the pub from the competition but to forge relationships with suppliers. "Because we're working with some of the suppliers on a long-term basis, they sometimes find us better prices," he says. "I say to my tomato-grower, give me a consistent price and I'll buy off you for the whole season. So while it's more expensive in the middle of summer, at the beginning and end of the year it pans out."
But supporting the local economy isn't the only way the Highwayman is playing its part in the community. The pub has signed a three-year deal to sponsor the junior rugby team, buying the kit and providing catering at small events. It's a good way to create goodwill among local parents.
But perhaps the aspect of the Highwayman most likely to make it a destination is its pricing: most starters are around the £5 mark and mains are £10. This isn't, however, a case of pandering to the budget of the stereotypical Northern tightwad nearby gastropubs such as the Punchbowl at Crosthwaite have shown that you can charge more than £16 for a main course and stay busy, while the shores of the Lakes sparkle with Michelin stars. In fact, Haworth sees low prices as a way to increase custom and therefore profits.
He says: "When I set up the Three Fishes, I thought, ‘What restaurant has 100 covers and is full on a Tuesday night?' The local Indian. People go there not because it's the best cooking in the world but because it's easy and accessible and serves nice food. That's the price point I wanted to compete with - about £25 a head, including drink."
However, unless the Three Fishes and the Highwayman are indeed full on a Tuesday night, there will be no more pubs from Ribble Valley Inns. The Highwayman has been funded in a 50:50 split between Thwaites Brewery and RVI, which is in turn supported by Barclays Bank. Haworth and Bancroft took the decision to make RVI a company separate from Northcote Manor so that the new business could develop independently.
"Because we're backed by the bank and not venture capitalists, we have to be successful to have further success," Haworth says. In other words, Barclays will not lend RVI any more money for further ventures unless the Highwayman is judged to be a success financially.
So, while Haworth talks of hoping to open another pub in the North-west before the end of the year, he stresses that the priority for now is getting things right at the Highwayman. And since the Three Fishes does 2,000 covers a week, if they can repeat that success, Bancroft and Haworth should be laughing all the way to the bank.
Haworth and Bancroft, of course, are not the only Michelin-starred restaurateurs-turned-publicans. These days, it seems, you can't pop in for a pint in a well-heeled corner of England without finding a famous name over the door, be it Marco Pierre White's at the Yew Tree Inn in rural Berkshire, Heston Blumenthal's at the Hinds Head in Bray or, more recently, Gordon Ramsay's with the Narrow and the soon-to-open Warrington in the affluent London neighbourhoods of Limehouse and Maida Vale.
Haworth thinks the appeal of pubs is that they offer British restaurateurs the opportunity for the kind of financial stability rare among fine-dining establishments. "I don't think you should be frightened of making money," he says. "It's no good dying a poor chef, it's better to say you worked hard and that you had a business that was very successful financially."
He continues: "I think that, in the longer term, we've created something that, when I'm dead and gone, will still hopefully thrive on the heritage and provenance of the area."
The Highwayman, Nether Burrow, Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire LA6 2RJ. Tel: 01524 273338. www.highwaymaninn.co.uk
Ribble Valley Inns - turnover figures
- 130 seats
- Turns over £1.7m a year
- 8,500 covers a month
- 70 seats
- Turns over £1.6m a year
- 2,000 covers a month
- 130 seats
- Projected annual turnover £1.2m
- 6,000 covers a month
Menu at the Highwayman
- North Sea cod fish cake, curly leaf parsley sauce, £5.50
- Warm Flookburgh shrimps, blade mace butter, toasted muffin, £6.50
- Peter Gott's potted wild boar, slow-cooked onions, pork dripping on sourdough toast, £5.30
- Battered deep-fried haddock, marrowfat peas, real chips cooked in dripping, tartar sauce, £9.95
- Heather-reared Bowland lamb Lancashire hotpot, pickled red cabbage, £9.95
- Farmer Sharp's Herdwick mutton pudding, forager's mashed potato, black peas, £9.80
Afters (as they're called in the North-west)
- Chocolate and orange pudding, clotted cream, £4.50
- Stewed Formby rhubarb and custard, £4.50
- Farmhouse cheeses from Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, £6.50
The Bell Inn
Claude Bosi, who recently sold the Ludlow premises of his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Hibiscus to L'Ortolan's Alan Murchison, before reopening in London in September, has owned this exceptionally pretty country pub since 2005.
Bosi and his wife Claire remortgaged their house to buy the Bell because, Bosi says: "There wasn't a good pub in Ludlow and we thought, ‘Let's give it a try'." The Bell is run entirely separately to Hibiscus and, although the pub's profits are higher, money from the pub is not fed into the restaurant - "or it starts to get confusing".
For Bosi, the appeal of the pub lies in its simplicity. "A lot of chefs who have pubs try to serve restaurant food, but it should be more about home cooking," he says. "There's less pressure and it's so much more relaxing. It gives you the opportunity to cook things that you remember from when you were a kid."
Dishes include prawn cocktail and ham and eggs and, when Bosi was cooking in Ludlow, he would also do two services a week at the Bell. Once the London Hibiscus has become established, Bosi says that he would like to open more pubs.
Bell Inn, Green Lane, Yarpole, Herefordshire HR6 0BD. 01568 780359
The first pub from Midsummer House co-owners Daniel Clifford and Russell Morgan opened in May, with former Gun chef Scott Wade cooking the likes of wild garlic soup with nutmeg croûtons (£5.50) and rainbow trout baked in Maldon salt crust (£15.50).
For Clifford, a pub offers different benefits to a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, all of which make good financial sense: it acts as a training ground for Midsummer House a pub requires fewer staff for more customers (14 staff for 180 covers at the Headley, against 26 for 40 at Midsummer) and it appeals to a wider customer base.
Profits from the Headley will be used to fund the growth of more restaurants from Midsummer House Restaurants. Clifford says that "the success of places like Arbutus, doing simple food in simple surroundings", is what lies behind the current trend for fine-dining chefs opening pubs, but he warns that there's no place for being precious.
"You've got to remember that it's a pub," he says. "We serve 60 rib-eye steaks on Sunday that are requested well-done. You're catering to a different market."
The Headley, Headley Common, Great Warley, Brentwood, Essex CM13 3HS. 01277 216104www.theheadley.co.uk
Michael Caines Tavern at Abode Canterbury
Unlike most top chefs who have opened pubs, Michael Caines has gone for city-centre locations: first in Exeter in 1999 and, since last autumn, Canterbury.
"You've got a completely different opportunity in cities," he says, "not just dining, but a huge drinking market. And with the late-licence laws, you can be doing a roaring trade until 2am."
At the Canterbury Tavern, revenue is split 50:50 between drinking and dining, and the projected turnover for the first year is about £1m. However, Caines rejects suggestions that the taverns are cash cows to fund other parts of the business, such as two-Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park.
"People don't go into business to prop up another side of the business," he says. "It doesn't make any financial sense. You have to make each business streamlined and profitable."
Caines recommends opening a pub as a good way for chefs starting their own business. "It offers a low-cost opportunity to get into the restaurant business." he says. "It means you can have a few eggs in a few baskets - B&B, food, drink - so it's a stable platform."
Michael Caines Tavern at Abode Canterbury, 30-33 High Street, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2RX. 01227 766266. www.abodehotels.co.uk