Since turning a boarded-up pub in Cheshire into a thriving gastropub three years ago, David Mooney and Paul Newman's New Moon Pub Company has added new sites at the rate of one every six months. Tom Vaughan asks how they have seen such remarkable growth without any external investment
"We both realised that we were getting too old to be cooking in the kitchen or locking up at night," explains Newman. "The game plan was to have three pubs in five years so that we could have a head office and run the group. It's just happened a lot faster, now we have six pubs and three different concepts."
The three-year-old company is a true recession success story - two canny operators who were able to apply their vast combined experience into a struggling pub sector and come up trumps. And it all goes back to that first site. Mooney was driving past one day in 2011 and his interest was piqued.
"It was this boarded-up site," explains Mooney. "It had two acres of grounds but had been empty for two years, with five owners over the space of about nine years." "We'd both known it for many years," adds Newman. "David and I have known each other professionally for about 15 years. He rang me because we'd been talking about different concepts, different ideas. And we ended up signing on the dotted line. It was a 'suck it and see' moment."
The result was the Lord Binning in Kelsall, Cheshire. The 100-cover gastropub combines the group's trademark locally sourced menu with a 70-cover bar that still caters to the 3,000-strong catchment area of locals. From the off, both their hospitality expertise fed into the project. Mooney's career took him from the kitchens of Marco Pierre White's iconic restaurant Harveys to chef-patron of the Belle Epoque in Knutsford, all the while building up a profile as a regional media star, with over 200 appearances as the resident chef on the Granada Tonight programme.
Meanwhile, Newman helped launch multibrand restaurant and bar operator Living Ventures in 1999 before going out on his own in 2007 after the sale of the group's chain the Living Room.
Launched with only their own investment, the Lord Binning hit the ground running, despite being on a site that had repeatedly failed, in the midst of a recession. What was the secret?
"We offered a quality that people perceived as value for money," answers Mooney. "That's what people want in a recession. People might still have been spending £20 on a main, but they saw it as value for money. We used premium ingredients - the best British beef - but still had a pie on for £12, and we would sell hundreds of them. We marketed, social marketed, did food demos, magazine articles, got the pub's name out there and once we'd got people through the door it sold itself."
In fact, the site proved so popular that the pair had the revenue to think about a second site - and needed to strike while the iron was hot.
"The recession meant that there were all these crazy deals on pubs," explains Mooney. "It would have been crazy not to have taken advantage. In 2006, a landlord would be asking for a £120,000 premium to open a pub, with expensive rent on top. A few years later, once the recession had hit, you could pick it up
for zero premium and very reasonable rent."
Just as with the Lord Binning, their next pub, the Old Sessions House in Knutsford, had been in financial difficulties before they took over, and was only open two days a week.
It opened in September 2012 and was followed by the Hanging Gate in Weaverham in December that year (although it is now on the market, as its relatively small size means it doesn't quite fit alongside the other pubs).
Next came the Montgomery pub & kitchen in Eastham Village on the Wirral in June 2013, the Beef & Pudding in Manchester in April 2014 and the Mockingbird Taproom in Chester a few months later - all pubs on the brink, all given a new lease of life by the company.
At present, the group does 6,000 covers across the six sites, with an average 60/40 wet/ dry split and an average meal spend of around £25. The group's net turnover next year is forecast to be £6m.
Much of this success lies in the pair's realisation that the same pub wouldn't work in every location - each new site has needed a tailor-made approach. So now, they are the owners of six pubs and three brands - quite a high concept to site ratio, no?
"What we always joke about is everything we do is the same jigsaw puzzle, just with a different colour on the front," says Newman. "There are the same systems underpinning everything, the same wage cost, the same food and beverage systems and the same training. We find a site and work out what we can do
there, but underneath it is the same structure," he added.
The Lord Binning, Hanging Gate and Montgomery all stick to the first gastropub formula that worked so well from the start. The pair describe Beef & Pudding and Old Sessions House as "urban gastropubs", while the Mockingbird has offered an opportunity to do something a bit different with its pan-Gulf cooking.
"The tag line is 'cleaning up dirty food'," explains Mooney. "We've got chicken wings on there that will take your eyeballs off but there is also a bit of subtlety."
The menu, which focuses on scrubbed-up versions of South American and Caribbean comfort food, hops cheerily from seafood gumbos to fried chicken, enchiladas and ribs.
