Building his Little & Large Pub Company, Manu Bhatt MBII has achieved success with The Queen's Head, Dorking, and more recently with The Running Horses, Mickleham. Eleanor Golding MBII reports.
Manu is a great believer in forging strong industry connections, which he sees as being fundamental to growing his business and success. Stunning creations orchestrate immersive worlds that are the bedrock of Manu's pub. These installations and effects are the result of collaborations with local businesses, suppliers and customers, who pitch in to help maintain the garden, and are proven to grab the attention of passers-by and lure people inside.
"My plan last year was to do a Christmas market in the teepees we have at the Queen's Head; we had everything planned and all the suppliers lined up, but with the distancing measures in place last year, it became too tricky. The teepees have since opened and we also built an outside kitchen over lockdown, so the plan [for 2021] is for Christmas style Winter barbecues and things like that.
"When you go to a Christmas market, what do you notice? It's that smell of the mulled wine, a hog roast, German sausages and that kind of thing."
Manu recognises that when people feel inspired by their experience and find it visually appealing, they're likely to take more photos and shout louder about where they have been.
It's the attention to detail that is all-important in creating something truly spectacular, and which is "photogenic, clear, fresh, glamorous and different" - the ingredients for success.
He advises: "Go outside and see what your pub looks like to people walking past. Around Christmas time last year , even when we were closed, I left all the Christmas lights on and it encouraged people to come and take selfies."
With a love for interior design, Manu says he draws inspiration from the places he visits: from boutique hideaways in the Cotswolds, to the luxury of the Pig Hotels found in the New Forest, Bath and by the coast.
"I always look to the bar as the starting point, when it comes to the interior, as this has got to be your focal point, and then I carry on the journey throughout. There was a carpet running throughout The Running Horse, so I took that up to reveal the beautiful wooden flooring beneath: it brought things to life immediately. Also, there were curtains hanging at the window, which were obscuring the view of a beautiful church opposite, so we got rid of them. Now customers can enjoy the beautiful surroundings."
Giving customers an excuse to return, as well as to pose for a photo opportunity (and in turn create more exposure for the venue on social media platforms) Manu regularly freshens up the decor in the pub, working with the team at the Kingfisher Farmhouse in Abinger Hammer to curate a seasonal floral archway for the entrance, as well as giant wreaths and table settings too.
Once customers are enticed indoors, the dishes on the menu are a mixture between classic comfort food and items with an exciting twist.
"Our most popular dishes are duck, a chicken kiev dish and our seafood risotto which has been recently replaced with a fish pie. We work at a GP of 70% on food and drink, and we achieve that consistently. Spend per head is at £40, we want to offer good value, but with the prices of everything going up, especially our electricity which is rising by 50% at least, we will have to make a decision on whether to take a hit on our GP or pass it onto customers."
A pragmatic strategy as financial changes are coming into effect, Little & Large draws from the wealth of Manu's life experience. Having worked around the world from an early age, he started working as an intern in an Australian hotel at the age of 16. Manu was drawn to running pubs because of how quickly he can action his ideas and adapt the business, a definite bonus as circumstances remain challenging for pubs at the moment.
Manu's Tips for Creating Atmosphere with Your Interiors
Charity begins at home, which for Emma and Terry Cole MBII is their pub, The Royal Oak in Chapel Ash, Wolverhampton.
No pressure on Emma, then, who only eight months ago couldn’t have run for more than one minute. But it was a conversation with a customer that gave her the inspiration and motivation to run for the charity. “I’m completely addicted to running now. I’ve put up my JustGiving page and the donations have been rolling in.” Helped, no doubt, by the local Express & Star newspaper running an article about their charity challenges. Christmas saw Emma and Terry organising shoeboxes to be filled with presents for the local homeless community, including gloves, hats, scarves, toothbrushes, sweets, chocolate and coffee. Terry says: “Everyone got the same items and Emma and I spent many a Monday on our quiet days in the pub, filling the boxes, wrapping them and getting them ready to go. We sent out 120 parcels with the help of locals, donating through our collection box.”
