Licensee Interview: Polmont Success

January 5th, 2017 | Posted in: Editors' Picks,Features,People

Above: David McAteer (L) and Bryan Alexander (R)

When local Polmont pub The Black Bull was put up for sale in March 2015 it meant one thing for David McAteer and his wife Brooke – they faced the prospect of losing their jobs and everything they had worked so hard for over the last seven years.

The couple had taken on the kitchen franchise at the venue in August 2009, quickly building a reputation for great food and even better customer service, which saw them grow the business from 100 covers a week to almost 500 in the space of just 12 months. David (36), a self-taught chef, tried to drum up investors but it looked increasingly likely that one of the bigger pub chains would purchase the venue and three others owned by Maclay Inns, which would effectively leave the couple unemployed.

So in the meantime he and Brooke (30) and their business partner Bryan Alexander (53) decided to take on the rundown Craiglee Inn in nearby Falkirk. They got the keys in August 2015 and embarked on an ambitious £200,000 refurbishment before re-opening four months later as The Canalside Pub & Grill.

At the same time Tommy McMillan, of Alchemy Inns, bought The Black Bull and agreed to let them have it on a long-term lease. Since then, what is now The Polmont Pub Company, has gone from strength to strength, leasing two more licensed venues, The Oxgangs Hotel in Grangemouth, and The Dumbuck House Hotel in Dumbarton, from Alchemy Inns. In addition, David and Bryan recently opened a new coffee shop, The Wee Calf, in the village of Polmont, after a £10,000 refit.

David says, “It’s been a whirlwind 15 months to go from being almost unemployed to having four licensed businesses. “I’ll be honest I do sometimes sit and think: ‘How the hell have I done this?’ We are always investing and looking to make things better. It would be too easy to stand back and give ourselves a wee pat on the back and say well done us. We are always looking for improvement and to keep that momentum going.”

David left school at 15 and started working at The Inchyra Grange Hotel in Falkirk, where he quickly developed a strong work ethic. He did an HND in Sports Science at 19 and worked five jobs at one point – in bars, the local gym and as a football coach – before deciding he had to choose a career and committing to hospitality.

He explains, “I chose it because I love working with people as well as managing and developing people and seeing a business develop. That’s what drives me as a person – taking something from somewhere and building it.”

David took on his first business at 26, after leasing a pub in Stirling, before moving on to The Black Bull in Polmont, the village where he was born and raised. He says, “The pub was never really known for food but we looked at the area, we looked at the market and at that time it was all Brewery-led so we decided to do things a bit differently. We bought in potatoes and chipped them ourselves and made everything from scratch basically. Our emphasis is very much on trying to keep everything as local as possible.

“Brooke packed in her job as an estate agent – much to everyone’s bemusement – and she did front of house while I taught myself to be a chef. We built really good relationships with our customers and it created a real family environment. Around 80 to 90 per cent of our business is repeat custom.”

Creating The Canalside Pub & Grill

The experience clearly stood the couple, who have a son Luke, four, and daughter Scarlet, 14 months, in good stead when it came to their next project – what is now The Canalside Pub & Grill.

This time they teamed up with Bryan, an ex-Marine who fought in the Falklands at 18, worked in the prison service and was a police officer for 30 years – and the trio threw themselves into the task at hand.

David says, “The Craiglee was really run down and had changed hands a lot. I approached the banks but the feeling was that nobody could make it work and they were pretty blunt about saying we weren’t going to get anything so we had to pull everything together ourselves.

“There was a huge housing scheme in the area and new houses being built, so again we looked at the demographics and what was already on the doorstep and felt there was scope for a good local bar, which was really missing from the area.

“A lot of blood, sweat and heartache went into the project. We did pretty much all the laboring ourselves and roped in family, friends, staff – it was one big effort. We converted the function suite into a 75-cover restaurant with a roaring fireplace and now the place looks fantastic and is thriving.”

“We decided to form the Polmont Pub Company and start building a structure that would enable us to look after multiple sites including The Black Bull, which is where it all started for us. We couldn’t have done it without Tommy at Alchemy – he’s been a fantastic support.”

A recipe for success

David believes that excellent customer service is the key to running a successful licensed venue – but he also sees the value in looking after staff and encouraging them to be the best they can too, by setting goals and targets for them to achieve.

He says, “I stress to everyone in the business that it’s about the relationships you build with your customers. That’s something you should start work on the moment they walk through the door. The product might be similar to something across the road but it’s that personal touch, that relationship that makes the difference.

“When all the breweries were buying up pubs it was almost like the staff were a number but we look after the people who work for us and hopefully that translates to our customers too.”

David is also working with Business Gateway and Skills Development Scotland in a bid to encourage young school leavers into the hospitality trade. He recently set up an eight-week work experience programme designed to give two 17-year-olds a real insight into the business and to dispel some of the myths created by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay.

He says, “Hopefully we can give them the opportunity to see that most kitchens aren’t actually like the ones they see on TV with chefs shouting and swearing and that being a chef or a manager is a good career. If we can bring youngsters in from schools it enables us to train them up the way we want to.”

Small wonder that the past year seems something of a whirlwind – and it doesn’t stop there. Last month they carried out a six-day £16,000 refurbishment at The Black Bull, which dates back at least 170 years to when black Highland cattle were driven along drove routes from the north to the trysts at Falkirk – hence the pub’s name.

David is clearly proud of that legacy – and of being able to secure its future for generations to come. He explains, “The Black Bull is very much an institution locally and I think the worst thing that could have happened is for it to have fallen into the hands of a big brewery – it could have killed it.”

The most recent changes to the restaurant have boosted their covers from 36 to 48 and made it easier to accommodate large parties of diners. The new look, which includes chairs and banquette seats upholstered in taupe leather and blue/grey tartan and striking antler-style light fittings is clean and modern but it still feels relaxed and cosy thanks to another of those roaring fires.

But David is keen to emphasize that the bar area next door – where generations of the same family have been drinking for decades – remains untouched. He explains, “There are all sorts of mugs and stuff hanging from the ceiling and there is loads of football memorabilia on the walls. If you took anything down somebody would notice and they wouldn’t be happy. It’s fine just the way it is, so we let it be.”

Maybe that is one of the keys to success – knowing when to leap and when to leave well alone, although David is clearly not one to let the grass grow under his feet.

He says, “We are far from the finished article and I learn every day. If somebody tells me there is a better way of doing something I will listen to them and I always impress that on our staff too, how important it is to be open to learning.

“Hopefully this is just the beginning and we will be able to grow the business even further over the next few years.” I’m sure they will.

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