Philip Turner, the founder of East Anglia-based The Chestnut Group, talks to MCA about building his version of the modern pub. He discusses why he is seeing a demographic shift out of London which operators can capitalise on and his plans to expand further south.
When Philip Turner decided to take over the local pub in his home village of Moulton, Newmarket almost three years ago he never once envisioned that he would become a full time multi-site operator.
The former banker, who spent periods of his 20-year financial career working in Hong Kong and New York, as well as London, bought the venue with the intention of doing “something special” with it.
So he set about turning the West Suffolk site into a go-to destination for food, drink and accommodation, reopening The Packhorse Inn in October 2013 with eight boutique hotel bedrooms.
“As somebody who wanted to go out and eat great food in a great environment I felt there was nowhere to go and decided to fill that gap,” he tells MCA.
“It coincided with a time when a career change was in the offering. I never really thought that this would develop into this but now it has become very much a full time operation.”
Almost three years later Turner’s company, The Chestnut Group, is in possession of five sites: The Rupert Brooke in Grantchester, The White Horse in Easton near Woodbridge, The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds and the recently acquired Three Blackbirds in the village of Woodditton on the outskirts of Newmarket.
He describes his business is being all about “creating unforgettable experiences”. At least £500,000 is invested into each site to “get them where we want them to be” with the onus very much on offering premium food and a quality service to rival upmarket restaurants in a distinctly relaxed pub environment.
“I love to see somebody in a pair of wellies, with their dog, having a pint whilst you’ve got someone in the corner on the other inside of the building having dinner and a fantastic bottle of wine,” Turner says. “Both are having their own experience within the same environment, that’s what a modern pub should be able to cater for. What we are not trying to create is a highly formal dining environment.”
It is not by accident that the group has been building up a hub of sites in East Anglia, a region Turner believes has “slightly missed out” in terms of food and hospitality venues.
This part of the country, he argues, is one of the natural exit points for “influential, aspirational families living in Hoxton, Shoreditch and Dalston”.
“We’re already seeing it at our sites, a lot of young Londoners who are exiting London or who are coming to see us for weekends. What you’re then seeing is house price appreciation following the eastern train lines. We’ve got an interesting demographic shift, Cambridge is the primary economic driver in the UK at the moment… Add to that Bury St Edmunds, which has the highest net migration of 35-45-year-old people of anywhere in the country. Our client base is getting bigger and bigger which is exciting for us.”
Turner also points to the development of infrastructure in the region.
“The A11 main trunk road that goes from Newmarket up to Norwich, that’s now a dual carriageway. I have people who work for us who live in Norwich which couldn’t happen three years ago because you couldn’t get here in time…The A14 had £400m spent on it last year and another £1.2bn has been signed off next year, 60% of the UK’s imports come through Felixstowe which is at the end of the A14 on the Suffolk coast. So that’s very good for movement around the region.”
For now, the group’s focus will be on The Northgate, due to open in October and The Three Blackbirds which should be ready to trade by next April.
Due to its high street location, The Northgate’s décor will be “slightly more contemporary” than the other sites with a “Londony” cocktail bar, kitchen serving a la carte dinner in the evenings as well as tasting menus and nine individually decorated bedrooms.
Meanwhile, the thatch-roofed Three Blackbirds, an “oldy worldy” pub dating back to 1649 with lots of fires and low ceilings, will be more family orientated in both menu and price point providing a “nice balance” between The Packhorse which is “slightly more premium”, Turner adds.
“It’s very cosy, very traditional,” he says of the latest acquisition, which will have nine bedrooms.
“We’ll do what we do with interiors – lovely fabrics, wallpapers, antique mix and match furniture, we’ll retain the heritage of the building and upgrade everything.”
Looking to the future, Turner says he would like to venture further south into East Anglia.
Hertfordshire is a potential contender he says, before adding that he has his eye on a site in North Essex.
“I am always talking to people about new acquisitions, I would expect we’ll open at least another one or two in 2017.”