Average service? Don’t believe everything you read
There can’t be many people who would launch a new pub and restaurant business by making a virtue of ‘average service’ and even telling customers to expect it on large billboards on the way inside – but Jonathan Wengel is that man, even if he doesn’t really mean it.
The 48-year-old came up with the novel idea as a way to get people talking about his latest venture as licensee of The Cross Stobs Inn in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire – and it certainly seems to be working.
He says, “It’s really just to show that we don’t take ourselves too
seriously and to underline the relaxed atmosphere. I thought it might be an interesting way to promote the business and it’s working.”
In fact, given Jonathan’s enthusiasm for the place, an old coaching Inn dating back to the 17th century, and his attention to the little details, it seems far more likely that the service will be top notch.
The dad-of-three took on the private lease of the pub last December and prides himself on having closed the venue just once since then – on Christmas Day – despite carrying out a £25,000 refurbishment.
He says, “We were closed on December 25, which is what had always happened previously, but I vowed then that it would be the last day we were ever closed and I’ve stuck to that. When we were painting we shut off areas and traded in other parts of the pub and then switched about.
“The place is looking great now and it’s only going to get better.
It’s great to see peoples’ faces when they see the changes that we’ve made – the reaction has been really positive and the staff are really into it as well.
“I’ve been holding off on the marketing until we were really, really
happy with the product in terms of the venue itself and the menu but from this month it’s going to be marketing, marketing, marketing – flyers through every door, adverts in the local press and so on. I can’t wait.”
The Stobs might be Jonathan’s first solo venue but he is an old hand when it comes to the trade, having run a string of pubs including the Fox & Hounds in Houston, Renfrewshire, for 15 years when it was owned by his family.
After leaving school he studied hotel catering and institutional
management at Glasgow College of Food Technology, then joined Thistle Hotels as an assistant manager and then food and beverage manager. In 1995 he joined The Old Manor Hotel in Bridge of Allan, owned by ex-footballer Terry Butcher and his wife, Rita, and was there for two and a half years before heading to Sydney, Australia, for a change of scene.
There he worked as a sous-chef at a restaurant called The Pig and the Olive which had lots of seafood on its Australasian-style menu.
Jonathan says: “They did some fantastic gourmet pieces, great salads – things were very simple, very fresh. In fact the one thing that I use from there is the dressing for our salads, which is fresh lemon and olive oil.
“I was a frustrated chef and I’m still a frustrated chef. I’ve always
been interested in menu design and dish design and am still happy to step in and help out in the kitchen if necessary.”
Jonathan was all set to stay on in Australia when his brother Carl
phoned to ask him to come back and run the bar and kitchen side of things at The Fox so that he could focus on setting up the Houston Brewery in late 1997.
He says, “I said I’d do it for a year but 15 went by and I was still
there. It was a tremendous time and it was a different time compared to today. Pubs were busier, people were drinking outside their homes a lot more and supermarkets weren’t selling alcohol so cheaply, or the variety that they do now. At the time we were really concentrating on food because drink sales were holding their own, albeit without huge growth, while growth on the food side was phenomenal.”
Jonathan’s love of all things culinary stood him in good stead and The Fox soon had a fantastic reputation for its meals. At its height, five chefs worked there full-time and the pub turned over £10,000 in food sales a week.
When The Fox was eventually sold Jonathan joined pub firm Mitchells & Butlers in May 2013, working as general manager at The Lord Lounsdale in Paisley and then The Pullman Tavern in Kilmacolm for two years before he spotted an advertisement for The Stobs last September.
He says, “I knew about the place but I hadn’t been in for quite a
while, or heard anything about it or what it was doing. I was looking to do something different and when I saw it advertised I felt it ticked a lot of boxes.
“We visited it at every time of day and it didn’t seem to be trading
that well so I thought it was a huge risk but I thought the potential
far outweighed the risk. It was almost a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was a private lease which was very important to me and location-wise it was ten minutes away from home and it was pretty perfect in terms of what I wanted.”
Jonathan admits there were plenty of discussions at home with wife Helen, a primary school teacher, and their three kids – Eve (13) and two boys Max (11) and Rudi (five) before they decided to go for it.
He says, “There was a lot of excitement, but huge trepidation as well – we’ve pretty much poured everything we’ve got into it.”
After a brief period to take stock, Jonathan embarked on a series of changes at The Stobs. Out went the standard pub menu of lasagne and chilli and in came pork belly, schnitzel, crayfish, and their ‘soon to be famous’ Haggis sausage rolls. The meat is supplied by local butchers Phelps, who are based in Paisley.
Jonathan also insists on serving hand-cut chips because he believes they taste so much better – although he jokes that the chefs hate him for it.
He says, “We wanted to do something that was a bit different, a bit more original, with the menu. Our aim is to keep the price point relatively low while serving great tasting fresh food. I don’t think we’ve made too many mistakes so far although Barrhead was not ready for lamb kidneys on toast, which was one of the dishes on my first menu. It’s about trial and error.”
He recently signed a deal with Tennents to supply their beers and also stocks real ales from The Kelburn Brewing Company, based in Paisley as well as around 30 whiskies including island malts, Speysides and Bourbon. In terms of decor, Jonathan did away with a series of photographs of oil rigs in favour of pictures of Highland cows – a theme more in keeping with what was once a rural location and likely to be popular with the punters.
Hidden treasures, including a brass newspaper rack lost behind the TV screen and a fabulous Guinness mirror tucked behind a fruit machine were unearthed during the refurbishment and have been reinstated.
New brown leather chairs and benches, which are being supplied by Walker Contracts in Lenzie, will give the dining area a smart but relaxed feel and CO2 Design in Paisley came up with the pub’s new logo. Outside the large beer garden has been spruced up and there are toys for the kids and plans to introduce rabbits and guinea pigs too. While the building is not without its challenges – including the fact that the cellar floods when it rains heavily – it offers huge potential for the future. A disused nightclub could be turned into function rooms and there is also a shop which closed in January and could easily be re-instated.
But for now Jonathan is happy to focus on The Stobs itself.
He says, “This is very much a pub for families to come to but we’ve also gone in for the whole separate theming idea – so ladies can drink Prosecco in the lounge, kids can play out in the garden, families can eat in the dining room and guys can watch football in the bar or hang out in the pool room. We’re trying to appeal to everyone – from 0 to 100 – and I think you’re mad if you don’t.”
Aside from the familiar licensee concerns around the impact of the smoking ban and drink drive laws, Jonathan is optimistic about the future. He says, “The trade always bounces back. Good operators will always survive and people are always going to dine out. “I don’t think we will ever be finished because we will always be changing or moving forward, improving hopefully.”
If Jonathan’s approach to his customers is anything like his energetic approach to the refurbishment has been, then roll on the ‘average service’.