Darren has spent his whole life in-and-around pubs, with many happy memories of learning the trade from his licensee grandparents. So, when he and Charlotte got together (11 years ago), the couple decided to have a go at running their own. “We did four years in a little pub in Alton in Staffordshire, where we’re both from, and then we did a little ‘messing around’ in outside catering and wedding functions.”
Always having their sights set on a venue in Cornwall, the couple got in touch with Chris Faulkner MBII, Business Development Manager (BDM) at St Austell Brewery. He had a pub in mind for them, The Red Lion in Cricklade, which was further north than they had hoped for, as it’s nearer to Swindon than their desired Cirencester, but they decided to give it a go. “We had this ideal scenario in our heads, which was to move down there and open up as soon as we’d moved our stuff in. But as soon as we had completed the handover, the news on the TV announced we were going into full lockdown.“
Turning this major blow into something positive, the husband and wife team used this period to refurbish the venue (including its letting rooms). “After making the flat our own, we set to work on the pub. Like a typical 16th century venue, it was in need of a bit of TLC. We installed new carpets throughout, new flooring and decorations, installed pizza ovens in the kitchen and then I built an outside bar in anticipation of reopening. We did 90% of the work ourselves, apart from the floor and some help with the bar,” says Darren.
With a beer garden that boasts 200 covers outside, Darren also created an all-weather outside structure and is now building an ice cream stall to attract passers by. “The ice cream parlour is my next mini project. It will be a permanent space with a concrete base and sort of shed-like structure. I’m going to install a hatch on the front with a glass fronted freezer, so customers can walk up and choose ice creams through the glass. We’ve made connections with a lovely local ice cream company in Swindon called Rays.”
Having taken over £1,200 on the May bank holiday weekend last year in ice cream sales alone, it’s clear to see why this is the latest project in Darren’s repertoire. “There’s plenty of space and lots of people walking in the area, so it will do well to attract families and young children,” he says proudly. With Charlotte concentrating on front-of-house, Darren plays to his strengths in the kitchen and the cellar. His latest menu successes were his “fakeaways”, which involved a healthy twist on Chinese, Greek, Deep South and Jamaican street food.
“They all sold out, so I did a celebration of my takeaways for New Year’s Eve, amalgamating them and taking the best bits. It was £35 per head for a worldwide tapas evening.“ Although it was time consuming work, Darren worked to a GP of 75%, which was achieved through preparing everything himself, leaving his chefs to carry on doing what they needed to do – using the best value produce to create wholesome street food flavours. When it comes to changing menus, Darren recognises that the business’ strengths lie in its ability to keep changing.
“I’ve got the attention span of a five year-old, so my menu is always changing,” he explains. “We’ve got a heavy wet trade, a huge beer garden and the best food, but I think fine dining is not where we’re headed in future. It’s successful in the winter, but for the summer, it’s sandwiches in the day and burgers, pizzas and steaks all night. That’s where the money is.” Speaking to Darren and Charlotte in February, still in the midst of ‘pie weather’, as Darren calls it, the menu featured classic comfort foods. “I’ve got a beautiful belly of pork on with dauphinoise, pepper sauce and braised red cabbage. I also do a different pie each week, steak, ale and mushroom, at the minute. This weekend, it’ll be a venison bourguignon pie, which sells for £16.”
Recognising where his best profits are, Darren explains: “I know full well if I’ve got a fillet steak on the menu, the GP is only going to be 52%, but with a pie, I’m potentially going to be using Sunday Roast meat leftovers and I know it’s going to be hitting 80% GP. “It’s the same with the bar, I couldn’t make 60% GP on Champagne, but I can make 72% on a Prosecco.” Although tied tenants with St Austell, Darren is happy with their excellent choice of beer, thanks to their Hop Kettle brewery. “I’m able to buy four products, as part of our agreement, so we’ve got 10 cask lines, 10 keg lines, plus my outside bar. My best sellers are a Pale Ale, a Best Bitter, Element or North Wall. I run two guest ales every week and then normally we have two or three St Austell products and Bath Ales,” he says.
The Hop Kettle is an asset that helps to market the pub. It came about after Tom Gee, founder of Hop Kettle, who originally owned the pub sold it off to concentrate on opening new microbreweries in Swindon and Cirencester. “Customers come here just to sample the Hop Kettle beers, it’s a really unique selling point.” Its popularity led Darren to set-up yearly beer and musical festivals. “This year is going to be bigger and better. I’ll have 40 real ales, 8 or 10 bag-in-box ciders, 10 keg products.”
Tickets cost £10, which buys visitors a wristband, a festival glass, a programme and your first drink free. “The £10 covers my costs plus an extra three quid. We had 800 to 900 people over the weekend. We’ve jiggled the bands around a bit and hopefully they’ll bring their following.“ Darren and Charlotte have a lot to look forward to, come the warmer months. With beer festivals, ice cream offerings and recognising the seasonal tastes of customers, the summer sun will shed light on the hard work they put in all year round to boost the business.