The Fosters have a simple philosophy for running the Hare & Hounds: "You can either be cheaper than the next guy, or be better - and we're just better." Mark Foster talks to James Wilmore
Need to know Mark and Hayley Foster were no strangers to pubs and the hospitality trade when they first took on the Hare & Hounds, back in March 2003. In the 1990s, both ran pubs for Fuller's - Hayley, the Old Bank of England, in Fleet Street, among others, and Mark, the Victoria in Mayfair and Drayton Court, in Ealing. Mark had also previously been trained in the hotel business - including a spell working at the Grand hotel, Brighton.
But after becoming a couple they were keen to broaden their horizons and get their own pub. Their strict criteria was: a prominent position, large car park and easy for people to walk to. They eventually found the Hare and Hounds, in Corsham, Wiltshire - a large 17th century coaching inn, between Chippenham and Bath on the edge of the Cotswolds. They currently have 22 years left on a lease with Enterprise Inns. The couple were shortlisted for the 2011 BII Licensee of the Year award.
Target audience Mark says they have targeted four key types of customer. These are: locals, who live in the area and use the pub on a regular basis - "It's quite an affluent population," says Mark; Ministry of Defence workers - there's a base nearby and white-collared civil servants will use the pub; passing trade from tourists - "We also get a lot of people who we have been recommended to by B&Bs," says Mark; and there's a business and enterprise park also nearby which ensures a steady stream of trade at lunchtimes and after work.
Marketing The most obvious piece of marketing the pub does, says Mark, is having clear, succinct blackboards outside the pub. They also spend a bit on advertising in local magazines and last year launched a new website. Mark is also cottoning on to the benefits of social media - becoming increasingly vital to any business these days.
"We've just started experimenting with Twitter, using the hashtag @loyalhareforce, a fun play on words, and have a Facebook page, where customers can leave comments," he says. "I think it's important to have these things to attract the younger generation to your business - particularly as they spend so much time on computers these days."
Mark and Hayley also ensure they make themselves as approachable as possible to customers to get their feedback and deal with any issues that might arise. They are also proud of the fact they are still very much a pub and advertise that on the website. "We're neither a gastro pub, nor a restaurant that serves beer. The Hare & Hounds is a pub, it has always been a pub and always shall be a pub." The pub also runs special offers such as "a pie and a pint for £10" on Mondays and "two meals and a bottle of wine for £20" on Wednesdays.
They also highlight their beer offer, which includes award-winning real ales from local independent and regional brewers. The pub is Cask Marque accredited and listed in Camra's Good Beer Guide.
Business advice The Hare & Hounds has about seven or eight pubs in the area that they compete with. But Mark says that in the time they have been there, they have seen off the competition by being so good at getting the simple things right, like top-quality service. He feels the couple has an advantage, too, because of their backgrounds in hospitality. They are not "lifestyle publicans", who like the idea of running a pub because they have spent a lot of time in them, says Mark.
"I think you have a choice in business," he says. "You can either be cheaper than the next guy, or be better - and we're just better. We say that excellence is absolutely everything. We ensure our staff are incredibly well trained. In this day and age, if people are going to come out and spend money than they expect good service - but we also still offer them value."
Future plans The Fosters have lots of building work planned for the months ahead to help boost trade even more. Last year they spent a significant amount of money on building a garden, which paid off thanks to the good weather in the summer. This year, plans are underway to extend the car park to make a large patio that will join on to the pub and include covered and heated areas. The couple are also looking to bring in extra income by converting three or four rooms into letting accommodation.
And if that wasn't enough, Mark isn't ruling out taking on another pub. "We're keeping our eyes open and have seen a few possibles," he says. "But it has to be the right pub for us, that will fit in with our style of operation."
mark foster's revelations
Favourite hotel Holne Chase, near Asburton, Devon
Favourite restaurant Jamie's Italian, Bath
Book that has inspired Roald Dahl: Danny the Champion of the World
Motto "Surround yourself with greatness"
If you were not a publican, what would you have been A pilot, or policeman
Who do you most admire Gordon Ramsay
SPOTLIGHT ON FOOD
Mark is fiercely proud of all the pub's food offering. Much of their food is home-made, using good quality local produce. But it's the dessert options he chooses to single out. All the desserts are home-made by his wife, but his personal favourite are the triple chocolate brownies.
"We change the menu twice a year, but because the brownies are so popular with our customers, there is no way on Earth we could take them off," says Mark. "They are absolutely heavenly."
Facts and stats
Licensees/Managers Mark & Hayley Foster
Head chef Hayley Foster
Staff 13 (6 full time, 7 part time)
Number of covers per week (summer) 800
Average spend per head on food £8.05