How did you get into the licensed trade?
In South Africa once you hit 13 years old it is quite natural to start a job working in coffee shops to earn some pocket money. As we grew older we decided it was time to see the world and we came over to the UK and found jobs in the pub trade which included accommodation. It was a great way to save money and see the country. It was supposed to be just a way to see the UK but we soon realised we loved the pub life and it was the career we both wanted. We started working in a Young’s pub we loved the ethos and the way they work, and we ’ve been with them now for 18 years in some form or another – bar staff, managers, and now tenants.
Tell us a bit about your venue and why people should visit
I would definitely classify it as a neighbourhood gastropub because we still want to keep that pub feel. Our ethos is fresh food and great service, and we try to keep up to date and even trendy with our products. So we try to do as much local stuff as we can on our menu; we have handmade juices behind the bar that are from Hackney, we have things from Croydon... We try to keep it as local as we possibly can.
We always try to have something unusual because that gets people talking, that gets people coming back. We sell bugs - literally bugs - tarantulas in a tin that you can buy. We have weird chocolate bars, a fantastic tequila cabinet, a chilli sauce cabinet... because whenever somebody comes back from holiday they bring us a chilli sauce. The thing is if you can get people talking then it makes it an interesting place to visit.
Lee and I are pub people, we wanted to create a place we would want to go to, just a great place to hang out. And it’s worked! Our staff don’t live in, they live all over the place but four, five, nights a week they’ll be in here having dinner, and drinking, and your staff are some of your best customers.
What are your goals for your business?
Continued consistent growth would be amazing and that’s what we sort of work to - to pay that attention to detail.
We’ll change things up every month or so –we change the furniture around, get new cushions... Just little touches so that people can see things are continually changing.
We strive to be the best in the area and preferred choice for our local demographic, there’s so much competition we need to get people to keep coming back, to keep it fresh for them, and still making it a great place for our staff and a place where we want work and happy to come to each day.
What made you enter LOYA?
This pub (Pig and Whistle) was doing so well and we have worked so hard here and we just said, ‘if we’re ever going to do it, we have to do it this year.’
What has been your experience of the judging process?
I think the judging process is nerve-wracking, they definitely put you through your paces! I think Lee enters LOYA on purpose just so he can make sure everything is absolutely perfect! It is such a good way to make you reflect on your business, to look at everything from top to bottom… the menus, your training, health and safety - it’s such a good way to assess and judge everything that you’re doing and making sure you’re where you need to be.
What do you see as the key challenges for today’s licensees?
I think keeping up with the ever changing dietary and food trends, dietary requirements, calorie counting, coeliac, lactose… it’s very difficult to keep up with what’s happening because these things didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.
How do you motivate your team?
I think internal promotions are important, and checking customer feedback online, making sure that if you get a good score we like to give the staff a reward.
Lee and I definitely believe in individual reward, when a member of staff has done a good job, everyone likes to be praised and a voucher or something similar just adds a nice touch.
We work behind the bar, we serve food, we serve the customers, we can do all the jobs in the pub and I would never ask my staff to do anything that I wouldn’t do.
We really try and make it fun, it’s supposed to be fun… there’s a little staff WhatsApp group that we use for anything that’s going on during the day, instead of sending individual messages, and there’s a ‘daily memo’ that we send round. It doesn’t have to be so serious. You can deliver a really great service and great food and still have a good time.
What is your favourite time of day as a licensee and why?
Just before you open! You have that 10 minutes before you open the door, the bar is ready, you’ve run around, you can sit down, you can have your coffee, the staff are arriving.
If it’s nice we sit in the sun, otherwise we’ll sit in front of the fire, have a coffee, have a chat and have a laugh and a catch up and that’s it’s just that calm for 10 minutes.
What could you not do without in your day to day life as a licensee?
Blue roll! I could not work in a pub if I didn’t have blue roll! And my staff, that’s all I need!
What is your proudest moment as a licensee?
Lee and I are very into people development.
So people progression has always been important, for example, our manager at The Old Sergeant started out as a bar person as our third managed house that we had 9 years ago, now she’s the manager.
We also had a live in couple that we’ve trained about 8 years ago at The Nightingale and they are now also tenants and just become Ram Pub company tenants of the year – we’ve sort of helped them, trained them up, and they got a pub!
The proudest moment is when you see the people you’ve trained and helped get to where they wanted.
How do you ensure excellent customer service every time?
I don’t think anyone can ensure excellent customer service every time – we obviously strive for excellent customer service but the hardest thing is online reviews on Google and Facebook. They’re great tools because a lot of the time they are accurate and you need to pull up your socks and follow up those things.
The sad part is you get five 5 star reviews in a row and you’re like ‘oh great’ - you don’t shout about it - and then you get one bad review and that’s all you focus on! You ask any licensee and that’s exactly what you do!
I think training and recruitment, that’s where it starts. You have to be hiring the right people, you have to be putting the right ads out there.
What’s the best part of the job you do?
There’s so many different things… I love living upstairs so I don’t have to commute! We love doing things that involve our community and charities.
We do a pig race, wind-up fluffy pigs that you put batteries in and they oink, and you have 50 grown men and women dressed up like they’re going to Ascot - betting on these fluffy little pigs! We raise about £600 pounds for charity, last year it was for Battersea dogs home.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a licensee?
Short and simple, it’s not a job it’s a life style – and you have to be all in. You have to be willing. If that’s what you’re going to do it has to be your life and you have to love it.
What has been your biggest lesson learned in business?
It’s a bit of a cynical one, but I think you have to be very careful who you trust. You can’t trust everyone, you can’t assume that everyone has good intentions from staff, suppliers, in contracts that you sign, to even customers sometimes. Just because you’re on that side of the bar, and you want to give them the best, doesn’t mean they want the same for you.
What qualities do you think have got you to this final stage in LOYA?
Hard work! Attention to detail, following and appreciating the importance of what we learned in a managed house.
When we worked for a big brewery in a managed house, there was a necessity to follow protocol and doing it then, it felt like ‘oh god why do we have to do this? Why all the tick box exercises?’ It felt like a waste of time when it wasn’t your own business and now that we do have our own, you appreciate all those things they taught you and it’s what we live by.
What do you think winning LOYA would do for you and your business?
We love these competitions and we’ve done them for a really long time and we’ve won some great competitions… but this is the elusive one!
The biggest one, the one that got away if you like… and for our team that would be such a good accolade that they could shout out about and be proud of.
It’s the big one, and it’s the one you work the hardest for and put in the most effort for.