As the eighth Pig hotel opens its doors to guests, founder Robin Hutson looks back on creating his litter of hotels and his loyal staff relate what makes working for the phenomenally successful brand so special. Janet Harmer reports.
In a few months' time Robin Hutson will be 65 years old, an age when many people retire or certainly start thinking about it.
Retirement, however, is not on the cards yet for Hutson. He does admit, though, that he'd like not to continue working at the intensity he has over the past three years, juggling the opening of three hotels in Kent, Cornwall and West Sussex. Not to mention navigating a treacherous path through the pandemic, during which he fully felt the weight of responsibility for the livelihoods of more than 1,000 staff across seven Pig hotels and sister property Lime Wood.
We meet on the eve of the opening of the eighth Pig, located within a Grade II-listed Georgian property in the sleepy hamlet of Madehurst, just outside Arundel, West Sussex. The arrival of the 30-bedroom Pig in the South Downs now means that every county on the south coast, from Kent in the east to Cornwall in the west, has a Pig presence, each located within a historical and often quirky building, together with a plethora of rustic outbuildings and garden wagons.
The latest opening also marks the 10th anniversary of the Pig and gives cause to reflect on the success of the brand that is adored by the critics and public alike, with bedrooms and restaurant tables in each hotel booked up months in advance.
The backbone of the brand – with the kitchen garden informing everything from the simple menus to the rustic but stylish interiors designed by Hutson's wife Judy – was created with a view to shake up the stuffy and formal experience so often found in country house hotels of old. While Hutson was convinced that this is what people wanted, he was unsure that people would travel to a property in the middle of nowhere on "a wet Tuesday in February", his barometer for a successful operation. But, come they did – and in their droves, initially to the first hotel in Brockenhurst in the heart of the New Forest and then to the subsequent properties. Given that each hotel averages 30 bedrooms, the business levels are astonishing: a total of 331,000 room nights and 2.2 million restaurant covers achieved between July 2011 and October 2021.
"I think people came at the beginning because I was on my home patch and they were keen to see what I was up to," says Hutson, who had previously launched Hotel du Vin in Winchester with the late Gerard Basset before they went on to sell what had grown to a six-strong group 10 years later.
"But ultimately our commitment to the kitchen garden and locally sourced food was something that resonated with people. We take it really seriously. We have 25 kitchen gardeners and 12 acres under production, as well as a nursery producing all the seedlings."
Equally important to the Pig's success has been the creation of a team that is focused on creating a relaxed, informal stay for guests, where a can-do-attitude and smiles are in abundance. "The business is all about product and people," explains Hutson. "You can generally get your hands on buildings and cash, but developing the team is the most difficult part, as well as being the most rewarding.
"Perhaps we are faring slightly better at the moment than those who don't have the deep culture that we have. We are seriously committed to training and development and have something like 55 apprentices now, as well as the Budding Entrepreneur Scheme to grow the next generation of managers.
"You never want to open a new hotel and be accused of it not being as good as the last one, so we put more and more effort in so that we don't fall down that trap." The 103 staff at the new property takes the total head count across the group up to 1,150.
While each hotel has a look that is readily recognised as being part of the Pig family, Hutson is determined that each has its own identity and this means coming up with new ideas all the time. At the Pig at Bridge Place, near Canterbury, there is an open kitchen, while the Pig at Harlyn Bay, near Padstow features a lobster shed for alfresco eating.
You never want to open a new hotel and be accused of it not being as good as the last one, so we put more and more effort in
A vine romance
Located within 25 acres of grounds, the latest Pig, which cost £14m to buy and refurbish, has enabled Hutson to indulge one of his great passions in life – wine – with the planting of the group's first vineyard. "With land on all sides of the property, it dawned on me one day that we could have vines on the two-acre field in front of the restaurant. It has the right orientation – south-west – and elevation, as well as being on the chalk band that runs from the south of England to Champagne. We also benefit from having land lower than the vines, allowing mist and fog to roll in and preventing the vines from freezing, which has been a significant problem across the whole of Europe this year."
Vineyard contractor Vine-Works confirmed the field's soil was ideal and has since supported the planting of 4,000 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines, which should produce the first grapes next year ready for the first vintage.
The benefit of the vineyard is far greater than making some bottles of wine, explains Hutson. "We thought it would be great to have as many staff members involved, particularly our kitchen gardeners and sommeliers, who are super-excited. Frankly, in these days of challenges around recruitment and retention, all these elements are helpful."
Also new at the Pig in the South Downs is a somewhat surprising throwback to the avocado bathroom suites of the 1970s. These were inspired by a stay last year at Durslade Farmhouse, a property in Somerset owned by renowned art gallery Hauser & Wirth, described by Hutson as "shabby chic in the extreme".
After initially buying a reclaimed bathroom suite from Glasgow, which turned out to have parts missing, Hutson tracked down double-ended baths and had shower trays colour matched. The avocado suites are now found in four of the hotel's bedrooms.
