Andrew and Helen Coggings had no idea how their new business would take off after its £100,000 transformation. But now the couple are in the happy position of having just about as much custom as they can handle, as Emma Allen reports
Sitting in the Preston Park Tavern in Brighton on a quiet Monday afternoon, reflecting on their first two months since opening, owners Andrew and Helen Coggings are, in their words, "over the moon" at how well things have gone so far.
"It's taken us completely by surprise but we've been absolutely flat out," says Andrew, who'd managed to take his first afternoon off in eight weeks just a couple of days earlier. "We never expected to be so busy, especially with the food. At first, we were a bit worried it was just down to us being the new kids on the block, but if anything, we seem to be getting busier."
Since they opened the kitchen, every Thursday and weekend night has been fully booked, and on the Saturday before Caterer visited, the pub took a record £1,500 on food.
The only real downside, they point out, is that they've regularly had to turn customers away. At the moment, people can prebook only the six tables nearest to the kitchen, while remaining tables are kept free for walk-ins and those just having a drink. Is their system working? "On the whole, yes, but as it's first-come, first-served, things can get a bit pushy," Andrew says. "We did think about putting names down at the bar, but all that takes up management time which we don't have. It's just about us keeping an eye on things."
One positive effect is that word is getting round that the pub is busy, so more people are phoning up to reserve a table beforehand. Are they tempted to introduce dual sittings? "On Sundays we take bookings at 1pm and 3pm to spread things out, but people don't mind eating a bit later on Sundays anyway, so it's not such a big thing," Andrew says. "Otherwise, no. People, including me, really don't like double sittings. Anyway, I think it's better to look after the tables you've got rather than constantly trying to squeeze in more."
The only real gap in trade is early weekday lunchtimes, but the couple hope to fill this over the next few months by attracting the small but growing local business crowd. They've just installed Wi-Fi, and they recently mailed out a promotional flyer to nearby companies, resulting in a number of corporate Christmas lunch bookings.
Aside from this, though, they've decided not to do any marketing or advertising until next year. "At the moment, it's just not a priority," Andrew explains. "Advertising tends to stimulate demand at weekends, which we just don't need. What's the point getting people to phone up for a table on Saturday night if we can't give it to them?"
Rather than boosting numbers, the couple are instead looking at ways to push the average spend. At the moment, this tends to be about £20 at weekends and £14 on Monday and Tuesday evenings, when people tend not to have starters. "Nobody's flinching at the prices, but so far we deliberately haven't gone above £12 for a main course," Andrew says, adding that they now plan to introduce some higher-priced dishes on Saturday nights to test out the market. But they want to keep prices reasonable. "A lot of our trade is impulse, with people getting home and not wanting to cook, so the last thing we want is to be seen only as a special-occasion place."
One change they have already made is to ditch their original 10am opening in favour of a midday start, mainly because of a lack of morning trade. "We realised we'd have to sell an awful lot of coffees and pastries to make it worthwhile, or to justify another member of staff, and there just wasn't the demand," Helen explains.
She admits, too, that she didn't realise how late they would be working in the evenings. "It's taken some time to adjust to the hours. It was a bit of a shock to fall into bed exhausted, then have to get up to serve one or two cappuccinos," she says. "We can always go back to it, but for now, we're using the time to get the books done instead."
Overall, is there anything they would have done differently? "Not much to be honest, but we should have recruited more kitchen staff," notes Andrew. "It's been pretty tough keeping up. But we just had no idea what the levels of business would be, especially as the pub is completely different to what it was before. That's the real challenge when you start something new. You've genuinely got no idea of how things are going to go."
The pub now has four full-time chefs in the kitchen, and 12 bar staff who work part-time between 10 and 20 hours a week. Staff wages are higher than anticipated, but taking on people part-time has helped to bring down overheads. "Part-time staff is cheaper for employer's national insurance, too," Andrew adds. "Although our staff costs are higher, the actual percentage of wages to sales is lower than we thought, especially as we're doing better on food than we anticipated."
Is there anything else they've learnt so far? "We've realised that being child-friendly is a huge plus for the business, but we can't afford to alienate people without kids. We don't want to be seen as a crèche," Helen says. Andrew agrees, adding that sometimes it has been difficult to create a balance. "It's surprising how many parents let their kids run a bit wild. Last weekend, one child got completely stuck under the bar's foot rail which caused a bit of a stir," he grins. "But we can't be heavy-handed about it. Lots of our customers bring their family in at weekends for lunch, but then come for a drink with friends during the week, so we don't want to put anyone off."
They might be in the fortunate position of not having to chase trade, but they know it's still early days. "We're still learning and we're watching like hawks all the time," they say. "Hopefully, by going in hard at the start, and establishing standards, it means we can back off a bit down the line and things won't slip if we're not around."
Ask an expert
Want to boost lunchtime trade? Guy Holmes, director of marketing agency the Restaurant Ingredient, offers some advice:
Lunchtime trade is usually much more price-sensitive than evening trade, so it's worth offering special discounts or fixed-price menus.
Research local businesses to find out who's in your area. Don't forget hotels either. It might be worth inviting concierges or hotel staff along for a drink so they can recommend you to guests.
Is there a big employer nearby? You could consider giving employees 20% off for lunch when they show their business card. In return, the company may promote your business on its intranet site.
Get to know your local area. Is it worth targeting specific groups like students or pensioners with early-bird or two-for-one prices?