There’s a real community feel about this traditional, wet-led pub, where events, like those for charity, successfully bring everyone together, with regulars checking in to see how Emma’s race training is going, but also to see how they can get involved. In lockdown, Terry had an idea to walk from The Royal Oak in Carlisle, to The Royal Oak in Truro. This journey of 425 miles came to a fitting end in the car park of The Royal Oak, Wolverhampton, keeping to the lockdown travel rules at the time. “It was everyone’s chance to get some exercise in and socialise while remaining socially distanced. We raised £1,500 – the pub wasn’t even open, yet people would still pop by to donate some money.”
While fundraising for charity is at the heart of what makes Terry and Emma tick, they still need to ensure that the bills are paid and pints keep being pulled. By keeping set-up costs low, the couple find success with their events, achieving takings of between £1,000-£1,500 each time. Entering the BII’s Licensee of the Year Award in 2021, and reaching the semi-finals, the couple say the experience benefitted them, not least thanks to the comments of the head judges, trade experts, Sue Allen CBII and Paul Pavli CBII. They advised the couple to take more time for themselves and to get out of the business to sample what the competition was up to, in order to gain a broader customer perspective. “The problem we have is, that we are so tied to the pub; we’re passionate about it and want to be here overseeing everything to make sure we’re doing it right. This means that we sometimes neglect to go out and experience new things,” admits Terry.
Despite their Christmas trading period being affected by the couple catching Covid, they say they remain in a financially stable position, thanks in part to grants from their local council – most recently the Omicron Hospitality & Leisure Grant. They also benefit from the pub’s proximity to the Molineux stadium, which brings in 300 to 500 people on match days. Increasing the footprint of the pub has also helped to build turnover. A marquee and outdoor bar has helped establish the outside space, providing a bonus for spring and summer.
“It has been a real benefit to us because word has spread about our cover and heaters. No one wants to be standing outside on match days, so everyone’s coming to us and we’re getting busier and busier,” says Terry. Investing money in the bar to ensure it would work outside, long after restrictions were lifted, was key to boosting customer confidence more than anything.
Emma proudly adds: “Our outside bar now matches our inside bar, in terms of the offer. Customers now have the full choice of beers. It started small, with only two hand pours, but we’ve made it bigger and put a roof on it. It has been a long process, but essentially we had to bring the piping up from the cellar.“
Having spoken to their Area Manager, Marston’s gave the project the go-ahead and supported them by helping to make the necessary cellar changes. Training the staff “the Oak Way” has also helped create success, which Terry says has been all down to Emma finding the best people to come and work for them. Emma explains: “The Oak Way is to be happy, to care about your customers and have quick service. It’s about making people feel welcome when they walk through the door.“ With plans for summer music festivals and their version of the Great British Bake Off in the pipeline, the Coles are looking forward to a good summer and are feeling confident for the future.
Terry says: “We serve good beer and keep it to a really high standard. That’s what our customers want. They like our consistency. We serve an award-winning mild, The Banks’s Mild, and that’s going well – it’s not a fashionable drink, but we’re doing three 72s per week. It always does well.“ Another bestseller is Marstons’ Sunbeam, which Terry describes as “an absolutely amazing drink”.
He says: “You can see people’s faces change when they taste beer this good. They’re happy to pay our prices because we keep a clean, well-maintained cellar and serve great tasting and well-presented beers.” Terry and Emma have community at the heart of everything they do, whether that’s boosting local charities through fundraising, getting stuck in with creating care packages for the local homeless community or welcoming new and established customers. “The Oak Way” is clearly a sturdy and well-built road to success for this pair.
Having moved into the business on the day the country was first thrust into lockdown, Darren and Charlotte Nash, MBII quickly set about transforming The Red Lion, a St Austell tenancy in Cricklade, Wiltshire – a historic coaching inn, the pub boasts five letting rooms, regular beer festivals and even has its own on-site brewery, The Hop Kettle.