How did you get into the licensed trade?
I started out when I was at school when we did work experience. I did mine in a local restaurant and liked it so much I got a job straight in the trade straight after that. We’ve been in our own pub, The Elm Tree for 10 years now – I run it with my wife, but my Father-in-Law works in the bar with us as well.
Tell us a bit about your venue and why people should visit
The Elm Tree is a picturesque, country village pub set in a rural location, with ivy on the walls. We are a restaurant as much as a pub and hold regular events such as Steak Nights & Gluten Free evenings – you can even hold your wedding here.
What made you enter LOYA?
We used to enter a lot of competitions, but stopped when we had a bit less time after having our little ones. Somebody told me about the LOYA competition and I thought, “Do you know what? We’re up for this!” and entered us myself. We usually enter cooking competitions as I am Head Chef here and have a passion for good food, so this was a bit of a change for us.
What has been your experience of the judging process?
Most competitions we’ve entered are practical if it is for cooking demonstrations, or for business ones we just have to submit financials. This was a bit more in depth than what you usually find – we initially filled in paper entry forms and then had a mystery visit followed by a visit from the judges in the semi-finals.
What do you see as the key challenges for today’s licensees?
Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest challenge for us is finding, recruiting and retaining good chefs. The skills gap is massive – and getting worse and worse. We’ve tried paying over market rate, cutting working hours, giving weekends off – but if you read any of the trade press it is a problem across the country for restaurants and pubs. We’ve had apprentices and I sit on a panel at a local college to see how we can encourage more young people into the industry.
How do you motivate your team?
Lots of things – keeping everyone informed about how we are doing as a business financially is important. We have regular updates on the events that are coming up and we invest in training for the staff – for instance, the chefs have been on a foraging course, a sausage making course and a cheese making one.
The front of house staff have been on coffee and wine training courses to increase their skills – we also sent some of the girls on a spa day recently to say thank you for all their hard work. We take all the staff to Michelin Star places to see how they do things and as a way to say we appreciate them.
Just looking after people that go above and beyond for us is important – we reward those staff that help us. We have a very low staff turnover because of that. Some of our team have been with us for 7 or 8 years and lots have been with us for at least 4. Feeling like you’re part of something instead of just a number helps with that.
What is your favourite time of day as a licensee and why?
This question caused some debate in the pub. We serve a lot of food and my favourite time of day is on a Saturday, 7.30pm when the pub is chock a block – that’s when everybody’s at their best. Everyone is on form to do what we do and it’s all go, go, go!
What could you not do without in your day to day life as a licensee?
Without a doubt it is key members of staff – people who have been with us for a long time and just get on and do their jobs. Those are the people who you notice when they are on holiday as everything that they normally just get “on with” falls to you to do.
What is your proudest moment as a licensee?
The first day we got the keys to the pub. The first time we finished and cashed up for the evening was brilliant. We knew this was the right thing for us. It was a crazy day though!
How do you ensure excellent customer service every time?
The simple answer is you can’t get it right all of the time – there will always be someone you can’t please no matter how hard you try. But by leading by example, training your staff to do it the way you would and making sure everyone is happy at work – that will be reflected in the way that they treat customers and you’re most of the way there.
What’s the best part of the job you do?
Getting to meet so many people - the amount of customers we get to know is unreal. You know the names of their kids, their dogs, when they’re going on holiday, when they get a new car. They all become your friends - even though they don’t come to your house, the pub is almost like your front room! When our children were born, the amount of cards and gifts we received was insane. They’re interested in your lives, you’re interested in theirs and just that 5 minutes spent chatting once a week or once a fortnight when they pop in is lovely.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a licensee?
Know your market and stick to your guns – if you have done all your research and business plans and know what you want to achieve, don’t let the two people sat at the end of the bar who drink a couple of pints of John Smith tell you what you should be doing. When I was at college, my tutor was the Head of Catering and he ran four pubs. He told me that he knew as soon as he walked into one of them that he was going to have to lose every single customer he had to make it into a success – but that’s because he had a vision and knew exactly what he wanted the pub to be.
What has been your biggest lesson learned in business?
You get out what you put in at the end of the day – if you only put in 20 hours a week, you won’t get what you need or want out of it. If you know you’ve put everything into it and after a year it hasn’t worked – you know you’ve tried your best and you couldn’t have done any more. There would be nothing worse than not putting all your effort in and wondering afterwards if you could have done something different.
What qualities do you think have got you to this final stage in LOYA?
Probably that I’m slightly mad! That and really hard work – all of our team do a lot of hours. I do everything from Head Chef to General Manager; I do the HR, the marketing, the accounts and I run it all from my mobile phone whilst I’m cooking the dinner! I’m proud to say that all of that adds to the financial performance of the pub which was obviously key to getting through to the finals as well.
What do you think winning LOYA would do for you and your business?
I think for me personally it will be a great achievement – it’s an accolade for me and not just the pub. Because it’s the BII and it’s a professional body known in the industry rather than a brand that our customers are aware of, it will be ace for me from a professional development point of view.
From the pub’s point of view, publicising the fact that we are in the finals for the competition on Facebook and Instagram has helped to drum up some interest and excitement. I think it cements our place locally as the place to come for some great food!
We can’t wait to have the Summer Edition of the BII News framed up behind the bar to show our customers how far we’ve come and of how proud we are of the business. My 5-yr-old is very excited about us having a trophy!