Real life stories - Taking on another pub site

For many pub operators, after building up a successful pub the next logical step in their business plans is to become a multi-site operator. That was the case for Tracey Parmee. Having taken on the lease of The Red Lion at Bletchingley 11 years ago, she was ready for a new site when The Woodman became available.

We spoke to Tracey about her experience of taking on another site, why she decided it was the right time to do it, and what her plans are for the future. If you’re also thinking about taking on a new pub site, this interview should provide some food for thought and insights.

Have You Got What It Takes To Be A Multi-site Operator?

Tracey has a long history working in the pub industry. Before taking her first leasehold pub she had worked for Mitchells and Butlers in managed house for many years and had a lot of experience managing multiple sites. However, prior to taking on The Red Lion she had never run her own pub before, she says;

“It got to the point where I couldn’t really do anymore where I was. I thought ‘if I can do it for someone else, I should be able to do if for myself.’”

However, even with this wealth of experience managing sixteen sites for M&B and then 11 years in her own pub, Tracey didn’t take the decision lightly.

“I attended the [Greene King] multi-site training course, and that was really good. It was about finding out if it was the right time for you to take on another pub. There were a couple of interesting case studies that were shared during the training. One where an operator took on another site and had a number of issues and ended up losing both sites. It really made you think whether it is right think to do. You also meet people who are really helpful, telling you stuff you didn’t know, it was really good talking to other people about their experiences.”

Details of Greene King’s Multi-site Pub Operator training course can be found here.

When’s The Best Time To Take On Another Pub?

Tracey, by her own admission, had never had an overall plan to become a multi-site pub operator. She says:

“I’ve always wanted more, I think I subconsciously planned for it. I haven’t really got a plan, in terms of earning a certain amount. I work everyday because I want to do it, I love what I do. One of the reasons [for taking on The Woodman] is that I needed to promote my own staff. At the Red Lion I was outgrowing the space for the people who work for me. So if I didn’t get another place I would have lost them because they needed to do more.”

How Did You Know If A Pub Is Right For You?

The Woodman needed a new lease of life; previously it had not been run to its full potential. It’s a country pub occupying a large site, with plenty of parking, large bar and restaurant areas, and a function room upstairs. Fortunately Tracey could see the potential, she says;

“When I first looked at this pub I was attracted by the car park, inside space and especially the function room, because we lack a function room at the Red Lion.

“The Red Lion is also an old country pub, a bit nook and cranny-ish, so you are limited in what you can do there. When we viewed the pub we thought it had everything we were looking for. It fitted with the offer that I’m good at – a bit like a managed pub.”

How Does The Woodman Differ From The Red Lion?

Many pub operators develop a successful pub model in their first business and look for a new site that they can roll that out in. However, this isn’t always feasible because of the different characteristics of the pub. Tracey says:

“We did some research and it was quite frightening because there’s hardly anyone who lives round here! There are about 23 houses, whereas the Red Lion is in a village with 3,000 people there. At The Red Lion we’re also on the A25 so there’s a lot of passing trade – if you can sell your frontage you’re doing all right because there are so many cars going by.

“They are also different customers [at the two pubs], you have to work it for a while before you can get the best out of it. You might think ‘I’m just going to replicate that here’, but you can’t always do that because the demographics here are very different to the other pub.

“When we first came here I thought we would use the upstairs room for tribute nights, like we do at the Red Lion but we’ve struggled with that. Instead we’re focusing on functions like parties, business meetings, clubs and weddings because that’s what people want here, not tribute nights.”

What Have You Taken From The Red Lion?

The two pubs are just a short drive away from each other, which means that Tracey’s idea of providing her staff with new opportunities is feasible. She says:

“I love the fact that I’ve got all these people working for me who are building their careers and getting something out of it. Getting the second site has enabled that to happen because we were top heavy in one site.

“I’ve taken my head chef from the Red Lion, who’s been with me for 8 years, and I’ve made him Executive Chef so that he works across both the pubs and mentors the sous chefs. We’ve put the same menu in because I think that’s important to have that quality and consistency, but I let the chefs at each pub do their own specials. They’ve got their own inspiration and opportunity to do something different.

“We’ve got a huge kitchen here [at The Woodman], one of our chefs at The Red Lion is into pastry but we don’t have the room there for him to prep. So he comes over here once a fortnight and spends a day in the prep room doing something that he really enjoys. Having both sites means that the kitchen team have a bit more interest. They’re not just knocking out core pub food, but also getting involved in catering for functions and so on.”

