Landlord Simon Brencher FBII has had a varied career up to this point, including a stint with the circus, while working his way up through the bars and restaurants of Manchester and London. Cutting his teeth as General Manager for Gordon Ramsey Holdings, and with London’s first Indian Michelin Star restaurant Benares, Simon has successfully brought his high standards and eye for detail to The Greyfriar.
The backbone of this success is Simon’s aptitude for finding top staff, using his contacts to attract young talent to his kitchen and front-of-house teams.
“My background is in London, so when I first came to Alton, it became all about finding chefs who would meet the standard. Tom Hinsley, my current Head Chef, started out as Sous Chef at Jason Atherton’s City Social. He’s from Hayling Island originally, so he has returned to his roots by coming back to Hampshire.”
Supporting Tom is 17-year-old Sous Chef, Lilly Vaughan. Lilly joined The Greyfriar as a KP aged 14 and, with encouragement, is now undertaking an apprenticeship.
“I’m very proud. She’s smashing it. A stunning chef, really. She’s going to be so successful. Under the last Head Chef she moved up from KP to start doing a bit of prep, the starters and before you know it, she’s running the kitchen on her own with a 30-year-old chef working under her.”
Simon places great importance on instilling the ethos of motivation, teamwork and development into the team.
“As an owner, you’ve got to make sure that it’s worth their while to do it. And it’s not all about money. They have to be able to see why we’re doing it, I never just say ‘we’re doing this’ – it’s about them understanding the bigger picture.”
Tailoring the high end, luxury London experience to the expectations of a country pub in Hampshire has been considered too.
“Funnily enough, I’ve had to deaden my eye for detail a little, because people are coming here for a more relaxed atmosphere. We know this, so while we train to a very high level, we can bring it back a bit.”
Simon gives his chefs autonomy over the menu, asking only that they use local suppliers, where possible, choose seasonal ingredients and aim for 70% GP.
“I’m happy with 65-68% – that’s the reality. The hard bit is alcohol, as I’m tied to Fuller’s, therefore I’m never going to get more than 55%-58%. It used to be 60/40 split on beer to food, it’s now 55 food/45 beer.
“My turnover has increased though, on average by 75% although some weeks I’m doubling the turnover from when I started five years ago. I’ve got a tracker of where we are in a spreadsheet, so day-by-day, year-on-year, I know where we are,” he says.
Each month Simon aims to bring his customers back for something new, an unmissable experience that will keep them returning.
Known for its experimental food evenings, The Greyfriar holds Guest Chef nights and new inter-pub food battles. Guest Chefs such as Jane Devonshire, Jitin Joshi and Saurav Nath have hosted special themed evenings, which are always a sell-out.
Simon explains, that these experimental food evenings have been designed to be great value for money, and a way for The Greyfriar’s patrons to vote on the new dishes the chefs are trialling. It gives control back to the customers, he says, and creates loyalty.
Inspired by popular TV show The Great British Menu, Simon and his team also invited other local pubs and their chefs to take part in a six-course challenge. Each chef must create a dish with a hero ingredient, which is chosen by a randomizer app. The scoring is decided by the customers. These inclusive and partnered evenings have been a roaring success, with the competitions taking place over two halves in each pub’s kitchen, bringing new and engaged clientele to each pub’s door.
Another unique angle is Simon’s Spanish dishes, a nod to his wife Norma and her Galician family. They source Iberica Pork Presa for their mains, and their local butcher provides a British take on Galician Beef, which is produced using older dairy cows.
“The quality is coming through as the same, so locally we can achieve it without the airmiles. The beef tastes how it used to taste 50 years ago, when I was young. It has such a rich flavour, and it’s red rather than pink.”
Running The Greyfriar isn’t without its challenges, and for Simon, like everyone in the trade currently, rising energy prices loom large.
Simon switched to a new energy provider, SSE, and has seen a three-fold increase in his monthly bill from £375. However, he had faced a hike of astonishing proportions – £4,750 a month, before finding the SSE deal.
Action to cut electricity usage has seen investment in newer, more economic fridges and LED lighting, and Simon hopes to find new ways to insulate and protect the old pub this winter, while being mindful it’s in a conservation area.
Plans for the future include a refurb of the courtyard garden to transform a small space into a cosy feature, complete with planters and booth seating.
The pub is currently so busy that extending seating would help increase dining covers, as well as the wet trade. Simon says he doesn’t have a quiet day of the week, as they’ve managed to keep hold of their regular drinkers, who now bring in their families.
When thinking about creating a sustainable business for the future, Simon’s advice is simple.
“I refuse to close, other than for half a day at Christmas. Otherwise, we’re open. We keep our lights on all the time because I want to show that we are open. If you’re not open, you can’t make money. If you’re closed because you’re empty, you never have the opportunity to be full.”
He adds: “Sunday used to be quiet, one man and his dog, two dogs if we were lucky. Slowly but surely, we did things to build trade; we started a quiz and very gradually, we’ve become busier. We’re now at the point where you have to book a table for our quiz every week. It costs me £20 to do, as I’ll read it myself, but it’s much more lucrative than an empty bar.”
BII’s TOP TIPS
Diversification ideas for quieter times:
• Quiz nights
• Parent and baby mornings
• Club meet-ups (day or evening)
• Open mic night
• Experimental food evenings
• Outdoor pizza oven/braai
• Visiting food van
• Board games night
• Bring your own vinyl night