Andrew Coath scoops me up from outside Milton Keynes Central on a grey, dreary November morning. He’s accompanied by Sean McGuirk, operations manager at Epic Pub Company, the business Coath started in 2015. Thankfully, the duo’s company and conversation was more than enough to brighten up the Buckinghamshire sky. We say hello, carry out some obligatory pleasantries and make our way to one of two pubs that they run in the area.
First up is a quick stop off at The Anchor in Aspley Guise. Externally, it’s nothing out of the ordinary – a modest pub, with a front garden and car park. However, it’s once you’re inside you appreciate what Coath and his team have done with this venue. The bar space, the restaurant area, the design, the small touches… everything adds up to a pub that’s clearly been shown some love. The Anchor is one of five Heroic Pubs, which is one of three sub-sections of Coath’s business, Unique Hospitality Management. He explains:
AC: Unique Hospitality Management is our centre – all our central team and a company name for our fundraising vehicles. We also offer our services out to the hospitality industry under an advisory capacity – on opening pubs, or foodservice, or new companies that have grown, buying power, our relationships with suppliers. Unique Hospitality Management is the centre and then we have the other companies to help with the fundraising.
We work with Rockpool Investments, and we have a pledge to do a combination of freeholds and leaseholds.
With Epic Pubs, we raised £4.2m, and with that we got two freeholds and two leaseholds. Then for Heroic Pubs, we got six leaseholds for a similar amount of money. Then, lastly, with Aspley Pubs, we again raised a similar amount and we’ve got three going into there in the near future. It’s through an EIS funding scheme, that’s why they have to be separated.
P&B: It’s no wonder Coath has set up an advisory-based element to his business. Having come from the very successful Peach Pubs business, he was able to recruit a couple of his old colleagues and set up a new pub company, as well as a consultancy service.
AC: I was working at Peach Pubs as a partner. I worked with them for 12 years and eventually wanted to try my own venture in 2015. Through our partnership with Rockpool, we’ve grown to 10 pubs in two years – that’s one pub every 70 days – and our hope is to get to 15 pubs by 2019. I took two young team members from Peach – our group chef director Mark Austin and Jonathan Taylor, our group operations director. From there we were going to do four pubs with Epic, and when we got to three, our fundraisers asked if we could do more. So we added two more fundraising vehicles. At six pubs, Sean came on board and we’ve carried on growing.
Epic Pubs started off in 2015 when there was a massive casual dining explosion, and I wanted to form Epic as a brand that grows out across market towns and town centres, but it wasn’t necessarily going to work. We had to look at individual towns and demographics and design the pubs very differently to how I’d imagined. You wouldn’t expect these places in a small village of 500.
P&B: McGuirk was a canny recruitment from Coath, as he brings along that casual dining experience that has no doubt added to the pub estate’s experience – an experience which is now spread across a considerable coverage around the UK.
SM: I was working at Las Iguanas. When you come from restaurants, you see things from a different perspective. I’ve done pubs and a few things in my time, but this sort of pub is new to me, so I bring in things from my angle.
AC: All our pubs are hour and a half from here [The Wheatsheaf, Bow Brickhill]. What we found was that people were paying crazy money for premiums – the pubcos had got rid of the pubs they didn’t want in small villages and worked out what they wanted to do with their estates. It was a stress to find pubs. We’re now based from Leicester down to Berkshire and into Hampshire, and we’re trying to plug the gaps to create clusters. There are three in this area (The Anchor, The Wheatsheaf and The Knife & Cleaver) – we have another in Milton Keynes, which we have just taken over. They’re all within a 10-minute drive. We couldn’t find clusters back in 2015. One of our first pubs was The Golden Ball in Maidenhead, and we’re trying to find properties in that area next. Once we plug those gaps to create clusters, our general managers will become senior managers and look after a pod of their own pubs.
Our second stop was for some lunch at The Wheatsheaf in Bow Brickhill. I have to say, this is a beautiful little pub. It is so unassuming in its location, but delivers something that any dominant city operator would be proud to have in their estate. Respectfully modern designs, extensive drinks and food quality that’s up there with the best (beer-glazed chicken with bubble and squeak? Yes please). But what really stood out at The Wheatsheaf, and what Coath and McGuirk were both keen to highlight, is the drive and passion instilled by manager Jodie. Through a combination of autonomy, trust, teaching and training, you get the feeling the managers behind the Unique Hospitality Management pubs really are the future of the company.
AC: We do a management development day every month for the managers. We take them to London and meet up with suppliers, etc. Training is our biggest weapon and works wonders for retention.