What Changes Have You Made To The Woodman?

When Tracey took on The Woodman at the end of 2017 Greene King had an investment package in place to refurbish the pub. Tracey and her team have created a unique style in the pub, including an extensive collection of Toby Mugs. Initially the refurbishment project was for the downstairs areas of the pub, however Tracey decided that the upstairs function room also needed refurbishment;

“The function room upstairs originally was not going to be refurbished. But I felt that we couldn’t do half a job, it’s a good room for events and therefore important for trade. So we’ve refurbished it and added toilet facilities as well as a bar, so that it is a self-contained area of the pub for events.

“I think the function room will really take off, and I think it will be better than the tribute nights that we had previously thought about doing because they’re expensive. Functions also also attract more customers to the pub the rest of the time.”

Even though Tracey has only been at the helm of The Woodman for a few months she is already attracting old and new customers to the pub. She says:

“Weekends have really taken off, quicker than I thought they would. We’ve struck up a relationship with the estate next door to do lunches for shoots, and we’ve also got interest from car clubs.

“Because we’ve got the car park and the local area is really nice to drive around, we’re able to attract the clubs to our pub as a place to meet up. It’s extra business because some of them have come back with their families during the week. The Austin club has given us quite a bit of extra trade where they’ve booked their Christmas dinner with us. I gave them the upstairs room for free so they can have their meetings, quiz nights etc., and that has given me some regular dates in the diary.

“The other good thing about this pub is that it’s got a jazz history. We’ve had a 19 piece band upstairs here, and everyone had dinner. The organiser has booked to do every other month, and many of the artists have their own bands so they’re interested in playing here.”

In the future, Tracey plans to build on the opportunity the function room presents hosting private parties, business events, local clubs and weddings. She says:

“Over the next 12 months it’s all about developing the function side of the business. That’s got to pay for itself. All the time there’s nothing going on up there it’s wasted. I’m looking at getting clubs up there at lunchtimes, meetings, as well as larger events. It’s about selling that space as much as possible.

“We also want to start doing weddings, but first need to grow the business in other areas so we can afford the investment in furnishings and so on. I’ve looked at what other venues are doing in the area, and many of them are smaller than The Woodman so there’s good scope in the business. We’re also looking at getting a wedding licence, it’s in our plan.”

How Has Another Pub Affected The Red Lion?

As Tracey highlighted earlier, when you take on another site there is a danger that any problems you encounter can have a detrimental impact on both businesses.

“You’ve got to be careful that you don’t take your eye of one when you get another pub. Obviously with an opening you’ve got to put your heart and soul into it, but now it’s time to look after both pubs. We’ve planned to do things at the Red Lion, I said to Yvonne [Greene King Business Development Manager] at our last meeting ‘I feel that the Red Lion needs a new lease of life’ and as I’m also extending my lease there it’s important for me to maximise the potential of the pub.

“Yvonne is brilliant. Someone like me doesn’t need a lot of support from a BDM. I don’t ring her up saying ‘ this has happened’ or ‘that has happened’ but when we do meet it’s a good worthwhile meeting and we always get something out of it. She really understands the sites, and what they need.

“For example, we were looking at whether it’s feasible to extend into an outdoor space and Yvonne, because she knows the pub and what I need from it, was able to really help with ideas for making the space work.”

Although conveniently located just a few miles away, The Red Lion and The Woodman do not directly compete with each other. However, there are opportunities for some cross pollination between the two. Tracey says:

“We’ve got pictures and info at the Red Lion saying ‘visit our sister pub’, and if we get enquiries for functions we point them to The Woodman. When we started telling our customers at the Red Lion that we’re getting the second site, quite a few of them turned out to live nearby The Woodman, so we get them visiting both sites.

“We’ve had customers from over there book for things here and we’ve even had a minibus of 22 customers from the Red Lion coming for dinner here, they’ve organised that themselves.”

It’s clear that Tracey’s experience in the managed house sector and her time spent running The Red Lion have given her all the skills needed to be a successful multi-site operator. One of the most important qualities that has enabled Tracey to scale up her business to two sites, is her commitment to her staff.

In our next post we chat to her more about the people in her business and how she has created opportunities for them.

If you’re thinking about becoming a multi-site operator our training course is a good place to start. You don’t have to be a Greene King operator to attend this course, anyone who is considering growing their business with another site will find it beneficial. Details of can be found here.