In May 2018, The White Horse in Chilgrove, West Sussex, was named the best pub in the UK, as it triumphed at the National Pub & Bar Awards. As entries open for the 2020 event, landlord Richard Miller (pictured) talks to Pub & Bar about award-winning operations, countryside shooting parties and setting up a restaurant business with the legendary Ken Hom.
P&B: Hi Richard. For those who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about how you got into the hospitality industry…
RM: I was born in Hong Kong, grew up there and, after school, I went into the hotel industry. I was with Hilton Hotels for nine years in the Far East – Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore – always working in food and beverage, as I was part of the openings and renovations team for Asia Pacific with Hilton. If they opened a new property or changed the F&B, we would set up new bars and concepts and restaurants, then hand them over.
P&B: Far East hotels are a long way away from countryside pubs. Did you go from foreign operations straight into the UK on-trade?
RM: No, my father was MD of Cathay Pacific Airways when they brought in Ken Hom to start doing in-flight special meals in first class. We were introduced and we started doing some Ken Hom restaurants with Hilton, creating several of these with Asia Pacific. It was in the Singapore Hilton when Ken asked me how many we had done. I think it was nine or 10 at the time, so he suggested we did it for ourselves. Internal politics of hotels and big corporates had started to get a bit annoying to me, so I bit the bullet and left.
P&B: Wow, that’s quite the business partner to have! Did you set up your first restaurant in the Far East then?
RM: No, Ken said we should do it in London. It was the late 80s and he said everything was going to happen in London over the next decade. It was tough to find a site with no backing, but my godfather was a City worker for Deloitte, and him and a few friends said they’d back us.
We got a site in the basement of the Royal Exchange in the City of London and we opened Imperial City in 1989. It grew from there. We had four in the Square Mile, before the City had really taken off – our lunch time trade was so good that I kept very quiet, hoping no one else found out about it! We floated the company in 1994, which brought in £14m or so, then rolled out a concept called the Yellow River Cafe. We rolled those out until we had 22 restaurants in London and then down the M3/A3 corridor, which is where I lived. I then started falling out of love with the job, because I was out of the sites and into an office talking to shareholders and investors, rather than doing what I loved. So, at the age of 39, I was bought out and I ‘retired’ to Sussex. Sadly, that coincided with both of my parents becoming ill. I had some financial security and time, so I cared for them for seven years until they both passed away. It was only then I thought I should get back to what I enjoy doing.
P&B: So, this must have been your first move into countryside pubs?
RM: Yes. Giles Thompson, who was the exec chef at The Ritz and was an old mate from my London days, asked me about a pub in Lavant called The Earl of March. I told him it was a dive, a toilet, a horrible place. He then told me he had just bought it, which was slightly awkward, and asked me to help him get it open. So, I thought, why not?
I helped him get it up and running and ended up staying for three years working for him. I helped him open it in 2008, but then he called me back in 2014 and I stayed there until 2016. Through another mutual friend, David Scully, who had come down to photograph a Goodwood event, I was told Langy (Alexander Langlands Pearse, chairman of Cirrus Inns) was asking after me.
The next thing I knew, I had joined Cirrus and was running The Royal Oak in Lavant. The intention, I think, was to always move me to The White Horse, because I was a Chilgrove boy, so I started there in 2017.
P&B: And just one year later, The White Horse was named best pub in the UK. That’s quite an achievement. Tell us a little bit about the pub.
RM: It was great. There had been a great landlady there before me, Niki [Burr], but she left the company. The White Horse in Chilgrove is quite niche, it’s quite cliquey. It’s one of those pubs where there is a lot going on locally, which you need to maintain the balance of. Don’t upset someone, as you’ll upset others. But then if you appease one, you upset another. There are three shooting estates, so where do you take your game from? Which beaters do you use for the beaters lunch? And so on. Good, in-depth knowledge of the local community is paramount, so me being a local has seemed to work well. It’s a monster of a pub, so making sure you drive weddings and large functions, etc. is also vital.
P&B: Of course, you’re well known for your events. Do you still need to work hard on marketing this side of the business?
