The cats that got the cream

The cats that got the cream

Despite being a rather enviable task, selecting the best pub in the UK is not easy, I assure you. Readers will know and appreciate the level of business practice and hospitality that we showcase in every issue of Pub & Bar, so identifying one single outlet and saying “this is the best” felt nigh on impossible.

But my trips to The Church Inn in Mobberley just stood out, and for many reasons – the country lane walk to the pub, the immaculate outdoor areas, the expansive wine list, the guest beers, the food, the aesthetic, the appreciation of the area’s history and, almost above all, the team. It was the complete pub package – a model that nods back to traditions of the past while striding forward into essential elements of the modern on-trade.

Towards the end of 2016, I returned to Mobberley and its surrounding areas to explore more of the Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars estate. The now seven-strong set of pubs run by husband and wife team Tim Bird and Mary McLaughlin are performing well and life is good in the North West. As I sit down with the duo in their gin-specialist pub The Cholmondeley Arms early on a wintery Friday afternoon, the place is bustling with all walks of life. Bird has a chat with a Lord about how the business is going (Lord Cholmondeley is actually their landlord at this pub). A group of electricians sup pints in flamboyant armchairs. There are families and friends tucking into the menu, and the pub team are busily preparing for the 2,000 guests arriving the next day to celebrate bonfire night. It was all go.

“This won best tourism pub in Cheshire in 2015,” says Bird. “People are coming here from miles around to drink the gin. We’re humbled by other awards, but even more so when The Church Inn won the best pub in the country. Not that we didn’t deserve it – everything is a moment in time. The spike was nuts after that. The spike in May at The Church was massive. You then have to prove it and keep proving it. Year after year, people have to come back to you because it hasn’t lost it.”

The past 12 months have seen Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars praised through press and numerous awards ceremonies, which the teams rightly celebrate and promote. However, everyone in the company remembers that the awards are testament to the work that has gone into the business at all levels.

“It has been a hard year, because opening two sites while making sure the other five are consistently delivering is a pressure,” says McLaughlin. “We wouldn’t usually do two in a year, but with opening The Fitzherbert Arms [February 2016] and The Roebuck Inn [May 2016], we put that on ourselves.”

Specialist sites

Bird points out that people come from miles around to sample the gin at The Cholmondeley Arms, as that pub has over 300 gins to choose from. In fact, the pubs that make up Cheshire Cat have specific product focuses across the board. The Church Inn prides itself on a broad wine offer, The Red Lion in Weymouth (the location anomaly in the group) specialises in rum and The Three Greyhounds showcases brandy. Bird and McLaughlin then put together product ‘bibles’ for guests to flick through and learn from when visiting. This has not only increased the owners’ knowledge of what they sell, but has left their teams well versed on a number of specialist drinks.

“If anything, it makes life difficult, as we could just pitch each place as the same, with the same supplier and the same training,” explains McLaughlin. “But actually it gives a point of difference. What you get then is an overlap, so the guys from The Cholmondeley will spend time training with the guys at The Roebuck. They’ll pick up things that they’ll then take back. The customers who use the sites a lot go to certain ones because they fancy something specific to it.”

Pub and restaurant concepts that are solely focused on one product are nothing new, with customers confident in what they will receive when visiting a site that’s punching out one consistent offer. But the special focuses within the Cheshire Cat pubs are more complementary than relied-on foundations. Yes, as McLaughlin says, people do visit specifically for that gin and tonic at The Cholmondeley, but those gins are just one element that makes up the overall offer. Cleverly, by partly concentrating on one product per pub and encouraging their teams to learn from each other, they are increasing the knowledge base of the entire company. These drinks are then confidently detailed to the ever-curious guest.

“Our guests are becoming more inquisitive as to where, why and how,” says McLaughlin. “They’re not just here for a G and T. They want to know about each element and that’s across the board.”

“It can be difficult, because a lot of young people who work for us don’t like brandy or whisky, for example,” adds Bird. “So we ask them to have a favourite and understand why it’s their favourite, even if they don’t drink it. Those little elements make it for the guest – they don’t need to be able to speak about 100 whiskies, they just need to be able to speak passionately about their favourite and move on. People like abundance. You don’t want to look at a back bar with five bottles sat on it, you want abundant back bars and that’s what you can offer by having a theme.”

