Anyone in the casual dining sector scratching their heads worrying about where all their customers have gone should jump on a train and head to Wigan and spend some time with local pub operator Tony Callaghan.
Not that he would claim to have all the answers mind. That’s very much not the style of this friendly, enthusiastic, straight talking, but also highly experienced and successful pub operator.
Yet for all of Tony’s success he’s still very much in touch with what makes a good pub. In fact, talking to him feels like chatting to the friendly landlord down the local pub.
He has what he calls a “simple” and “straightforward” strategy of running a successful On-Trade group.
Open the right outlets in the right locations with the right food and drink offer. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s a very hard to trick to pull off.
‘Inn The Bar’ group is the latest of Tony’s pub developments that have seen him become one of the most respected and admired operators in the North West of England over the last 30 years.
Part of Tony’s success is to try and make every pub in your group different from the rest. So, whilst behind the scenes might be very much the same, what the customer sees out front has to appear and feel very different. Which is exactly what he has done with the 19 pubs, and growing, in the ‘Inn The Bar’ group.
It’s a trick Tony has pulled off time and time again. So much so that he runs three different pubs next door to each other in central Wigan that you would think come from three separate companies.
It’s all about having different concepts within the same group, says Tony. For example, within the ‘Inn The Bar’ group there is the Number Fifteen brand that offers a good quality, smart but also traditional pub atmosphere, alongside a separate boutique hotel offer.
“It’s about creating real pubs, for real people,” says Tony. Which for him means offering “real chips, with real bread and butter” that have come from “good, quality local suppliers”.
Get that right and it really does not matter what your competition might be doing, says Tony. Just concentrate on doing what you can do to create the best, most comfortable and relaxing environment for your customers is Tony’s frank but refreshing view on running a successful pub business. “You make your choices and then sink or swim by them” he adds.
Variety is key
In order to be able to create a different offer for each outlet Tony says he relies heavily on his suppliers. Which for wine and spirits has meant a long-standing relationship with Crown Cellars and Distilled for over 10 years.
“I love working with Crown Cellars for one simple reason.” says Tony. “They can get me what I want when I need it.”
It’s also the fact he can rely on Crown Cellars and Distilled to keep on coming up with new ideas for his pubs. “They are always changing their range of wines and spirits which means I can always be offering my customers something new,” says Tony.
Which is not surprising with 19 different wine and spirits ranges to source. But with 50,000 bottles of wine now going through his pubs a year, it’s vital he gets the right wines in the right pubs.
“Deciding what goes where”, says Tony, “is very much a team effort, working alongside Crown Cellars and Distilled.”
But he particularly likes the fact that Crown Cellars does not look to push any particular wine on the group. All decisions are made based on what is right for each outlet.
Tony’s wine ranges are driven by grape variety and not the country where they are made. “Our customers are so much more knowledgeable about the wines they like than they were 10 to 15 years ago. A lot of that is driven by what they are buying in the local supermarket to drink at home. It means they come into the bar asking for a ‘Merlot’ or ‘Pinot Grigio’” he explains.
Wines to trust
Tony says the beauty of the Crown Cellars range is that his customers, the vast majority of which are local, have grown to completely trust the wines they offer. They are the varietals they want, but crucially wines they are not going to see down the local supermarket or off-licence. “That’s really important for us,” he says.
As is the fact that Crown Cellars has a constantly changing selection of wines from the same grape variety from around the world, so Tony and his team are able to refresh their lists with the same style of wine, but from a different producer, region or country.
Tony explains: “As all our trade is repeat business, we have to make sure everything we sell, be it a Pinot Grigio or Merlot, is the best we can offer to our customers.
“It would be very hard to find a different supplier that can offer me so much different choice throughout the year. I would probably have to work with three or four to get close to what Crown Cellars can offer me.”
The wine ranges across the 19 sites vary in price from £9.50 to just over £20 with £14 being an average purchase price. Wines by the glass are also a good way to differentiate a bar’s drinks offer, with prices ranging from £4 to £7.
Tony says he might have two pubs on either side of the same street selling different wines at different prices.
‘Inn The Bar’ group also works closely with Crown Cellars to offer personalised training based on the needs of the local staff. Tony believes the key with training is to give his staff the right level of knowledge they need to be able to go out and personally recommend and get excited about wines they like.
“It gives our staff the chance to taste the wines and get to know something about them,” says Tony. “It’s fantastic then to see our staff going out and talking to our customers. You are so much more likely to buy a wine that someone has recommended to you, and it creates that added connection between the customer, the staff and the bar.”
Fast changing spirits
Tony also sources all his spirits through Distilled and again is thankful he has such a wide, growing and varied selection of brands to choose from. Particularly for gins where there is still enormous demand. “Our gins are flying,” says Tony.
So much so that one of his bars now has a gin range of nearly 80 different brands, including his own locally produced gin, ‘Uncle Joe’s’ named after the famous local Wigan sweet, ‘Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls’. Rum is also one of the fastest growing categories and again Tony and his landlords are able to take advantage of Distilled’s growing and changing list of dark rums in particular.
It’s all about creating the right atmosphere
As well as the food and drink offer there are two other key factors in determining what a pub or bar feels like for customers: the decor and the music.
Here Tony admits he lets his eccentricity take over and goes to great pains to source the right kind of furniture and fixtures and fittings for his pubs – with a heavy leaning towards a Victorian look and feel. He has even included a “two for one” cubicle in one of his pub’s womens’ toilets. “Well, they always go to the toilet in twos,” he laughs. Its proved to be not only a great talking point, but as Tony predicted it’s been very popular too. He is also happy to take inspiration from far and wide. On a recent trip to Indonesia, for example, Tony came across a 6m wooden table that he arranged to be shipped back for one of his pubs. “It’s completely unique and not what you would expect. It also sits around 30 people at any one time,” he says.
“We change the lighting during the day as that creates the right atmosphere as well,” he adds.
He also works very hard to make sure the right style of music is played to create the right atmosphere for that outlet. “I don’t want someone playing the Best of Abba or Donna Summer all day, every day,” he says.
Instead he will change the style and pace of music throughout the day and night. Which might mean a playlist that moves from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra, to a bit of jazz, some friendly pop, and yes “the occasional Abba or Donna Summer” to keep customers happy.