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The return of the inn

31 May 2013
The return of the inn

The chef-run inn, positioning itself between pub, restaurant and B&B, can be an alehouse offering decent beer or a restaurant catering to the fish and chip crowd as well as the fine diner. Hugh Daly examines the rise and rise of the inn

Well-known chefs taking on pubs is nothing new. Over the past decade or so, Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc, Heston Blumenthal and Nick Nairn are among the culinary luminaries who have expanded their empires from the "conventional" restaurant into the pub arena. The question such ventures sometimes raise, however, is "When is a pub not a pub?" Whatever the intention, in practice, an establishment full of white tablecloths where staff look askance at anyone not perusing the menu and wine list has probably crossed the line from pub to restaurant.

Increasingly, it seems that there is a breed of chef for whom the traditional inn, serving good beer as well as good food, and often also with accommodation, has a strong appeal.

One of the best known is Tom Kerridge, who runs the two-Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, on a lease with Greene King. His business also includes four cottage-style rooms. Kerridge says: "When I was looking to set up my own business, I knew I wanted to do it in a pub.

"I wanted to be able to offer quality food in a comfortable and welcoming environment, which is not always achievable in a traditional fine-dining establishment."

Simon Longbottom, managing director for Greene King Pub Partners, says: "Working with top-quality chefs like Chris Smith and, of course, Tom Kerridge, brings reputation and expertise to Greene King, which we warmly welcome. Chefs are a huge asset to our estate."

Chris Smith, Three Tuns, Biddenham, Bedfordshire

Chris Smith, 26, began his training under Michelin-starred chef Peter Chandler, the first English apprentice of Albert and Michel Roux, at Paris House restaurant. He later worked under Jean-Christophe Novelli for four years at the White Horse and French Horn pubs, working his way up to head chef.

He took on the Three Tuns, a traditional thatched pub just outside Bedford, on a Greene King lease in 2010. The pub previously operated as a wet-led community outlet with a small food trade.

Smith says: "Producing fine food in the comfort of a pub environment really appealed to me, so when I decided I wanted to run my own business, I knew it had to be within a pub. I approached Greene King which, after some searching, suggested the Three Tuns. The company saw the potential in my plans to operate a quality food-led business, so they refurbished the pub and kitchen."

The menu mixes classic pub food, including beer-battered haddock and chips, priced at £11.95, and outdoor-reared pork belly at £15.50, with more restaurant-style dishes such as poached lemon sole at £16.95 and chocolate, beetroot and nettle dessert at £6.50.

"I use a lot of seasonal food, locally sourced where possible, and this ethos fits in very well with pub food," says Smith. "You can refine classic pub dishes to transform the diner's experience without going too over-the-top.

"We still offer traditional pub snacks and a lunch menu with sandwiches. Although as a chef my aim has always been to create a business known for its food, I didn't want to do it at the expense of the customers who came to drink at the pub and had been doing so for many years."

The pub is gradually building its reputation both online and through word of mouth. "Taking on the Three Tuns was absolutely the right decision for me and I am proud to say it is going from strength to strength," says Smith.

Tim Robinson, the Wig & Pen, Truro, Cornwall

Tim Robinson trained as a chef under Gary Rhodes and Johnnie Mountain. He and wife, Georgie, who also has a hospitality background, relocated to Cornwall in 2009 after a decade in London.

After working at restaurants in Bude, "We thought we should be doing it for ourselves rather than for other people, and a pub seemed like a good option," says Robinson.

Recognising the Robinsons' potential, Cornish brewer St Austell matched them to the Wig & Pen in Truro, where they took on the tenancy in 2010. "It's a city centre pub, which is good because of the footfall," says Robinson. A refurb has seen a downstairs room previously used as a music venue transformed into a restaurant, while the ground floor trades as a conventional pub.

Both menus feature food made from scratch with a focus on local produce - home-made burgers are a popular choice on the main pub menu, priced at £9 for a burger with a choice of sauce, topping and a side order. "We always have a beefburger and a spicy beanburger on, and we do guest burgers which are constantly changing, such as a pork and sage or a Cajun chicken burger."

Along with favourites such as fish and chips at £9.50 and a Cornish rump steak at £13, "we also do interesting vegetarian dishes. For example, we've got a mushroom and blue cheese crumble on at the moment."

Robinson says: "When I worked in a couple of top restaurants I found them to be very clinical. In a pub there's more opportunity for your food to have personality, to be a bit more quirky." He cites his home-made beans on toast as an example: made with dried haricot beans, smoked ham hock and home-made tomato sauce served on a wedge of home-baked bread.

The pub also serves its own home-made crisps in a variety of flavours - "although cheese and onion is always the most popular" - and home-made pork scratchings.

