Shipshape and ready for business. BII’s Eleanor Kirby speaks to Peter Troup MBII of Pelican Taverns about keeping a good business afloat for the future.
Located on the picturesque Georgian harbour of Charlestown in Cornwall, Rob and Lucy Brewer’s pubs, the Pier House, Harbourside and Rashleigh Arms are set to provide tourists some much needed escapism this summer. BII’s Eleanor Kirby spoke to Rob about setting up retreats and finding their flow again.
Famed for its stunning views, well documented by BBC’s Poldark, Rob and Lucy Brewer’s fleet of venues sit in the World Heritage Site near to where Rob grew up in St Austell. Having won the BII’s Licensee of the Year Award with the Rashleigh Arms in 2015, they soon added the Pier House and adjoining Harbourside to their portfolio. With St Austell unveiling newly rennovated larger scale hotels, the Pier House is set to expand their retreat offering, while the Harbourside remains a more relaxed community space this summer.
“Towards the end of 2017 we were running four pubs and St Austell decided to invest heavily in refurbishing the Pier House. It made sense to concentrate on that rather than spread ourselves too thin.”
Just 35 yards from the Rashleigh, Lucy now works at the Pier House part time, with Rob acting as manager. “We took what was a niche hotel, somewhat quirky and impractical, and completely redeveloped it to make the route flow better and expand the business.
“The idea was to rejoin parts of the hotel that had previously broken off into segments. What’s now the reception area used to be a prop bar with a queue of people waiting to get served. There was an outdated a la carte menu separated by the resident’s lounge, so we opened everything right up.” Making the space lighter and more open plan meant that all hotel rooms could be accessed through the landing space, with one essential bar looking onto the terrace-with-a-view through double doors.
“It made the customer journey easier, they could move from inside to outdoors with ease, rather than walking around the building through a side door,” a move that serving staff reacted positively to as well.
The menu didn’t escape refurbishment either. “We used to run three menus from one kitchen, a Harbourside menu, bistro for families and the outdated a la carte. It meant the chef was submerged by all the prep and different dishes going out, so we binned it and now have one for the Pier and one for the Harbourside.”
With business growing from the renovation, Rob is honest about the impact Covid has had on the business. Tier 2 saw a drop in sales of 80% and Rob estimates a turnover has been lost of around £1 million. But, both Rob and St Austell are feeling positive about the Pier’s power to “climb the mountain out of Covid” with nimble feet. Making the most of Brits wanting to find some escapism closer to home, the Pier House has become a retreat venue within the pub company’s managed estate. In a move set to future proof the hotel so it is a less seasonal operation, Rob says it will encourage visitors to see it as a getaway that can offer a great experience 12 months of the year.
“With a more extensive wine list and menu, the Pier House operates to an average spend per head of £18, with a 45:45:10 split on food, drink and accommodation, but this has shown a rise on 2019 for the few months we were allowed to open last year.” Having grown up in St Austell, Rob is aware of the ambient power of the sea, with wife Lucy attending weekly “Swim and Tonic” meetings with fellow BII Member and LOYA winner Tanya Williams (of the Polgooth Inn).
“A lot of the brewery managed sites have the best location in Cornwall, we’re working to enhance that. We’ve added more choice to the wine list, fine-tuned the menu and are in the process of changing all glassware, crockery and staff uniforms. It’s been a massive development for the whole company really!”
Putting a positive spin on things, Rob says that closing due to Covid was an opportunity that “you just don’t always get to do these things.” More than a “getaway” concept to increase footfall in November and February, the retreats will see a move away from the one way systems and timed sittings influenced by Covid restrictions, into a service that will encourage customers to linger.
“Our guests have always wanted an experience, and it’s more important now because people have saved the money, and banked a lot of time spent with little diversion, to come out.” That eagerness shows in their emails, as Rob said he worked through upwards of 800 as soon as the date for reopening was unveiled. Accommodating all for dining and staycations, Rob has been working closely with the private landowner of Charlestown Harbour to rent outdoor space and increase covers by 30 tables, extending capacity from 80 to 110.
Well placed in the inner harbour where visitors can buy fish and chips, visit the rum bar, coffee shop, or delight in a summer BBQ, Rob is glad to have the Pier represented in St Austell’s food and drink hub. With guests encouraged to linger, the Pier House’s clientele are sure to be lapping up every ounce of experience long after the last waves of Charlestown’s tourists have returned home.
Having won LOYA in 2015 with the Rashleigh Arms, Rob and Lucy Brewer went on to take on the Pier House a year later. With the award opening up for applicants in 2021, Rob notes that now is a better time as any to get involved!
