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Business leaders networking at the Peach 20/20 Conference  

10 Jul 2024

How indies can win - don’t compromise

By Peter Martin
Joycelyn Neve, MD of the Seafood Pub Co.
It’s undeniably true that the upheavals of recent years have taken a much greater toll on independent pub, bar and restaurant businesses than on multiple operators.

Site closures is one obvious measure. Even now, with the decline in numbers of licensed premises seemingly bottoming out, latest figures from CGA show that independently-owned site numbers dropped by over 2,000 in the last year, compared to a decline of just 156 for group-owned sites.

Similarly, while 65% of groups said they were enjoying increased revenues, only 25% of independents could say the same, 49% still seeing falling sales.

It’s been hard for everyone, but some are getting through it. So, it was a pleasure to be on stage at the ceda Conference with last year’s BII licensee of the year Joe Buckley, from the Tollemache Arms in Northamptonshire, to learn how he had worked through the tough times (not least setting up a drive-thru in his pub car park during lockdown) to now get back on the road to growth.

I interviewed Joe along with Joycelyn Neve, who is now re-energising and looking to expand her Seafood Pub Co from its North West of England base after some tricky times. What characterises both is their determination, creativity and undaunted enthusiasm. They are involved in their communities and know how to communicate with them. They remain inventive and ambitious entrepreneurs.

They have also learned much from their experiences of recent times, which has bred an unwillingness to compromise, whether that’s on the quality of their offering, particularly their food, or just as importantly on their business objectives.

Seafood Pub Co now has seven pubs, and will add more. Buckley is also open about looking to take on another pub to grow his business. Needless to say, both are being bombarded by agents with offers of sites to buy or lease. Few tempt them, although both admit that a few years back they might not have been so disciplined at turning down locations that don’t fit their operational criteria. These days, both are looking for bigger sites with potential to expand.

I also interviewed Mark Derry, executive chairman of Heartwood, at the same conference. He too is on the growth trail, and he definitely wants larger sites - with enough kitchen space, around 100 restaurant covers, 30 in the bar and another 30 or so outside. Yes, he wants even bigger locations - and isn’t going to compromise either.

There’s another truth here as well, that scale matters whether for an individual location or a business overall. It also means that smaller businesses, or to be precise smaller sites, are going to continue to find it difficult to survive. Closures of smaller pub sites, with little obvious potential for growth, are likely to continue.

Of course, this begs the question that perhaps we should measure the success of the pub sector in square footage rather than site numbers. But that’s another story.

This article first appeared in MCA in June 2024.

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