"I think they're great," he says. With so many hotel owners readily admitting to being inspired by the look of the Pig when creating their own businesses, it remains to be seen where the next retro bathroom will appear.
The creative drive
Creating and opening new hotels over the past 10 years has been a huge driver for Hutson.He loves the buzz of every element of the creative process, be it securing the building, puzzling out how to make the space work, working on the interiors with Judy or bringing together the team. "It consumes your life for the period of the project and the only way to launch these places is by being totally absorbed," he says. "Apart from four nights at home, I've spent the past six weeks here."
Such a solid hands-on approach, with the Hutsons personally involved in selecting every element of the operation, from the teaspoons to the bespoke beds, is ultimately what makes the Pig the roaring success it has become.
Developing the team is the most difficult part, as well as being the most rewarding
"I've always been of the view that it has never been a game of Monopoly. That is what some of the funds and institutional cash that get involved in developing hotels think it is about. But that is never what it has been in my book. It has been that total immersion."
With the new hotel up and running at full capacity, Hutson says he is now happy to take his foot off the accelerator and absorb the eight hotels, all profitable and all in good shape. For the first time in almost a decade, there is no new Pig on the horizon. While he is not saying that there will be no more Pigs in the future, he confirms that he doesn't see another 10 hotels in front of him. And he does not want to be in a position to look for more staff until the challenges around recruitment settle down.
"We've got plenty to keep us busy, we are writing a new book, we hope to start making wine at the end of next year and we are going to revive a big sustainability project that we started two years ago that has been delayed by Covid. Judy and I are also looking forward to spending more time in each of the other hotels." Definitely no time for retirement then.
The pig litter
The Pig Brockenhurst, Hampshire
Opened July 2011
The Pig in the Wall Southampton
Opened September 2012
The Pig near Bath Pensford, Somerset
Opened March 2014
The Pig on the Beach Studland, Dorset
Opened June 2014
The Pig at Combe Gittisham, near Honiton, Devon
Opened July 2016
The Pig at Bridge Place Bridge, near Canterbury, Kent
Opened May 2019
The Pig at Harlyn Bay Harlyn Bay, near Padstow, Cornwall
Opened July 2020
The Pig on the South Downs Madehurst, West Sussex
Opened September 2021
Alex Coutts, head kitchen gardener
2011 Gardener, Lime Wood, Lyndhurst
2021 Head kitchen gardener, the Pig in the South Downs
After initially working at Lime Wood, opened by Hutson in 2009, Alex Coutts moved to the first Pig hotel, on the outskirts of Brockenhurst in the New Forest, in 2012. Here he replaced Olly Hutson, Robin and Judy's son, as head gardener, following Hutson's move to launch the kitchen garden at the Pig near Bath. In October 2019 he was appointed head kitchen gardener at the Pig in the South Downs, having spent the four previous years overseeing the kitchen garden at the Pig at Combe.
The kitchen garden in the South Downs is one of the largest in the group and features an impressive number of 80-year-old espalier-trained apple trees framing the one-acre space. "It takes a couple of years to really establish each garden as you have to get to understand the soil type and climate in each one," says Coutts.
He explains that it has been "a hell of a learning curve" working alongside chefs and understanding exactly what they want and at what point they want the produce to be picked. "It has improved my interest in food and knowledge of cooking hugely."
Coutts likes to push the boundaries of produce grown on-site and is exploring Australian finger limes or caviar limes, as requested by the chefs. Meanwhile, Passandra cucumbers and Witkiem Manita broad beans have been some of his biggest successes.
"I've been involved in the vineyard since it was planted and we're looking forward to getting our first yield of grapes. It has been a great experience, which was helped by attending a week-long intensive viticulture course," he says.
Chris Drodge, hotel director
2011 Assistant restaurant manager, the Pig, Brockenhurst
2021 Hotel director, the Pig, Brockenhurst
On joining the Pig in Brockenhurst as the opening restaurant manager, Chris Drodge was unsure where his future lay. "I've well surpassed where I thought I would end up," he explains. Along the route to his current role, which he started in January, he has worked as food and beverage manager and deputy general manager at the Pig on the Beach.
"As I've settled into each role, I've always been encouraged to take the next step," says Drodge, highlighting three individuals who have helped his career progression. "I worked with Lora [Strizic] for six and a half years and she always helped me push boundaries. Tom [Ross, group operations director] advised me to take a step back and think about the consequences of what I was doing, while Robin has given me an eye for detail and general wisdom.
The busy nature of the 32-bedroom Pig at Brockenhurst, which is 98% full throughout the year, serving 200 covers a day across lunch and dinner, creates an enjoyable working environment. "It enables us to always be focused on the quality of the service, staff and food," adds Drodge.
Hayley Wetherall, head housekeeper
2011 Head housekeeper, the Pig, Brockenhurst
2021 Head housekeeper, the Pig in the South Downs
Hayley Wetherall has known Robin and Judy for more than 23 years, having first worked with them as deputy head housekeeper at Hotel du Vin in her home city of Birmingham. She moved on to Hotel du Vin in Brighton as head housekeeper and joined the Pig in Brockenhurst in the same role. Since then, she has gone on to open a further three Pigs, in Southampton (in the Wall), Bridge Place in Kent and now the South Downs.