“As a process, LOYA gets you to look at your business with a fine tooth comb, you’ll look at the points you want to sell to the judges, but it will also give you a chance to look at some weaker spots and think about how to make them better.
“It is the toughest award out there, but it’s recognition from the heart of our industry. You find a whole network of people to connect with, and the support from the BII means it’s worth doing for that alone.”
Entrants this year will receive information packs detailing feedback from judges at every stage of the competition, meaning it’s a real opportunity to assess your business for the better.
Learn more about our Licensee of the Year Award here!
Run by Caroline and Darran Lingley, the Five Bells proudly overlooks the Colne Valley in Essex. A freehold that pairs exposed beams with colourful and uplifting window displays, BII’s Eleanor Kirby spoke to Darran about putting pubs on prescription.
Despite the cheer and positivity being spread, fairy dust couldn’t magic away the impact Covid had on the business. “Before the pandemic hit, we had four pubs. One was too small to work economically with restrictions in place as the seating went down to 36 covers with no outside space.” Making redundancies and selling two pubs was a hard decision to make for Darran and Caroline, but it offered them time and space to come back to ideas they’d had in the past.
“We’re down to the Five Bells and the Lion, and managed to borrow money to do the renovations we’d always wanted to do. We had to look into the crystal ball and thought about how to adapt to the changing industry.
“Investing in new outside spaces, beer huts, heaters, covered areas – they’re all things we would have done eventually, but at a much slower pace.”
This investment in the future has cost around £200,000, but Darran believes the pandemic has made him and Caroline more in tune with the needs of their staff, and in turn, their customers. “Last year was the hardest of our lives, but we needed to stay level-headed to support everyone. We are a lot more personal with the team now. We can adapt to customer needs too, whether it be easing anxiety about restrictions when revisiting, or being extra bubbly through all the masks and sanitisers.”
Embracing technology in the form of their in-house app that has helped the business move from takeaway off-sales, to table ordering through the stages of reopening (at a £6,000 development cost), Darran says, has meant that staff save time on administrative tasks, which could be better spent on making customers feel more comfortable. “There’s a lot of suffering going around, our customers have been stuck at home without their peers; Government should prescribe going to the pub – it’s about feeling part of the herd again. I would love to see our industry being socially prescribed for anxiety, depression and loneliness.”
A response to their own experience of sitting at home, wondering what to do, Caroline and Darran started an online event called “Darraline”, a cookalong livestream that peaked customer curiosity. “People watched it and regularly joined in the conversation, but they wanted to food and drinks too! We now sell 40-50 tickets for the events, charging £50 per head which includes food and wine pairings.”
Starting out with dishes like Caroline’s famous meatloaf or herb crusted salmon, Darraline are now famed for their paella takeaways that “put the sunshine back into home life”, selling 130 portions on a Saturday night in just one hour! When asked whether upselling was key to rebuilding their business after a hefty renovation, Darran says, “We upsell our time,” believing in “ethical selling”.
“Once you get people in your zone and they trust you, you don’t have to sell. We don’t push items, we give them a good reason to support us by anticipating their needs, meaning we’ve also been able to reduce our range because we’re tailoring to our people.”
Covid has meant holding stock isn’t an option, but it also sharpened the couple’s ability to sense what customers need before they ask for it. “People are coming back out for the nostalgia of the pub, and that means comfort food.” Roasts, fish & chips and burgers are part of the menu limited to eight dishes, with interchangeable twists like a choice of burger bun. As well as pushing the creativity of their chefs, these condensed menus mean customers spend less time making their choice, and more time rebuilding happy memories.
“Darraline” doesn’t stop there, as the duo have created a brand that has migrated from the pub’s Facebook pages and onto its own channel, where Caroline and Darran hope to take it on tour. After 19 years and counting at the Five Bells, the pair have yet to run out of innovative ideas (catch them on Instagram Reels for a true taste of the fun they bring to the business!)
Finalists of LOYA in 2008, and then winners in 2011, Caroline & Darran gravitated towards our Licensee of the Year Award as a way to be recognised by our industry.
“Ultimately you want to be challenged. I saw it as a self-help scheme, it helped me get on track so I could come back stronger and eventually win after being a finalist. LOYA is about the journey to winning, teaching others what you’ve learned along the way, and by doing so, you learn even more.
“Our teachings from LOYA were what we recognised we love about the industry, that it’s constantly changing and challenging us. We’re custodians of this pub, and we have had a responsibility to adapt it throughout Covid.”
Head over to our Licensee of the Year Award page to fill out our nominations form and read more about the entry requirements.