The Railway Tavern, East Grinstead

Written by: Sarah Milward
Date added: Thu, 04/01/2018 - 17:52

The End of the Trend

As customers search for more and more interesting experiences, we can easily be drawn in by the pulling power of a trend. Shane Roe and Damien O'Kane of the Railway Tavern in East Grinstead argue that craft beer is now 'just beer' and premium gin is 'just gin' in the eyes of a customer who now expects to see them wherever they go. What should you be doing to plan ahead for a sustainable business based on much more than the latest fashion?

When all pubs can tap into every trend, there is very little differentiation between them. What really counts is creating a business that is sustainable and uncopyable.

'My advice is that, if you go chasing the money, you'll make a short term gain, but it won't last,' says Shane, 'sooner or later customers will get bored and move on to the next big thing. That doesn't mean you should ignore trends, just that they should be fitted into your business model and not the other way around. Think of your pub as a retail space and look at how much money you make from every square foot. We all know that good business takes good planning, but the secret is knowing what you should be planning and when.'

CREATE A SPACE THAT SELLS

When they took on The Railway Tavern, it was a large space that had been previously underdeployed. Over the years, the pub had become known as a 'male boozer'. The business needed to work harder and would only be able to do that if we could cater for a wider audience – we wanted to appeal to young, old, male, female or whoever walked in the door. This was easy to achieve by replanning the trading space. Moving the sports and pool table to the rear meant that the front area was freed up and more welcoming. Zoning the trading area would work miracles for our customers and ensure that we provided a natural space for everybody to feel comfortable in.

'From the start, we knew that Damien was right for the job as Manager. He had the discipline from a managed house background but could see where formula pubs could not deliver on personal service and was keen to help shape the business. Greene King invested a lot of money in the site for us, but we decided to use our own developers so we would be closer to the final result – and Damien felt much more committed to the business too as he'd had a say on what it was like,' said Shane.

'The way we work is simple, we are guided by one principle – we do things right for customers and everything else will follow. Damien comes from an Irish family tradition of providing great hospitality, so the pub business is in his blood,' says Shane.

Damien comments 'Small gestures for us can mean a lot to customers and Shane gives me the freedom to exploit our independence. One example of this is after Remembrance Day recently. We welcomed British Legion members straight off the parade with a free glass of port to toast fallen comrades. To them it meant a lot but cost us little.'

'Another example is the small group of elderly ladies who visit us regularly for lunch. They asked for a simple salad (which wasn't on the menu) and we said “of course we can do that for you”. Now they come back time after time and view us as 'their pub' – a simple gesture that gained their loyalty.'

You could be forgiven for thinking that everything is undertaken because it feels right, but an advantage of working for a larger company, with several pubs, is that Shane can bring an overview to the business that helps to change the way that Damien thinks. 'We challenge each other,' says Shane, 'and have learned to question what we do and look for improvements to the bottom line.'

DON'T OVERLOOK THE OBVIOUS

'To plan for your business, you need to decide exactly what's important. Often we get sidetracked by a big event like Easter or Valentine's Day and miss something that could be staring us in the face and have a much more fundamental effect on the profitability of the business. When we opened, we thought like everybody else and decided a carvery would be the perfect solution for the business. But here's the challenge: look at things like a retailer, that carvery stood unused for most of the week and at the weekend was only busy at lunchtimes. The equipment was occupying valuable floor space and yet not paying its way for 90% of the time. So we removed it and replaced it with a table. We also installed a TV within perfect viewing distance. Now we have a space that gets used all the time – resulting in a higher yield for the space and higher margins for the business.'

'Once you start smart planning, you realise that there are other aspects of food service where margins could be improved. During the day, we offer a great menu of fresh-cooked pub food and we used to continue into evening service. It dawned on us that we were not selling too many dishes then. The cost of hiring trained staff and keeping them on standby for half a dozen orders was more than the money we were making. So we looked at alternative solutions. The Barrel & Stone pizza service provided through Greene King is perfect for us. Our pizzas can be prepared and served by basically-trained team members who can also undertake other roles in the business when things are quiet so the cost is much lower. Our pizzas are also available for takeaway. We're realistic enough to know that people at home will still order their pizzas from the high street, but customers in our pub often leave with a takeaway because it's easier. So we're selling to them even when they have left.'

'Strategic retail planning has helped us drive margin elsewhere too. Music is an important attraction for us because it drives footfall and ensures that our business gets talked about. We research our acts months in advance as we know that the best bands get booked up. And we use a simple formula – the cost of the band should be no more than10% of the forecast incremental rise in turnover for the event. That's a rule of thumb we can easily keep to and helps to provide a post event measure too,' says Damien.

'The stage area is an important part of our business, but we looked at the figures and realised that the space was not delivering enough trade. During the day, the stage was unused, so it was wasted space for 95% of the week. So we set tables and chairs onto it, but that didn't work either – the physical barrier of a step up was too much for people and it was often empty. To drive more income from the space, we bought everything back down to one level and now the area is as full as the rest of the pub.'

SERIOUS ABOUT SPORT

'Sport has always been a big contribution to our business and I make sure that we keep an eye on what matches are showing. With both Sky and BT Sports, it's a big cost so we have to ensure as much return as we can from sport. I always check well in advance what matches are showing and make sure my staff know too. When a customer asks if you are broadcasting a match the answer of 'maybe' isn't good enough – they won't show up for maybe. Plan in advance and you can give them a definite answer – which many pubs won't do. So we win their business.'

We think that we've created something that stands out from the crowd. The combination of customer service with the mindset of a modern retailer means we make as much as we can from every inch of space. Damien's skills with people ensure the pub feels 'right' so our retail machine is subtle, clever and profitable.

'So what's all this fuss about trends? If a customer comes to the bar and asks for a fancy beer – of course we can serve it – but he won't feel out of place alongside a regular drinker.'