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The Caterer

Local rivalries

04 August 2005
Local rivalries

A new business takes time to build up, and your competitors won't always be supportive of the "new kid on the block", as Rob Gamble, owner of the White Lion near Stoke on Trent, discovered recently.

Earlier this year Gamble took a 15-year lease on an abandoned and vandalised pub and transformed it into a smart, neighbourhood, food-led venue. But a few local licensees have told him that the White Lion is too expensive and poor quality - talk he dismisses as "either tongue-in-cheek or just unfair".

"Have they been here to eat? No. Is it scaremongering? Is it gossip mongering? I really don't care." In the end, such criticism is water off a duck's back. "The proof of the pudding is the volume. We still turned over 25,000 in June and that's very healthy."

After all, a positive write-up from a local paper, the Sentinel, described the White Lion as "a sophisticated suburban restaurant astutely offering traditional dishes alongside spicier fare for the more adventurous". The writer was also impressed by the decor of deep leather sofas, slate floor tiles and ornate fireplace that have resurrected the once-derelict boozer.

The menu is split between "traditional" and "with a twist". If pâté (£3.95) or prawn cocktail (£4.25) don't get the punters excited, they can plump for Chevre (warm goats' cheese in a pastry case with a banana and tamarind chutney and rocket) or Oink (marinated belly pork, slowly braised and served on wilted spinach with a sesame, cucumber, garlic, chilli and honey drizzle).

Gamble proudly declares that the choice on his menus is "vast" and he doesn't scrimp on portion sizes, either. Oink, a starter, resembles a small joint of pork, and pasta dishes come with a generous helping of Parmesan shavings. So how does Gamble keep more than 13 main courses and 16 baked potato fillings fresh and ready every day? It's all down to good man management and his two vacuum-packing machines. "My one pearl of wisdom to anyone setting up their own business is to buy a vacuum packer," he says.

Summer is a lean time for many hospitality businesses. Despite the White Lion's beer garden and decking outside, people tend to head out to the nearby Peak District when the weather's nice.

But Gamble is taking a relaxed attitude to trade over the summer. It's a chance to carry out some motivational training for the 72 staff across his three pub-restaurants. Organisations such as the Best Practice Forum have helped, and Gamble believes it's beneficial to have outsiders come in. "Because I'm a very hands-on employer, it's not always easy to get my passion across without people feeling on tenterhooks. What we're looking at is lifting up the staff to the point where they become executive sales people."

From spending a day with Gamble it's clear that staff morale is good, and as Gamble does his rounds he chats easily with both staff and customers.

The cheerful waitresses at the Noah's Ark pub-restaurant, another of Gamble's three venues, have been with him for three-and-a-half years, and a young couple having coffee have both worked there and will do so again between parenting commitments. It turns out they met while both were working there and they even held their wedding reception there.

In Gamble's opinion, giving staff strict targets isn't a good idea. "If you give someone a £1,500 target to turn over today, is that it? Is that healthy and productive? Or are we looking at whoever comes through the door gets the best service, the friendliest atmosphere and the best-quality food that we can produce within budget? The two ladies who work part-time don't need to know what I have to turn over each month."

The White Lion is in the process of building up its regulars. Gamble says that will take at least 12 months. With the successful model of the Noah's Ark, he's confident about its future. "I think that once we start to pick up later in the year there's no reason why we can't be hitting 30,000 a month comfortably, which hits the target of what I expected in the first year."

Adopted business

Caterer has "adopted" four hospitality businesses, which will be visited in rotation every four weeks. There are: the Cube & Star, Hoxton Square, London; the Club Hotel & Spa, St Helier, Jersey; the White Lion, Stoke; and the Mason's Arms in north Devon

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