David Hage, director of The Secret Pub Company, discusses the success of The Railway at Lowdham and how much one award win can do for business
I distinctly remember talking to David Hage and his business partner Mark Osborne during the drinks reception of the National Pub & Bar Awards in May this year. There was something about the way the duo spoke of the industry that hinted they were going to make the most of the gongs they’d just picked up.
Their pub, The Railway at Lowdham, was crowned the best pub in Nottinghamshire back in April, so Hage and Osborne had made their way to BAFTA 195 Piccadilly to not only collect their winning certificate, but also to see if their site could scoop the grand title of best in the East Midlands at the 2018 National Pub & Bar Awards.
By the time the three of us were catching up over a celebratory drink or two, The Railway had indeed been named the best in its region, with the two operators making no secret of how much that meant to them and their business. Throughout our conversation, I could feel not only their engagement in and knowledge of the industry, but also their passion and dedication to it. Winning those awards wasn’t just an internal pat on the back for them, but a massive opportunity to take their relatively young operation to the next level.
“Without sounding cheesy, I still get tingles thinking about it now,” says Hage. “When we came back on the train the next morning, hungover to hell, and saw the feeds come up in The Sun, The Mirror and Mail Online, it was mad. The next day, we had people flooding in and the sales went through the roof. We had so many new people coming in and saying they saw we’d won the best pub in the East Midlands, and that they’d seen us in the paper.
“Most importantly, the sales were phenomenal. They have gone up 35-40% every week and that has just become the norm now. You can’t buy that.”
How the secret got out
While Hage and Osborne have only been running The Railway since early 2017 – Hage front-of-house and Osborne leading the kitchen – the duo are industry veterans. Prior to launching The Secret Pub Company, they had been working together at Nottingham’s The Riverbank Bar & Kitchen (now a Brewhouse & Kitchen site). But after some years, they decided they needed a change of scene.
“We had been looking for the right business opportunity,” says Hage. “Whether that was a pub or restaurant in Nottingham – we were waiting for something that we could make work. Then I found The Railway. It had just come on the market with Star Pubs & Bars. It was previously an archetypical, old-fashioned drinkers pub. I put a business plan together with Mark, put some mood boards together and got lots of inspiration from places we’ve seen over the years.
“We presented to Star and were in the running with three or four other good operators in Nottingham. They chose us. So we then exited the previous company, but we had to do that in a delicate way – we needed to set up a limited company to get things rolling with finances, but we couldn’t call it ‘Railway Limited’, as people would know where we were going and what we were doing. So, we set up The Secret Pub Company, because it was literally a secret. Mark and I knew lots of people, who were quizzing us where we were going and what we were doing. We were quite secretive about it until very close to launch.”
Hage found The Railway in November 2016 and after finalising a design and fit-out that wasn’t the standard template that his new landlord was used to, the builders went in during February 2017.
“Their design brief that they originally had was £200,000,” remembers Hage. “By the time Mark and I had finished with it, it was nearly £400,000. That took five weeks. We opened for soft launch on 24 March 2017.”
Ironically, building up to the launch date of a site that they couldn’t tell anyone about did wonders for word of mouth. There were only 15 people who knew what Hage and Osborne were doing with The Railway. However, like an unrecognisable restaurant critic who makes untraceable waves throughout the industry, The Secret Pub Company was able to capitalise on its anonymity. They became the area’s best-kept secret.
“It worked well and created a huge buzz,” says Hage. “We launched the Facebook page the day the builders went in and we took photos before the fit-out to show people what we were doing. Bang, it went crazy. We got up to 2,000 followers within a few weeks. We kept updating that page and it grew and grew with excitement. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
The events calendar
Like so many rural pubs, what The Railway quickly soon gained was the role of Lowdham’s community hub. While visitors from around Nottinghamshire and beyond began to make a conscious effort to visit this award-winning site, the area’s locals had already adopted it as their own. Hage understands how crucial looking after this clientele is, and one way that he does this is through a meticulously thought out events roster. He attributes a great deal of the pub’s success to The Railway’s events.
“You need to offer different things to different user groups,” he says. “Our events calendar runs for 12 months and has lots of different things in the mix. In the summer, we did a ticketed garden party for 300 people. Mark did four of his most popular dishes in the garden – things like tapas-style pork belly and sea bass. It sold out really quickly. For £20, guests got four dishes, table service, a glass of Prosecco and some live music. We could have easily sold 500 tickets. The way I look at a lot of the events is to test them and see what people were prepared to pay and how well they would go – then next year we’d look at making them bigger and better, and maybe increase the ticket price a little bit.
“The garden party doubled the sales from a normal day and, profit-wise, it was double what we’d usually take on a Saturday. The ticket price covered our costs for the entertainment, the marquee and the food. Then we enjoyed the drink trade of £7,000 to £8,000. It was a monster day. What we’ll do next year is some sort of VIP areas, with cover, a waiter all evening and maybe some extra entertainment. It was incredible and relatively easy to deliver.”
Two weeks after the garden party, The Railway held an end of school celebration for the local primary school children and their families. This saw over 350 mums, dads and kids eating and drinking in the pub all afternoon, followed by a full service that evening. While primary schools aren’t the on-trade’s standard target audience, this act of community support, which featured a circus, live music and face painting, not only enhanced The Railway’s reputation, but also brought in additional sales from 350 customers. Not bad going for a kids’ event.
For Hage and Osborne, the plan is now to stick to the five-year plan they devised when they first took on The Railway. However, their triumph at the 2018 National Pub & Bar Awards unexpectedly propelled them to a year or two ahead of schedule, as Hage concludes:
“We’re well on track, which has been backed up with the accolades that we’ve won. We’re well ahead of turnover forecasts. For profit forecasts, this year (year two) we’re well ahead of year three, which is great. That has put us into a position where we’re now in talks with Star for a second site in Nottingham. We’re hoping to get that signed off in autumn, with builders going in early spring and then opening it up in March 2019. Then maybe a third one in two years’ time and then we’ll just leave it at three.”
The state of rates
“We’re fortunate here in what we do, because the product that we offer is better than a lot in the area, delivered by people who care. But I can see why so many places don’t succeed because of costs going up across so many facets. Mainly rates – we moved in and after six months they re-valued our rates and our rates tripled. We went from £800 a month to £2,300 a month. Plus, they wanted back-payments for the 10 months we hadn’t paid that rate. If we didn’t have the sales that we have, that cost could be the difference between getting paid that month or not.”
What are you doing that works so well?
“We’re doing something quite simple, but effectively and consistently,” says Hage. “We deliver simple elements with our team, who are exceptional, as is Mark’s food and experience. Throw that into a mix of a village pub that has had a glorious fit-out and, it’s hard to say without sounding conceited, but I don’t think there’s anywhere around that’s doing what’s happening here. That’s what the team delivers, from the front to the back. Also, the customers are just overwhelmingly positive about it. They are locals in the area who support the pub, but haven’t been able to come in here for 10 years.
“We have a simple business plan and we’re not going to confuse what we’re doing. You don’t panic if things don’t start to go right – you stay true to the food, pricing, menu and the simple wine list. The menu is incredibly creative, but simple to get out. The wine list was also key for me – I only wanted to have seven or eight grapes per wine, and all to be done by the glass. That allows us to train the staff really well.”