"We fizz off each other," explains Mooney. "I'm creative, Paul's creative and we've now got the infrastructure to push these brands forward. We've got two or three concepts sitting on the shelf in the office, ready for the right site. We're very forward thinking. The Beef & Pudding brand has the potential for seven or
eight sites before we sell it on."
So rather than set out with a masterplan, did they chance upon a recession-created opportunity and position themselves to be able to act quickly?
"To some extent," answers Mooney. "But if the skillset and the experience isn't there then you haven't got a hope in hell. There is a reason banks, commercial property agents and landlords are all coming to us, not because we are nice guys - which we are - but because they see the opportunity for brand development. A lot of thought goes into where we launch and what we launch there. I reckon we have walked away from 15 sites because they weren't right."
At the time of writing, three new sites are in the pipeline - a Beef & Pudding pub in Chester, a second Mockingbird in Manchester and a 250-cover city centre project in Liverpool. The pair are also in talks to get investment from a government-backed scheme that would save them from having to give up any equity.
"What's refreshing is a lot of the banks now are asking the same sort of questions you are," says Mooney.
High up on that line of enquiry are those systems that underpin New Moon. What is the one such system they couldn't do without? "We get a weekly flash report that comes from the finance director," answers Newman. "It tells us the GP of each site, the wage costs vs net sales, the net profit. And we go around
every site every week and have a meeting to discuss figures. Everyone gets involved."
Appointing a finance director was key to the growth of the business, adds Mooney. "Finance isn't our strongest point and he fundamentally changed the way we operate. Because of him we have nurtured the banks, who have offered us the funding we need to go forward."
It's only three years, but New Moon is already waxing at a terrific speed. What is the end point?
"We love the business and that's why we do it," says Newman. "We've got a great business relationship; we are on the same wavelength. The end game is to make loads of money and enjoy our retirement, but in the meantime we are loving what we are doing."
New Moon Pubs
The group operates six sites, with three different concepts: the Lord Binning, Montgomery and Hanging Gate are traditional gastropubs, serving "great food,
great cask ales and great wine by the glass," says Mooney. The Beef & Pudding and Old Sessions House are "more urban, more contemporary". The Mockingbird is inspired by pan-Gulf cooking, with influences from Cuba, South America and Mexico.
The Lord Binning
- Chester Road, Kelsall, Cheshire CW6 0RZ
- Opened August 2011
- Covers 100 restaurant, 100 function room, 70 bar
- Dishes Half pint prawn cocktail (£7.25); prime beef fillet fajita (£14.95); whole grilled Cornish lobster with fries, green beans (£25.95)
The Old Sessions House
- 43 Princess Street, Knutsford WA16 6BW
- Opened Sept 2012
- Covers 90 restaurant, 70 bar
- Dishes Salt and pepper squid with king prawn tails (£7.95); Creole salmon with herb and citrus mascarpone (£12.95); burger with onion brioche and gherkin (£11.95)
The Hanging Gate Inn
- 1 Sandy Lane, Weaverham CW8 3HG
- Opened December 2012 (on the market at the time of writing)
- Covers 65 restaurant
- Dishes Potted ham hock with piccalilli (£5.95); roast fig salad with blue Cheshire cheese (£12.95); six-hour slow-cooked pulled beef brisket chilli with butter rice (£10.95)
47 Stanley Lane, Eastham Village, Wirral CH62 0AG
- Opened June 2013
- Covers 85 restaurant
- Dishes Braised rabbit with smoked paprika popcorn and toast (£6.95); seared tuna fillet on Vietnamese salad (£13.95); honey-basted Old Spot belly with macaroni cheese (£13.95)
Beef & Pudding
37 Booth St, Manchester City Centre M2 4AA
- Opened April 2014
- Covers 98 restaurant, 60 bar
- Dishes Home-cured 'gunpowder' smoked salmon (£6.95); crispy tripe with a potato, cheese and smoked bacon cake (£5.95); Herdwick lamb stew and dumplings (£13.95)
85 Watergate St, Chester, Cheshire CH1 2LN
- Opened October 2014
- Covers 80 restaurant, 40 bar
- Dishes Nachos with beef brisket chilli, cheese and guacamole (£6.95); three jumbo shrimp with béarnaise dip (£13.95)