Keith Marsden on why all pubs should put experience before food and drink

By Emma Eversham

- Last updated on GMT

Keith Marsden on why all pubs should put experience before food and drink

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Keith Marsden, winner of the BII Licensee of the Year 2015 award and owner of The Prince of Wales and the Dark Horse in Moseley talks about the benefit of winning awards and why it doesn't matter whether your pub is food or wet-led. 

You and your wife Diane were named Licensees of the Year by the BII in the summer, what benefit has that had on you and your business?: 

The BII is a really good organisation. You can get a lot of benefits from it in terms of networking and it's a really useful resource for your business. There's a website we use to download useful documents like employment contracts and those that help you work out financial metrics.

However I think the thing about going through the awards system is that it really helps raise your own standards.

You have to go through a process to enter and it really encourages you to focus on the business and look at things like how do you develop your people and how well do you understand wider industry issues? If you can improve your understanding it helps your business grow.

The first year we entered we didn't win, but we entered again because we felt it forced you to concentrate on a few things that are great for the business anyway. Winning was just a bonus. 

We didn’t think we’d ever win it because we’re a suburban pub that’s wet-led and when you look at a lot of awards that go to pubs they tend to be picture postcard food-led types. We just thought it was a good process to do and we won. We were very surprised.

Has winning brought more custom through the door? 

It has brought a few more customers, but the main thing is it makes existing customers feel like they've already won. They feel part of it. People feel more committed to the pub because they’ve voted with their feet for years. It’s an endorsement of their choice.

The other thing I'd say to anyone out there operating in a leased environment is that it can help you better negotiate rents. 

When you come to a rent review the the landlord will argue that the site is fantastic, so the rent should be massive. What you can demonstrate is that it’s not the site that's good, it's you the operator that's good, so the rent should be lower. 

What better way to demonstrate that you're an outstanding operator than by winning an award?

(Almost) every pub sells food now, why have you remained wet-led?

Food is seen as the silver bullet for pubs, but my view is if you’re average at selling beer you’re going to be average at selling food. We did try food. I tried four or five different concepts and chefs but it didn’t work for us in this pub. This pub has always been an institution as a boozer and what’s wrong with that?

We talk about whether pubs are wet or food-led, but actually what we sell is an experience. You have to create a bit of theatre and give people a great night out. A lot of operators forget their business is hospitality and that their job is to create that great night out. It’s not just about serving a pint of cold liquid, it’s about everything - the ambience, the service, the décor. I tell my staff that It’s not what you’re drinking, but it’s what it feels like to drink that counts. If you don’t produce that great experience you’re goosed.

Many pubs suffer with staff retention, but not The Prince of Wales, what’s your secret?

I’ve got people who’ve worked for me for 10 years. A lot of effort goes into your brand and how you position yourself in the marketplace. It’s the same for staff. You have to create a place where people want to work. Don’t pay Minimum Wage and invest in training.

There’s a book called Setting The Table by Danny Myer which is great and everyone should read it. He says ‘don’t put your customers first, put your staff first’ and he’s right. If you invest in them then everything else will follow. We have a lot of graduates who come and work with us part-time while they’re studying at university and more often than not they stay on when their course has ended as they love it so much.

Nowadays there’s so much red tape and regulation involved in hiring staff. If you think about the amount of mandatory training you’ve got to do – allergens, first aid, health and hygiene – which is an expense, and then you add product knowledge on top, you can’t  afford to do that if people walk out every other week.   

I think it's important to invest in staff and develop them. We have a barbecue offering at my other pub (The Dark Horse) and recently I took two junior chefs and the restaurant manager to America for six days visiting barbecue restaurants in the Mid West and New York to get inspiration.

Obviously you don’t do that every week, but you have to invest in people and develop them and build a long-term relationship.

We have hundreds and hundreds of customers at the Prince of Wales each week and I probably only speak to a small percentage of them, but my staff are talking to them all the time, so you have to be confident that they share your values and culture and deliver that hospitality.

What does the future hold for the Prince of Wales?

We’re re-negotiating our lease at the moment and we’ve got a development of 50 apartments proposed next to the pub so we're looking at what could happen when a residential property comes along next door. 

In terms of our operations, we do small incremental steps at The Prince and develop little projects along the side, rather than having massive refurbs or big projects. We have a classic cocktail bar at the moment which we’re thinking of changing and redeveloping. 

Our outside space is really valuable to us - we've got a tiki bar in our garden which we call our 'Mo-tiki' bar. We're thinking of re-naming it at the end of November to 'Snow-tiki' so it'll be a winter version of a tiki bar. It will mean on a Saturday night in November we'll still have 200 people enjoying themselves in our garden.  

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