Husband and wife

In total, I visit five of Cheshire Cat’s pubs with my hosts. As you may have gathered by now, each one has its own story, its own unique attraction. As we arrive at each location, the husband and wife team seem to carry out the same routine that perhaps exemplifies their roles within the business. Bird is a chatterbox, but in a great way. He wants to tell everyone the story about each pub – its history, its offer, its brilliant team. Whether we are walking into The Three Greyhounds or The Roebuck, he quickly goes into authentic autopilot and proudly shows off the pub while checking that not a single standard has slipped in any site.

McLaughlin, on the other hand, disappears. No sooner have you pulled into the pub car park than she is out of sight. You’ll probably find her in the kitchen, talking things through with the chefs, or checking on the team, but she is busily examining pretty much everything. Many married couples would find working together quite challenging, but these two seem to take it in their stride, each looking after different parts of the business.

“We gravitate naturally to where our strengths are,” says McLaughlin. “I deal with food, work with the chefs, personnel, training, development and recruitment. Tim is a big people motivator – I’m probably more of a disciplinarian. We meet on finance.”

“I’m the dreamer,” jokes Bird. “The maverick character who is always thinking about the next thing and how we can differentiate. I always think we have to drive the business at 100 mph and take the corners at the same speed. That way people can’t keep up with us. What does a pub stand for? A pub is something that has lasted over 500 years and more – ale, fires lit, pot roast on. It is simple stuff. It’s giving that warmth and love. Why are people here? Atmosphere. We’re atmosphere creators – that’s our role.”

Hope and vision

Bird and McLaughlin have an impressive career history. For those readers who aren’t familiar with the pair, she is the former MD of La Tasca and he has worked for Devenish, Greenall’s, Morrell’s of Oxford and Brunning and Price. This hasty CV summary does not do their experience justice, but there are only so many words one can fit into a four-page feature. In short, they have run some big hospitality businesses. Despite the love and passion they have for the industry and the fact that they no longer answer to large corporations, Cheshire Cat is still a business, and at the end of each month they still have to monitor how that business has performed. The duo are tight-lipped on numbers, with the occasional slip induced perhaps by pride. The Cholmondeley Arms, for example, took £12,000 on the aforementioned bonfire night. A special occasion, yes, but that is still highly impressive.

“Profits are up and sales are up,” states McLaughlin. “It’s a hugely competitive market for us around here. There are massive businesses that have opened nearby. Knutsford is massive too, so to have that competition and still retain our share, we’re really delighted. It’s going well.

“We work so hard – if we see anything slipping, we’re straight in to see why that’s happened. We’re never complacent. We’re looking at ways of constantly growing the businesses themselves. Weddings, for example. What other ways can you grow it? This year is all about consolidation in the seven sites and how we can add value to them and build sales.”

It’s a familiar story – a successful multiple operator gradually builds an estate with a steady growth of one to two sites a year. When they speak to us, it’s all about consolidation. But what if the right site comes along? Would that still be the case? Cheshire Cat has some beautiful countryside pubs, but would they ever, for example, consider heading into the city?

“We could do a great pub in a city, not a bar,” says McLaughlin. “If a great pub in Manchester came up in a business district, absolutely.”

I for one would love to see what Cheshire Cat could produce in a city centre. Having got to know the estate rather well over the past year and a half, I’ve experienced all aspects of the business. From the nostalgic contentment at The Church Inn to the flawless hospitality-come-camaraderie from team members Charlie and George at The Roebuck, these are pubs that just make you feel entirely comfortable – city centres could do with more venues that achieve this.

When they look back on 2016, Bird and McLaughlin should do so with pride. In fact, that proudness should stretch back as far as the conception of the business itself. Since the opening of The Red Lion in 2009 and the conversion of The Bull’s Head in 2010, Cheshire Cat has become a shining example of what traditional pubs should stand for in this day and age. They must be particularly proud of every one of them, but do they have a favourite?

“They’re like having seven children,” laughs Bird. “Maybe deep down you like one of your kids better, but you’re never going to say a word, because all the other kids would be hurt. In all my experience, I’ve never seen turnarounds like these. They were all on the way to being houses, but we saw what they could be. We ran The Bull’s Head for three months knowing the best we ever did before the refurb was £1,400 in a week. There was no food and it was horrific. It’s best ever week since then was £42,000, with an average of £20,000+ a week. That was a place that everyone said had no hope, but that’s not what it’s about – it’s about that moment when you can say, ‘Yes there was’. What makes me cringe is how many have been lost because everyone said there was no hope and there was no one around to say, ‘You know what? I think there might be’.”