RM: Absolutely. And more so these days. There are more venues out there than there were five years ago. Barn conversions, wedding locations that offer loads of great wedding food. They might not have the bedrooms we have, but as venues, for local weddings, they’re competition to us. We now have a specific member of the team, our events manager, who joined last year to drive the business forward, maintain market share and hopefully increase bookings and take it further.
P&B: Do you think your team’s skillsets benefit from working on such a varied event roster?
RM: Our events now can be conferences, residential packages, outdoor pursuits, wine tasting, clay pigeon shooting, all these things – that whole banqueting and marketing events side of things brings a different skillset to the pub teams. Two of the team have been on intensive training as shoot butlers. They look after shooting parties, which during winter is crucial to our business. We do two to three shoot parties a week. They are allocated a butler on arrival, who looks after them for the whole time. Everything they need – more socks, gun cartridges. Our team know about cigars and wines, through to how to clean a gun. Then in the morning, that butler will serve the party breakfast and see them off for the day. Those sorts of hospitality skillsets are not seen in your average pub and bar.
P&B: Does a pub that organises shooting parties have to worry about the increase in demand for vegan food?
RM: We embrace the new vegan and vegetarian needs – our menus always have those options and there isn’t really a conflict. Diners expect to find that mix on a menu when they’re here – our menus are very seasonal, so at certain times of the year we’ll have a proliferation of game on the menu, but at the same time, we’re beautifully positioned here to have fresh fish and then a good creative kitchen team. It’s not just vegan and vegetarian, but accommodating all of the allergies that are out there. We need to adapt to cater. It’s just the same in a country pub as it is in the city sites.
P&B: Why do you think The White Horse in Chilgrove has been so successful in recent years?
RM: We’re a relatively small team, which hasn’t changed. Because of our location, I rent two cottages in the village to accommodate the staff, because there is nowhere to live in Chilgrove – the rest of the houses are big and posh. So we offer accommodation with their package, which allows us to find better people. It has challenges, of course – living together, working together, socialising together, and it can be a boiling pot at times. But we are a close team and that comes across in the service that we offer and the pride that we all take. It’s not just a job to most of us – it’s our home, a very big house in the country. Everyone is a part of what goes on because they have such a wide range of responsibilities, we don’t have waiters and bartenders – we have team members. One shift could see you on housekeeping; next on the bar; next as KP. Front-of-house has a wider knowledge set of every aspect of what goes on and what goes into maintaining the standard and why we do certain things. It’s an all-round grasp and that comes across in product knowledge and the service they can give and the care they have for the guests.
The overall ethos of the pub comes from the top and I drive the culture – nothing should be a problem for us and I think that comes across. It’s about keeping the culture going.
P&B: You’re a part of Cirrus Inns. Does this affect the plans you can put in place going forward?
RM: No, and that’s the beauty of Cirrus and its corporate culture. Yes, we are iconic British pubs, but we’re left to run our own businesses and therefore put our individual stamp on things. We’re not a pub chain – we have a common DNA that runs through us, but we have freedom. We can benefit from all the positives that go with a big company – group marketing, group accounting, purchasing power. Head office keep you on the straight and narrow, so we’ve already discussed marketing plans for next year.
Veganuary. We’re going large this month. We’ve just revamped our beverage offering – beer and soft drinks – to reflect the trend for healthier and more natural products. We’ve chosen much more natural plant-based sweeteners in our soft drinks. With beer, we keep an eye on local markets, of course, with ales from local breweries like Langham in Petworth. With lager styles and IPAs and craft, we’ve moved to great brands like Big Smoke and Beavertown and are bringing those into the country. When guests come down from London, they’d like to see those beers behind the bar.
P&B: Finally, with a number of tough comparables (award wins and a scorching summer) how was 2019 for you compared to 2018?
RM: I wouldn’t say we smashed all records last year – we’ve had to graft. In 2018, because of being National Pub & Bar of the Year, we had a stonking year, helped by a fantastic summer too. To try and beat those numbers was always going to be hard, but as a business, generally, yes, we’re in good shape. We had a refurb last year of the bedrooms, just short of £100,000 going into those, which is just improving on the standards that our guests already expect to see. We love what we’re doing and long may it continue.