Sometimes the terms ‘seasoned operator’ and ‘industry stalwart’ are a double-edged sword; a nicer way of implying ‘slightly past it’ or ‘long in the tooth’.
Jo Cumming has experience in spades, but for her both edges of the proverbial weapon are razor sharp. In a good way.
The co-owner of Food & Fuel, the food-led pub firm, started working life at Theme Holdings, operator of the trailblazing and iconic Coconut Grove and Peppermint Park in London’s West End. It is where she met the equally iconic and trailblazing Karen Jones, with whom she has worked with, on and off, throughout her career, including now (the pair are business partners).
Cumming worked with Jones at the inception of Café Rouge and stayed with it when it was sold to Whitbread. After this, she learnt the café trade when she ran the then tiny (just 11 sites) Caffe Nero, which she helped double in size before she was lured back to work with Jones, this time at Spirit Pub Company, where she became a true pioneer in the original gastropub movement, heading the firm’s DevCo division, which opened the seminal Lots Road Pub and Dining Room in Chelsea in September 2000. Converting the pub to one of the first true food-led pubs was a risk, but it paid off and was the catalyst for Cumming’ enduring passion for such businesses (even though she admits she has fallen out of love with the term ‘gastropub’).
“In the first week we hardly sold any food, people just came in for a drink,” she recalls. “It was terrible - we had a fantastic chef and kitchen and we just had a few people ordering plates of chips and I remember one customer walking in who said: ‘What have you done?’”
She took the decision to give food away and once people tasted what was on offer, they were soon sold onto the idea. Shortly after opening, Lots Road was named Time Out Gastropub of the Year, an accolade bestowed on the firm’s second gastropub, The Fire Stables in Wimbledon the following year. The rest is history.
In discussing her long and varied career and her latest venture, what stands out is just how strongly Cumming obviously still feels the urge to keep ahead of the curve and her willingness to adapt to the needs of the changing market– traits that can so easily wane over the years.
“The industry is lucky enough to be in a very exciting time – there are so many new places and new options for customers. That means more competition, which you need to embrace. For us that means being prepared to continually innovate and to change,” she enthuses, although she does admit it is perhaps not so easy to do as it used to be:
“That is a challenge for us because we are not in our 20s and a lot of the other operators are and have more energy!”
The biggest changes, she feels, are in the needs of today’s customers. She believes many of the larger, long-established operators are failing to address these.
“I don’t think the pub industry as a whole has fully embraced the changes it needs to understand the Millennials,” she explains.
“This is the generation that has grown up going to Starbucks. They don’t drink as much, they are looking for healthier options, have a very different attitude to what they spend their money on and they are very knowledgeable because they are so much more food- and drink-savvy.”
For Food & Fuel that has meant providing more bespoke, artisanal products and options that suit different lifestyles - so craft beers with tap takeovers from local brewers; premium spirits and mixers; staff with an in-depth knowledge of everything on offer and more vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options:
“Who would have thought a few years ago that we would be offering gluten-free pizza in a pub?” Cumming asks slightly incredulously.
The way she keeps on top of these trends, she says, is by getting everyone in the business closer to the customers. Food & Fuel was set up in 2006 when Cumming and Jones bought five pubs from Punch. They have backing from another industry legend and previous colleague for both, Roger Myers, and his nephew Peter who worked with Cumming at DevCo and is now involved in operations and concept development for Food & Fuel which, thanks in no small part to the 2007 acquisition of Front Page Pubs, has now grown to encompass eight gastropubs, one sports pub and three café bars, two of the latter being under the Coco Momo banner. The firm has enjoyed ten years of like-for-like growth and turns over around £13m a year. Investment per site is typically £350,000 to £400,000 and most of the businesses return at around 40%.
Cumming says one of the most transformational changes to the business since it started has been its decision some 18 months ago to get the whole team listening to customers. All feedback – good, bad and indifferent, is now collated weekly and shared with all employees. Despite some initial resistance, Cumming says the move has had a very positive impact on the firm.
“There was this attitude when we first started that by sharing this with our 220 staff we were washing our dirty linen in public, but it has helped us create a very open culture.
“One of the strongest things to have come out of it is our increased awareness of how to manage the mix of customers. We have such a variety of people that use the pubs and we have learnt how to manage their differing needs. For example at Sunday lunchtime there may be a lot of families, but there will also be some couples and single adults and they don’t necessarily want to mix, so we are now more aware of this when they come in and can accommodate them accordingly.”
Another key factor in keeping Cumming motivated to keep trying new things has been Frontier Pubs, the company’s joint venture with Enterprise Inn’s EI Managed Investments. The partnership opened its first pub less than a year ago and has quickly grown to six sports pubs offering pizza and craft beer with plans for another two before the end of the year and a further five in 2018, all in London.
“Food & Fuel still feels so small and manageable, like a family, and we have so much experience in the business that we have been able to expand at the rate we have with Frontier. It provides a great development opportunity for our people so we feel like we get the best of both worlds. At some point we will feel a stretch with Frontier, inevitably, but at the same time that re-energises you,” Cumming says.
Frontier Pubs has been the focus for the past 12 months and will obviously take up more time in the foreseeable future. The last Food & Fuel opening was three years at a former EI pub, The Grosvenor in Hanwell, west London, but Cumming says the firm now plans to concentrate on Food & Fuel expansion too and hopes to have another pub open before the end of the year. The ideal site would be around 2,000 square feet with the ability to include an open kitchen.
Cumming is characteristically open-minded to the idea of expanding further by acquisition and to working with other partners, but there are no firm plans for anything new on either of those fronts at the moment.
The firm has recently appointed a people support manager, a role Cumming was effectively managing herself previously, but has siphoned off to make head space for Frontier. She recognises a need to promote the Food & Fuel brand more externally, especially when it comes to potential employees.
“We have done very little to raise awareness but now feel there would be real value from a recruitment point of view,” she explains.
“New people who are joining us often say we are hiding our light under a bushel so I do think there is an opportunity for us to do that, certainly in terms of our food because it is all freshly prepared and we need to be able to communicate that more effectively.”
All of the pubs have chefs who create their own menus, although relatively recently the company brought them all together to try and simplify operations by coming up with the best, common recipes to use for a few key dishes like fish and chips and burgers.
For Cumming, the food and being close to the customer is the raison d’être for the business and she loves having control of her own destiny. She has worked in drinks- and coffee-led businesses and she has done her time in big organisations. She knows exactly what she wants and is flexible enough to go with opportunities as they arise. That’s what comes with experience.