The Robinsons had to tackle the pub's existing clientele to create the atmosphere they wanted. "We kept a lot of the locals, but we also lost a fair few - some through their choice, some not so much. It was a drinking establishment, with the locals sitting at the bar cussing and swearing, and we've cut all that out. Now it's a place you can bring your mum for lunch.

"We still have a good drinks trade and the regular motley crew at the bar at six o'clock every evening, but they're a more civilised bunch than in some pubs."

The appeal of fresh, local produce is starting to generate more destination food business, which is important to the Wig & Pen's viability, but competition is also increasing, he admits. "There really wasn't anything else like it in Truro when we started - there were bars and there were restaurants. Now, there's another two or three places doing what we're doing."

Sebastian Snow the Five Alls, Filkins, Gloucestershire

Sebastian Snow worked under chefs including Antony Worrall Thompson and with his wife, Lana, went on to run acclaimed restaurants including Snows on the Green in west London. Their Cotswolds restaurant, the Swan at Southrop, won the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year title in 2010.

In September 2012 the Snows and many of their team relocated less than three miles down the road, taking on the lease of the Five Alls at Filkins with Brakspear. The business includes four letting rooms.

"In a way, Brakspear approached me," says Snow. "I had to leave the Swan and word got around quite quickly that I was looking. The Five Alls hadn't really worked as a business in the five years we'd been in the Cotswolds, but I liked the size of the pub and the demographics of the village, and we're very good at turnarounds."

With previous tenants having struggled to make a go of the pub, Snow concedes that some people tried to warn him off. "They said 'Don't touch it. The village won't support you,' but we've now built quite a chunky turnover."

With both bar and restaurant trade effectively at zero when the Snows arrived, they started to gather support in the village with a range of tactics, including 10%-off loyalty cards. The customer base is now a mix of locals and destination food customers.

This wider appeal of a pub over a restaurant was part of the attraction, says Snow. "There are more strings to your bow running a pub, especially one with rooms. For example, I can keep my food and drink prices at a level that I'm comfortable with, because I can make better margins on my rooms. It's an all-day, all-week venue and there's always a trickle of income coming in, whether it's coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, rooms or events.

"I enjoy the face-to-face nature of the pub. You have a direct relationship with your customers, and you know straight away whether they're having a good time and enjoying their food and drink, which isn't always the case in a formal restaurant setting."

One challenge is that a chef-run business raises expectations, however. During a recent visit by researchers for a well-known eating-out guide, they liked the rooms but questioned the narrow choice of menu at breakfast. "We're not a hotel, we're a B&B - but there are clearly expectations that we're a bit more," says Snow. "Four rooms is not enough for a hotel trade, but it's a good driver for business."

With planning consent already in place to expand the accommodation, Snow is considering the viability of adding more rooms.

Mat Follas, the Talbot Inn, Iwerne Minster, Dorset

Mat Follas, the 2009 winner of MasterChef, recently announced that he is relocating his critically acclaimed Wild Garlic restaurant from Beaminster to the Talbot Inn in Iwerne Minster, north Dorset. The pub, which also includes five letting rooms, is owned by Dorset brewer and pub operator Hall & Woodhouse.

Opening this month, the new venture will trade as Wild Garlic at the Talbot Inn. "I don't want to take away the Talbot's name from the locals," says Follas.

The reason for the move is a combination of high rent at the current site and delays in the reopening of the Beaminster road tunnel, which was closed for repair following landslips in July 2012. "We're paying for a large building that the restaurant cannot really support, and we've struggled for the last year with the tunnel closure," says Follas.

Hall & Woodhouse approached Follas through Wild Garlic's accountant, who also works for the pub operator. Although the Talbot has built a good food trade, a wider appeal is needed to keep it profitable.

Follas acknowledges: "If I wasn't a bit of a name, the business wouldn't be viable. The Talbot has a nice low-volume trade and makes money through its rooms over the summer, but for a lot of the year it is very quiet. What we bring is the Wild Garlic name and a nice chunk of trade with it."

As well as allowing Follas to expand his popular foraging and cooking courses, the accommodation was part of the appeal of the relocation. "We have one room at the moment, and at weekends we could book it out three or four times over."

The main menu will be a bar and grill menu targeted at the family market and casual diners. "There will be a few pub classics, and we will have a separate fine-dining restaurant. The two-rosette business that we run now we will continue as a separate entity three nights a week - open only when I am cooking. There is always an expectation, which shouldn't matter, but it does."

The chef-run pub is "very much the emerging business model", believes Follas. "One of my main competitors is a head chef out of [Mark] Hix's kitchen. He has gone to a local pub and is doing a similar thing. It is absolutely on-trend."

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