Former Ritz executive head chef Giles Thompson fulfilled a long-held ambition when he took over the Earl of March pub and restaurant near Chichester. He talks to Neil Gerrard.
Need to know
Giles Thompson spent years working as a chef at some of London's top five-star hotels, including the Connaught where he was executive sous chef under Michel Bourdin, and later the Ritz where he became executive head chef.
After exploring other aspects of the industry, like event catering and work as a consultant chef with the likes of Searcy's, Thompson decided to have a go at fulfilling a long-held ambition of opening a pub/restaurant. He settled on the Earl of March, an 18th century Enterprise Inns pub just a couple miles outside Chichester.
When Thompson took on the Earl of March it was a former bikers' pub "at the bottom of the spiral" as a business, he says. "I was totally on my own. I produced a new menu with four fresh starters, four fresh mains and four fresh puddings. Our first day was a Saturday in the middle of the season in July and we did 12 covers. Now at that time of the year we do 120 covers."
"We are not doing the Michelin-starred North Yorkshire or Wales stuff," he says. "But we target a very high end, well-heeled local clientele. And I have discovered there is a very rich vein that runs through this part of Sussex. We are surrounded by historic houses, we have Goodwood nearby, and there are some very high wealth individuals".
He also indicates that the pub has a healthy drinking trade thanks to the local village which uses it to socialise. The Earl of March also hosts a number of shooting parties and local societies, all of which help to add to the atmosphere.
The business took a cautious approach towards marketing when it opened. "I didn't want to come through the front door and make a big noise," Thompson says. "I recognised that people don't like that brashness down here so I decided to do it all softly, softly. I snuck in the back door and unrolled my knife wallet and started cooking and we started to feed out the message that we were here in order that we didn't have an upsurge we were not able to deal with."
That meant the growth was steady and organic but it did not take long before the business started to gain a reputation, helped along by favourable reviews in the local newspapers and its presence in guides like Michelin's Eating Out in Pubs. Twelve months after it opened (in June 2008), the Earl of March also launched its Champagne and seafood shack, which is open over the summer, with a big party for clients and locals.
For Thompson, his best advice for anyone looking to start up a pub/restaurant business is to make sure you have solid internal accounting and stock control. "It has been key to us to know exactly on a daily and weekly basis where we stand," he says. "That allowed us to take the decisions we have been able to take over the last three years. I am fortunate that my wife is in that position to look after it."
And he warns that the window in which to make a new business a success is small. "You have got to look after the money and the costs but also you have got a very short period of time to drive a new business. You have three to six months in which to consolidate it and make a success of it.
"And if you don't see signs of success and growth within a period of six months of giving it 24/7 then I don't think you are necessarily going to be in the right business," he explains.
Since taking on the lease for the Earl of March with Enterprise Inns in 2007, Thompson has since acquired another lease on an Enterprise pub - the Partridge Inn in Singleton, Chichester. "It was a more established business and would have been the one I would have chosen when looking for my first pub but there was a premium on it because of its potential for rooms," he says. Because the new business is only four miles from the Earl of March, Thompson has had to work hard to create an attractive offer that is different to his first pub.
"Immediately people thought they were going to have another Earl of March. But I didn't want to split my market," he says. "It is much more of a traditional coaching inn with low beams - a warren of a place with roaring fires right in the heart of a wonderful village. So it has a whole different feel and what we have done is to keep more of a traditional pub offer with a modern twist."
As a result, the food is more classic, with the likes of steak and ale pie, fish pie, lamb's liver and bacon, and bangers and mash on the menu. For the time being, two pubs is enough for him. But he doesn't rule out further ventures, possibly with Enterprise, in the future.
"I am very happy to stay within the Enterprise framework because we have a very good understanding and they do support us in what we are doing and are becoming very tenant-orientated. So we have no reason to look outside the Enterprise template at this particular time," he says.
Best Place to Eat In Sussex 2010
Observer Business Awards Restaurant of the Year 2010
GILES THOMPSON'S REVELATIONS
Favourite hotel Hotel du Cap in Cap Ferrat, France
Favourite restaurant Le Gavroche
Book that has inspiredLife by Keith Richards
If were not a chef, what would you have been? In the Rolling Stones, or the drummer for Queen
Who do you most admire? Richard Shepherd
Describe your business in five words Upbeat, vibrant, country-plush, fresh, relaxed
SPOTLIGHT ON THE VIEW
One of the Earl of March's biggest attractions, particularly in the summer, is the views it commands of the South Downs. The main stand of the Goodwood racecourse is also visible in the distance. Also, it is reputed that poet and composer William Blake penned the words to Jerusalem while staring out of one of the pub's east-facing bay windows in 1803 when it was known as the Bat and Ball.
FACTS AND STATS
40 Number of staff over two sites (15 full timers, 25 part timers)
120 Number of covers a day in summer (Saturdays)
£30 Average spend per head on food
Owner/manager Giles Thompson
Head chef Ben Eve