The big challenge for the housekeeping teams at all the Pig hotels is the fast turnaround of the bedrooms, which are always fully booked. "The hotels have such a big reputation that the guests are eager to check in early," says Wetherall. "I love the adrenalin involved in making it happen."
Another consideration for the housekeepers is the fact that every bedroom is different and the attention to detail in each one is second to none. To ensure her staff are on top of what they need to do, Wetherall encourages them to see each room through the guest's eyes. "We want the guest to walk into their room and say ‘wow'.
"Working for the Pig is about being yourself, where you can bring ideas to the table. In a corporate hotel you are more of a number than an individual. Here, when I arrive at work each day, it is like coming home."
Kamil Oseka, head chef
2011 Sous chef, the Pig, Brockenhurst
2021 Head chef, the Pig in the South Downs
Kamil Oseka's preparation for cooking at the Pig began in his native Poland, where he was immersed in preserving, pickling and foraging alongside his mother and working in his grandmother's allotment. In his new kitchen in the South Downs, he has an entire room with floor-to-ceiling shelving full of jars featuring the produce from the kitchen garden that has been preserved and pickled.
The South Downs is Oseka's third head chef position with the Pig, the first being in Bath, followed by Bridge Place. "I love the excitement of moving between the hotels and the new challenge each one brings," he says.
The Pig style of food suits Oseka down to the ground. Having spent the earlier part of his career working in restaurants alongside French chefs who would put 15 components into one dish, Oseka much prefers the simpler approach of the Pig, where there is likely to be only three ingredients on a plate at any one time.
Meanwhile, he attributes the relaxed approach for which the Pig is renowned for helping to turn him into a calm and happy chef. "It comes from the top," he says. "Everyone who works at the Pig is happy."
Oseka, who oversees a brigade of 28 chefs, says he always remembers two pieces of advice given by Hutson when they first met. "The first was treat everyone like a VIP, whether it be a guest or the bin men or delivery driver. That's why I always offer delivery drivers a glass of water. And second, if you pass something that needs fixing – it might just be picking up a cigarette butt on the ground – deal with it. It encourages us all to be kind to everyone we meet and take pride in every property."
Lora Strizic, regional director
2011 Hotel director, the Pig, Brockenhurst
2021 Regional director, the Pig in the South Downs and Pig at Bridge Place
Alongside James Golding, now group chef director of the Pig, Lora Strizic was on site at Whitley Ridge, the name of the hotel that was eventually to be transformed into the first Pig, prior to the brand's conception.
It was 2009 and Hutson was focused on getting Lime Wood in nearby Lyndhurst open. At the time, it was undecided what was going to happen to Whitley Ridge. Lime Wood and Whitley Ridge were then both fully owned by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe of chemical company Ineos. Home Grown Hotels, incorporated as the parent company of the Pig in 2011, saw Ratcliffe remaining as the majority investor, with Hutson taking a smaller share-holding.
"Robin gave us the keys to the building and a bit of money to spruce it up and we ran the property for about a year along the lines of a traditional country house hotel," says Strizic, who first worked for Hutson as assistant manager at Hotel du Vin Winchester, before going on to take on the same role at Hotel du Vin Brighton before being promoted to general manager.
"We weren't that busy, so we spent every afternoon between lunch and dinner service working in the garden, growing vegetables. Then we brought in some pigs and effectively created a smallholding, boosted by the mushrooms picked by our forager, Garry Eveleigh.
"It was a lot of work but great fun, and gave us the opportunity to work out what the kitchen garden could do for us. Having previously worked in towns and cities, it also gave us a greater understanding of being in the countryside and working with nature. With Robin sharing his thoughts on how he wanted the menu to evolve, the Pig became what it is today."
Lora explains that having that period working on the Pig concept before the brand was actually launched provided the team with the confidence that they could make it work. A key element was the writing of menus, with Golding creating dishes from produce available each morning rather than ordering ingredients the previous day to fit a pre-written menu. "It takes confidence to write a menu at 8am before serving the food at 12 noon," says Strizic.
As the menu evolved, customers to Whitley Ridge were confused by the juxtaposition of the simple dishes inspired by freshly picked ingredients and the fine dining environment. However, once the refurbishment took place, the shabby chic interior provided the perfect complement to the food.
For Strizic, the past 10 years has totally changed her focus as a hotelier, with the food and garden becoming significantly more integral to the operation. But perhaps even more important has been her increased understanding in how to employ cleverly.
"A key part of our success is about the service experience and that comes from the staff," she says. "So, we've always looked for interesting people to train to be one of us. When interviewing, we talk about what we can do for the staff, rather than just focusing on what they can do for us. This attitude has served us well over the years in creating a strong, loyal workforce."
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