Pubs have been a part of Martin Harley’s life since he was a child. Having grown up in a pub from the age of 14, he took on the lease at The Wrestlers in Highgate with his wife Dianne almost 20 years ago after working at Belgo, turning a run-down boozer into a charming, old school village pub. After 12 years of being a one-site publican, he felt the need to build an estate.
Growth has been slow and measured. Money is ploughed back into the business rather than borrowed from investors or banks and eight years later the estate stands at six pubs, a restaurant and a guesthouse.
Almost all the pubs that London Village Inns (LVI) has acquired have been in need of investment. Harley would rather spend his money and time developing a vision to deliver value to a downtrodden venue with potential rather than splurging big bucks on an existing success story. For Harley, there is a certain pride in knowing that he has brought a pub back from the brink.
“I’m a pub fan and I love pubs,” he says. “Certainly two or three would be a block of flats or a supermarket now without us. Take The Westbury: I know the people of Turnpike Lane are absolutely delighted that we’re there. They tell us on a daily basis. The same with The Crown and Anchor – that was in quite a derelict street in Brixton. We encouraged the council to pedestrianise the street. We put lighting up. We put furniture and olive trees in the street. We’ve created a really nice area and people are coming out for it. It’s really rewarding to see what we’ve created. I get a buzz out of that for sure.”
All of Harley’s pubs have some outdoor space and are big enough to guarantee takings of £20,000 a week to cover the company’s investment, which can be as much as £400,000 as it bids to install kitchens and toilets, and improve the décor and layout. However, the style of each pub varies to better suit its local clientele. Every acquisition has been made on the back of meticulous research so that a London Village Inn is a venue unique to its location, tenure and team.
“They’re all very different in their style, so we don’t run them the same way,” explains Harley. “It depends where they are, what the demographic is, what beer is on offer. We have a lot of input from our managers. We adapt the pub we have and try to bring the best out of what we have. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think you’re cheating yourself and you’re doing a disservice to the site itself if you don’t. It’s about bringing the best out of the pub.”.
While the design, layout and décor of a pub are important in creating a space where people want to spend time, Harley places greater emphasis on community engagement. The value of pubs to village communities has been highlighted by the growth of co-operative-owned establishments, but even in the capital city, the importance of reaching out to local residents and becoming a social hub and melting pot has never diminished. In the London ‘villages’ of Highgate, Stoke Newington, Finsbury Park, Turnpike Lane and Brixton, Harley has built up his pubs to be cornerstones of communities, reaching out to local residents, clubs, groups and businesses.
He talks to local magazines and bloggers, works with the council and local volunteer groups to improve the area and uses local suppliers, stressing that operators have to get involved while acknowledging the limited time they might have to do so in such a busy profession.
“I think it’s very important to get involved in the community,” he comments. “When I started at The Wrestlers I was very busy talking to school teachers and the local golf club and the church. Talking to all the local businesses helps. Pubs should be hubs of the community and that’s what well-run pubs are. It’s down to me and my managers to go out there and ingratiate ourselves into the community. It’s not easy, but it’s essential if you want to be a successful pub.”
This approach is drilled into the managers. As someone who was the soul of a village pub for 12 years, Harley knows the importance of stamping one’s own personality onto a venue. Weekly managers meetings and a hands-on approach ensure that no manager feels isolated, but they are encouraged to immerse themselves in their community and understand what is wanted. They are given the freedom to put on events and try something a little bit different – as long as it’s not karaoke!
“We don’t want them to be robots,” he says. “That community engagement has got to come from them.”
Giving his managers autonomy not only works to improve his pubs’ local credentials, but also means that other members of staff have a clear route of progression. Harley sees recruitment as one of the biggest challenges that the industry faces, citing competition from coffee shops for applicants and the stop-gap opinion that the UK has about bartending. LVI has extensive training in place to both improve staff expertise, but also keep them moving forward in the company.
“Anyone can be a bartender, but not anyone can be a good bartender,” he says. “There’s a massive difference. All the time that people are being trained and are learning, we’ve got more of a chance of keeping them. To get guys to stay within the business means training them better, paying them better, working with them and appraising them, seeing how they’re getting on and how they’re thinking.”
While the London Village Inns template veers strongly away from being a branded operation, Harley’s other business is a completely different kettle of fish. Across the road from The Crown and Anchor in Brixton, he had spotted a Chinese takeaway and seen the potential there to create a complementary business for his pub. Thus Booma – a 38-cover restaurant serving quality Indian food alongside 10 draught beers – was born.
“I’ve always been a big fan of pairing, or pairing food and beer together and of course I love Indian food and I love great beer,” he says. “So I thought we’d try to put the two together. We devised the menu and went about pairing the dishes with the beer. We brought in a cold room so the beer’s being kept cold. We get a lot of wow factors actually. People have really embraced it.”
Beer is served in pints, halves and thirds, with flights of beer on offer as well, each paired with one of the Indian dishes on offer. Customers are encouraged to have three or four dishes with three or four thirds of beer. For Harley, Booma is an opportunity to have some fun and explore two facets of food and drink that he loves. The first Booma opened 11 months ago and, following its positive reception, Harley’s next move is to replicate it elsewhere on a grander scale.
“With the Booma concept I can see the advantages of having a brand,” he says. “I’m enjoying it and I can see an opening there where I think people would really enjoy it. And that’s the key really – having something that you think people will really like. It’s not just about making money; it’s about creating something that you’re proud of. All the other stuff follows on from that.”
One of the twin pillars of the Booma concept is beer, and the drink is a cornerstone throughout the LVI estate. Harley has enjoyed seeing craft beer evolve and grow during his time in the industry, becoming more popular and available for all. All of Harley’s pubs are leaseholds, with different ties and landlords, but since MRO, it is his ambition to get all of his pubs free-of-tie and further bolster his beer ranges, particularly cask ales, which he sees as an important USP for the pub sector.
“Now there is choice which is a great thing and I think it’s here to stay,” he says. “The pub companies have now embraced it, they know how to do it and we’re now getting a better offer in pubs. But you can get good beer in the supermarket where you couldn’t before. You can’t get a pint of cask ale in the supermarket though and I think that’s really important that we keep that alive and special. I know a lot of pubs are going keg and I get it, but I still think there’s a place for cask ale and we all hope it will continue.”
Cellar management thus plays a huge role in staff training, while the search is always on to find interesting beers from the local area, as well as the rest of the world – The Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington has over 23 taps alone – to create a range that appeals to drinkers of all stripes. Similarly, the pub food menu is designed with beers in mind. Harley has embraced food, installing kitchens into his pubs – or moving them downstairs – and focusing on sensibly priced, fresh food that offers pub classics alongside other twists.
“We try to keep it sensibly priced,” he says. “If you’re asking for £16 for mains in pubs you’d better be bloody good. We are good, but we’re good value. We do German sausage platters, which go down well. They’re great, sharing platters to go with beer drinking with the sauerkrauts and the mushrooms and the sourdough bread. I think it’s a really good way to graze.”
However, no matter how interestingly he can fill a menu or a cellar, the ultimate challenge and purpose for Harley lies in people – in barstaff greeting guests and looking after the beer properly, in chefs making food that meets and exceeds expectations, and in managers reaching out and becoming that figurehead within their communities. There are challenges ahead for the industry, but with the right people in place, Harley feels confident about the future.
“I think the key for us will be training, engaging our staff,” he concludes. “We know we have to improve, so we will and we are. It’s still tough and it still drives me mad. But it’s good fun and we’re still enjoying it.”