Top Ten Tips from Stefan Turnbull and Barry Hirst, Founders of Cubitt House
I am continuing my series of interviewing successful entrepreneurs in the world of food, drink and hospitality to find out the secrets of their success so as to inform and inspire new entrants into the industry, or those who are struggling during the recession and are looking for ways to improve their offer. This month I have been to visit Stefan Turnbull and Barry Hirst, the founders of Cubitt House, an independently run group of four pubs and inns in central London. They originally set up a residential and commercial property development company called Urban Evolution in 1996. From there they then decided to renovate and run their local pub, which became their first property on the ladder to being hoteliers and pub landlords.
Stefan and Barry work within the courtelage of both the Grosvenor Estates and the Portman Estates, which manage most of Belgravia and Marylebone, and their offices are based at Berkeley Mews, behind The Grazing Goat pub and inn of New Quebec Street, which forms part of their portfolio, along with The Orange in Pimlico and The Pantechnicon and The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia.
Their pubs and hotel rooms are stylish, clean, beautiful, efficiently run and exemplary in their approach to environmental sustainability, all awarded three stars by The Sustainable Restaurant Association. They source their food carefully from producers who are equally concerned about animal welfare and seasonality and they offer simple, affordable, delicious food cooked in a modern British style.
I asked Stefan and Barry to give me the top ten tips behind their strategy, work ethic and philosophy and here is what they told me.
Location, location, location
It may seem the obvious response, but the clue to the Cubitt House success story is, obviously, their well-chosen locations. It is interesting to note that the Cubitt House empire began a stone’s throw from where the pair live with their families. Creating an excellent, destination pub in your own neighbourhood enhances everyone’s life and, needless to say, house prices. Stefan and Barry have built relationships with the landlord estate managers so that they show them the pubs within their portfolio and long leases are negotiated so that capital investment to redecorate and refurbish can take place. Stefan put it simply: “We look for the best pubs in their class, we take a long term view and we offer a symbiotic relationship with our landlords because we are a small, family owned operator that takes great care in workmanship.”
“We always look at the history of the building in which we are going to create our restaurants and hotels, in order to create a sense of place, befitting the period, historical links and the surroundings. Our aim is always to create a home from home, a comfortable, warm, timeless and relaxed place,” Barry told me.
The pair have been inspired by the Soho House empire and Richard Caring’s meticulous attention to detail as well as Kit and Tim Kemp’s very British sense of casual country chicness. They have also found inspiration from Tim and Ed Martin’s The Botanist restaurant and bar in Sloane Square. Stefan and Barry’s own look is one of restrained country-in-the-city vintage Englishness. Materials are recycled and reused wherever possible, the colours tend to be neutral, all fabrics natural and surfaces clean and uncluttered. Stefan believes that using lots of wood on floors, panelling and furniture is a wise, organic, long term choice in terms of wear and tear because the patina of wood only improves with age, therefore their buildings look smarter for longer with less maintenance.
Being part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association means that all the sourcing, environmental, waste and community issues in the Cubitt House group have to be considered as part of day to day actions, and this may well cost more money. “Buying seasonal vegetables from a smaller farm shop business, or meat from a smaller butchery is going to cost us more than if we went to a bigger supplier,” Stefan told me, “But it is very important to our customers and to our staff that we use sustainably sourced, high welfare and eco-friendly ingredients, and being part of the SRA has helped provide us with a sustainability road map and plan of action.” There is no doubt that the quality of the food suppliers is a fundamental part of the success of the four pubs.
Finding, training and retaining the right staff is the constant headache for most business owners in the food and drink industry, and when Stefan and Barry started they employed Australian personnel. They now have 220 people on the payroll, many of whom are foreign. Stefan explained, “We have always tried to hire people for whom working in the hospitality industry is a career path, rather than a job they will do in between careers. Everyone who works in the office is given the opportunity to work in the pubs so that they can understand the front and back of house. It’s all about empowering the teams – people get bored if they are always doing the same thing day in, day out. Job vacancies are often filled organically from within the business, there is definitely a family feel to our business. Of course, it is normal in any business that there are people who, for whatever reason want to move on elsewhere, but we have retained many staff members who have been with us since we first opened six years ago.”
The Chefs in the Cubitt House group tend to be classically trained in the French tradition but over the years the style of cooking has been honed to the paradigms of a modern British offering. All of the food is prepared from scratch and it is the Chefs that drive the sourcing, the Menus and also choose the wines and cocktails. The staff go on trips to meet the suppliers and taste the produce, so that they are involved directly in the product they are selling to customers. Menus are kept short and seasonal, and prices are kept reasonable to attract both lunch time and evening trade. Very few pubs do table service and so the Cubitt House offering lifts itself to a level comparable to that of an informal restaurant and the quality of the food served matches this. Food is served until 10pm at night.
“We realise there is great deal of potential in social media, and we have not yet harnessed its full potential. We have never done in-your-face marketing – that is not our style. We do always try to remain in the customers’ thought processes and we do this by keeping our offer fresh and revolving. We created postcards with our logos so that customers who stay here can send them to their friends. We organise special events – such as food and wine matching evenings, or we tie in with a brewer and do a beer tasting,” Stefan explained. Barry believes that the most powerful marketing tool is still very much word of mouth – happy, loyal, local customers who come back again and again and recommend the pubs to their friends and colleagues. In addition the Grosvenor and Portman Estates, with their local networks and magazines, have also been very good in spreading the word, as have the concierges of local hotels, who constantly refer their customers.
The company website is very professional, fresh and easy to navigate. You immediately land on a Homepage with professional photography and there is a seamless progression between each of the four pubs. Menus. events, news, job vacancies, contact points and social media addresses are all clearly placed and designed against a white background with plain grey lettering. When a website is so well designed it becomes a self-marketing calling card.
When you are a guest or diner in the Cubitt House group you cannot help but notice the details that make you feel at home and comfortable: ironing boards and irons in wardrobes, plenty of wooden hangers, spotless bathrooms, soft cushions, Rococo chocolates in the bedrooms, fresh flowers in the dining room, freshly squeezed fruit juices at breakfast, seasonal cocktails before dinner, softened water in the showers and warm, woollen throws on the beds. Both Stefan and Barry told me that they notice all the details when they travel and stay in other people’s hotels and these ideas inform and inspire their own choices for their business.
It is evident that a formula and pattern has been established by the Cubitt House group. The four pubs have a similar thread of style, service, food offering and philosophy so that a customer dining, drinking, meeting or staying in any one of the four knows well what to expect if booking into a second. Consistency is key and it is evident that, although the group does not feel like a chain, familiarity breeds brand loyalty and repeat business.
Every year the Cubitt House management and staff raise thousands of pounds for charities, some local and some international. This is important in bringing the team together with a common purpose and shows the business as part of the community they serve, aware of the social needs around it.
Cubitt House website: www.cubitthouse.co.uk
Follow the group on Twitter: @CubittHouse