Better business: Pipe and Glass Inn, South Dalton
James and Kate Mackenzie have transformed a run-down pub into a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms that picked up the Pub and Bar Catey award. Janie Manzoori-Stamford finds out how
Need to know
But with funds tight, it required all hands on deck. "We got the keys on 1 March and did a two-week refurbishment," says James. "We called a favour in from every different person we knew, doing 20-22 hours a day. We saved money by sourcing everything ourselves and getting favours from tradesmen we knew."
The Mackenzies' ambition for the business was high from the outset, but their pockets were anything but deep. They were leaving behind jobs at Andrew Pern's Star Inn at Harome to go it alone, and with the help of two keen friends-turned-investors (who were later bought out) and several maxed-out credit cards, the couple managed to pull together the hefty security required by the bank to qualify for the necessary loan to buy the freehold. But what was left to carry out the much-needed revamp was not substantial and the pair had to get creative with their money.
"We had £4,000 to spend on kitchen equipment, so by the time I bought a Robot-Coupe, some plates and new cutlery that was it - it was gone," says James. "I went to places like Wilkinson to buy bowls. It came down to sheer elbow grease to get the place clean."
That determination to make the best they can out of the business with whatever resource they have to hand is certainly ongoing, as the Mackenzies constantly have their eyes on the next way they can improve the Pipe and Glass.
"We've piled loads of money back into the business when we've been able to afford it, but that's what's good about us," James explains. "Our customers see us re-investing all the time and they've seen us grow and that's what makes it more rewarding when we get recognition like the Catey awards and Michelin stars. It's not been millions of pounds from the off - it's been a gradual process and a labour of love."
Kate agrees: "You couldn't get the same satisfaction out of it. I'm not saying I wouldn't mind not working so many hours a day, but we know it's because of what we've done that we're at this point. We feel proud because we've done it."
It didn't take long for the Pipe and Glass to attract the attentions of various industry and consumer awards and eating out guides. In fact, Michelin paid a visit within a week of the Mackenzies opening their doors for the first time, despite accolades coming pretty far down their list of priorities when starting a new business.
James explains: "We had an inspection five days after we opened. I told them that we're not cooking to get a Michelin star, we're looking to have a full restaurant and pay the bills. I've said that every time they have come."
However, Michelin, and a number of other guides, were not put off. Various regional tourism awards came the way of the Pipe and Glass before recognition started to go national in 2010 when it was awarded a star, and many more accolades continued to follow, including the Pub and Bar Catey award earlier this year.
"We just stick to our roots and do the best we can. We didn't ask to get all these awards - they were given to us," says James. "When we got Michelin Pub of the Year in 2012, Michelin said they give it to people who are doing a great job and because they want them to have more business. They don't do it to put extra strain on people."
Living the dream
As owner-operators of a profitable business that is well-regarded by its peers, consumers and critics alike, it would be easy to assume that the Mackenzies are living the hospitality dream. But their devotion to the Pipe and Glass, not to mention their two young children, leaves the couple little time to bask in the glory.
According to Kate, it's not until they venture beyond their own hard-working bubble that she and James have the chance to look at what they do with a fresh perspective. "It's when we go down to London and see other people - be it the Cateys or something else - that we realise we're doing the right thing. It's good to speak to other people in the industry at the same level as us because they're all going through the same things," she adds.
But it isn't easy for James and Kate to relinquish responsibility for their professional baby, even though they have a PA to relieve the burden of day-to-day tasks because, as James says, the buck still stops with them.
"It's still us doing everything: paying the bills each month, knowing what's coming in and going out. That's why it's real for us.
If someone smashes a plate, it's not some investor's money - it's ours. I know how much it costs," he explains.
Two luxury bedroom suites - named Thyme and Sage - were added to the Pipe and Glass in 2010 which, in accordance with the couple's strategy for their business improvement plans, was when the Mackenzies could afford it. The two suites are aimed at diners who would sooner indulge themselves a little more for the evening than make the drive home. Such is their popularity that plans are afoot for three more, but the plan isn't as simple as increasing occupancy.
When the Mackenzies vacated the upstairs residence at the Pipe and Glass three years ago to move into a family home next door, once again they looked at ways they could make the best of the space they had left behind. In its place they created an intimate private dining room capable of accommodating up to 10 people, with a dedicated service kitchen and adjacent chefs' library, brimming with collectable cookbooks new and old - another massive investment to the tune of £50,000.
But nothing is done without foresight and ambition. The addition of the three new boutique suites in conjunction with the private dining room will allow the Pipe and Glass to offer flexible packages for groups, most likely five couples, looking to celebrate a special occasion with a food-led overnight stay.
"We get people from Beverley [six miles down the road] coming to stay, especially during the week for an anniversary or birthday," explains Kate. "They want to enjoy themselves and not worry about a taxi home. Everything we've done for the business, we felt we could cope with. We're at the stage now where we feel we can cope with three more rooms. Everything is a gradual process."
Best advice: know your audience
The Mackenzies are often asked how they keep on improving and their answer is simple: they know where they want to be. And in order to get there, James says, they need to know their customer base. And in that they are very confident. "We know what they want. You only have to look at a business like the Waterside Inn to know that you don't have to be changing your menu every single day.
"We know what sells to the people that enjoy coming in. That's why we have a proper prawn cocktail on the menu - because people love it. We still have halibut and partridge, but ultimately it's about nice flavours and food that's cooked classically well."
The Mackenzies' favourite things
Favourite hotel? Covent Garden Hotel, London [Firmdale Group]
Favourite restaurant? Simpsons, Birmingham
Favourite pub? Star Inn, Harome
What book has inspired you? ‘Great British Chefs' by Kit Chapman
What's your motto? Work hard, be professional, listen to others, provide quality and constancy
Which restaurateurs do you most admire? Raymond Blanc and Terry Laybourne
Describe your business in five words? Yorkshire hospitality for all occasions
If you weren't a restaurateur, what would you have been? Bored!
Spotlight on Two Chefs Beer
James Mackenzie and his long-time friend and former boss at the Star Inn Andrew Pern (see page 44 for a profile) were asked, as leading lights of Yorkshire hospitality, to help promote the Malton Food Festival in 2011. So they were invited to spend a day at the Great Yorkshire Brewery to come up with their own bespoke beer, which they aptly titled Two Chefs.
"We spent a day tasting lots of things. We wanted to do something a little bit different; something that was maybe not to everyone's taste, but would go well with food," says James. "That's when we came up with the honey and lemon thyme. The honey comes from the beehives in Andrew's garden at the back of the Star Inn and the lemon thyme is from Yorkshire."
Such was the popularity of their bespoke brew that it has since been bottled, with sales in delis across the county as well as both their restaurants, and a new winter-spiced version has been introduced.
FACTS AND STATS
Owners: James and Kate Mackenzie
Number of staff: 40
Opened: March 2006
Number of rooms: 2
Average spend: £28 (food only)
Number of covers: 100