SM: We’ve been to brands for training, and then we do it ourselves too. We talk about lots of things – retention, keeping your team grounded, and finding out what they want in terms of opportunity. Last month was on culture – how do we generate culture at Epic Pubs? We got the GMs to really input into that, so they buy into it. We want them to know that they’re not just working for a company – they’re not just another number. They’re part of the family, and as we grow, they grow within it. We ask for their opinions and are transparent – that’s our culture.
We use Jodie as an example. She came into the business as a bar supervisor and has grown with the business for two years, and is now general manager.
AC: A general manager can make over £50,000 with bonuses. We provide some accommodation as well. They can do very well. We can’t forget about our chefs either. The food is fresh and made on site – even the bread is baked here. Chefs also have to become managers, know about food legislation, service – it’s not just about cooking. With our manager days, we bring in the head chefs as well. They feel sales pressure, and they’re a real part of it all. They get bonuses on food sales – it’s not just about gross profit.
Midway through our lunch, Coath notices a group of customers that he “simply must say hello to” before we leave. Despite taking a back seat in day-to-day operations (something he’s finding very difficult to let go of, much to McGuirk’s amusement), he still has a close relationship with his regulars across the group. This familiarity and friendship is key to how Epic, Heroic and Aspley are run. Not only are these relationships vital to creating loyalty, but they also allow the team across the estate to understand guest preferences and, ultimately, how the market is behaving.
AC: I was at Peach for 12 years, and there were changes for everything in the industry. It was tough to launch something new, as we had to find a gap in the market. As always, it’s about doing the right things well. For example, alcohol intake has gone down, so we’re having to make sure that cocktails and the like are still achievable.
SM: Generation Y are quite hard to get hold of, but we’re getting them in, mainly through social media – they’re always on their phones and have a short attention span. We use those areas and non-alcoholic promotion to draw them in.
AC: That has been a big change. The youngsters do drink responsibly now, they really do. So we put that back to our teams – we give people choice now and educate guests on drinks.
We also test teams on getting to know 30 locals’ names before the pub opens – their car, where they live, their dog. We test them big time. They have a bar list, and write their regulars down. We then test them once a week. “Who’s Bob?” “Oh, that’s Bob, he drives a Volvo and his favourite drink is gin and tonic.” This is what the big pub groups lose. A big part is about hosting.
Not long after we sit down for lunch, TripAdvisor is raised. The duo seem to have a healthy relationship with the potentially detrimental website, but by all means don’t see it as the be all and end all of guest feedback. When Epic Pubs was first launched, a mystery visitor company was brought on board, but Coath felt that particular avenue was falling short. So, what he did was effectively combine TripAdvisor with mystery visits and formed what they now know as ‘Epic Eaters’.
SM: You get the odd keyboard warrior on TripAdvisor, but I like to think that most people offer genuine feedback and if you take it seriously, you can help your business. We’ll respond to all of them – 80% are five stars.
AC: We weren’t getting enough from our previous mystery dining company. We were being benchmarked against a Hungry Horse – they didn’t understand what we were about in terms of food quality and price point. So we picked people up on TripAdvisor who we thought we could learn from and they became our ‘Epic Eaters’. They come along and do a mystery diner report for us. We have around six to 10 people that come in once a month – we don’t let the GMs know. We find that’s much more powerful. If they started out being negative, we turn them round as they learn more about the business.
With 10 pubs up and running, and a couple more in the pipeline, the future is looking bright for this well-drilled and committed business. I only spent a few hours with Coath and McGuirk, but their drive and passion was infectious; their enthusiasm and energy palpable in the pubs we visited. As Coath says, they’re looking to get to 15 pubs by 2019, which seems more than realistic given the rate they’re currently growing at. What’s more, if Unique Hospitality Management continues to have the same success in each pub that it takes over, everyone across the company could be set to reap the rewards.
AC: When we came in, The Anchor went from £2,000 a week to £21,000 a week. The Wheatsheaf went from £500 to £12,500 a week. So, we’re doing OK. After investment, we try and get a return within six months. With 185 Watling Street in Towcester, we took a house on the main high street, and everyone thought we were bonkers going into a mixed market town. That’s now on around £25,000 a week.
The hope is in the future we don’t sell these pubs off to a big pubco, but we do a management buyout. That’s what we’d like to do. EIS isn’t a get rich quick scheme – you have to recruit, grow, and focus on longevity. It’s not fundraising, bash pubs out and flog them off. When we get to a certain point in three or five years, we’ll do a management buyout and reward people like Sean for the work of opening pubs every 70-odd days.
We’re also in discussion with a large pubco at the moment about doing a joint investment with them. We’ve picked 22 sites from their portfolio that may work, but the real trick is growing the team. When you grow quickly, you have to keep people moving with us. We’ve had the managers write the training plans for the next 12 months, so they’re a complete part of the company. There aren’t many who would do that.