What did you do on the morning of your maths GCSE (that’s mathematics O-level for readers over the age of 43)? To be fair, it’s not usually up there as a memorable life event for most, but Tim Foster can remember exactly. That’s probably because he helped a Saddleback sow deliver 13 piglets.

The childhood of Foster, now the self-styled “head of Yummy mischief”, aka joint owner of the five-strong Yummy Pub Company, gave him a rounded education that has had a profound impact on his career. When Foster was five, his father sold the family home in Berkshire and bought a smallholding in Heathfield, East Sussex. This gave the now 37-year old the understanding of and passion for food provenance that is an important part of his company’s ethos today. And it is highlighted by the pigs and chickens he keeps at The Grove Pantry Pub and Inn, the company’s second site, owned by Shepherd Neame, in Chislet near Canterbury.

Foster’s dad also had an auctioneering business, where, in his teens he helped after school, loading and unloading furniture from lorries. Again he has been able to apply his experience directly to his own company. When The Somers Town Coffee House in Euston, London (the first of three sites, all in the capital, that Yummy now operates in partnership with pub firm and brewer Charles Wells) went out of business under its previous owners, Foster was told he could not make an offer for the furniture as it would all be taken away and auctioned. So, he followed the lorry that collected it, then went to the auction and paid a laughable £75 for the lot. In fact he has a very hands-on attitude to all aspects of his pub group – happy to roll up his sleeves and do everything from putting up shelves to unblocking drains.

But Foster says perhaps the most important lesson he gleaned from his upbringing is the ability to recognise his own weaknesses, thanks in no small part to his dad losing everything in the ‘first’ recession in the Eighties. “He was a good auctioneer but he was a shit businessman,” he says bluntly. “I am very good at a lot of things, but I am not a good businessman and I am a crap line manager as I hate rules. Fortunately I have gone into business with Anthony who is good at those things, even though he’s not so good at some of the things I can do.”

Anthony is Anthony Pender, Yummy’s managing director responsible for overall strategy, financial and operational analysis and development of managers, who drives the bottom line, while Foster drives the top line via marketing, design and generating new business through innovation – making good use of his design and fashion photography qualifications. They discovered their skill sets were complementary when Pender took on Foster’s sales job at Carlsberg UK because Foster moved to a marketing role. The pair transformed their Brighton patch working together and had a blast doing so.

“Rather than 9am-5pm we were working 2pm-3am, going around to meetings in our shorts and flip flops,” he recalls.

Harder than imagined

It was their professional dealings with Sussex County Cricket Club that led them to meet Jason Rowlands, the head chef there at the time who joined them in putting money into their own venture and is now executive chef at Yummy. Colin Charlesworth was the fourth member of the team, another contact from the Carlsberg days who had his own brewery technician business. For personal reasons he remains a partner only in The Grove and the group’s original site, The Wiremill, in Newchapel, East Sussex, bought from Massive Pub Company in 2007, and did not participate in the Charles Wells joint venture. At the beginning, they had visions that their firm, Bar Hub as was, would be the ‘umbrella’ for a multi-faceted business offering everything from the pubs to bar consultancy and food and beverage at events. Running the pubs was, however, harder work than they could have ever imagined and took all their energy.

Unbelievably, it was only three years ago that Foster stopped working for Carlsberg (where, incidentally, his partner and mother of his two young sons still works) having run The Wiremill and The Grove in tandem with his day job as Carlsberg UK’s marketing controller for the on-trade.

“It was crazy, but we couldn’t afford to bring me in. Anthony was only 24 when we started this while I was 31 so he was at a different life stage to me and could do it full time,” Foster explains.

He asks rhetorically if it was worth giving up his pension and company car (he’s a fan of the rhetorical question, speaking exactly as he writes on his blog on the Yummy website) and doesn’t hesitate to say yes – the freedom of being his own boss and having the flexibility to be around for his children is important to him. Plus he gets a real buzz out of seeing young staff flourish in the business, which now em-ploys just over 100 people.

In fact the company’s experience of working with disadvantaged youngsters through the New Horizons centre adjacent to The Somers Town pub, and the development of its own Yummy Academy training scheme, led it to get the ball rolling for the Perceptions Group, the pan-industry body that aims to raise the reputation of careers in the pub sector by offering work placements to unemployed youths. Foster says about one in five of those that Yummy employs via this route prove a success, so it is a bit of a gamble but it is hugely fulfilling when it goes right and is sensible from a business point of view too – Foster says labour for the group, including the owners, makes up 21% of overall costs.

Making a lot of noise

Foster clearly enjoys the fact that his small company manages to make a lot of noise. Yummy’s awards haul is impressive and played a part in attracting Charles Wells to work with the firm, but it is its innovative and flexible approach to running pubs that has caught the wider industry’s eye. As well as the livestock at The Grove, the Kent country pub now makes its own jams, chutneys and ready meals to sell through all five of the firm’s sites – the latter aspect in particular was born from observations that a large proportion of Somers Town’s clientele would leave the pub to buy dinner from Marks & Spencer on the way home.

Other quirky ideas include the 40-seat cinema at The Gorringe Park in Tooting, South London, and the Cosy Kettle cocktail and cake bar, the success of which at Somers Town has led to its introduction at the recently-opened The Victoria in Mile End, East London. The Victoria also has The Gentlemen Baristas (GB) coffee bar (a mini version of which has been rolled out to all five pubs – within two months, coffee sales rose 23% at Somers Town). GB is a separate coffee roasting business that Yummy part-owns.

Pre-Carlsberg, Foster worked for Concept Coffee Systems during which time he met Henry Ayers, then a sales rep for coffee supplier Kimbo, who had the idea for GB with his friend Edward Parkes. GB is about to open its first high street outlet, in Borough, south London – Yummy decided to back the venture because, Foster says, it is bringing exceptional, rather than just ubiquitous good, coffee to the pub environment.

In addition there is the Ssshh supper club, discreetly-marketed gastronomical gatherings that have been held upstairs at Somers Town (the Yummy team always had the idea to do these in standalone boarded up retail sites identified by a busker outside – an idea they still think has legs). After Christmas, the plan is to run Ssshh monthly above the three London pubs. And on a smaller scale, but significant for the Yummy brand, the group does not shy away from working with small suppliers of everything from the Brew Tea Co tea it serves to the Joe and Seph’s popcorn and the handmade cookies. Yummy is always willing to work with them to overcome hurdles relating to things like invoicing if it means it is able to offer cust-omers a quality product that is different.

These USPs are well-received with average weekly turnover per site between the low £20,000s per week up to the high £30,000s and up to £80,000 for exceptional weeks. Like-for-like sales for the group for the year to August were 37% up on 2012/13.

Somers Town is already Charles Wells’ top-performing site, and The Gorringe has made appearances in second place, but Foster is confident The Victoria will soon overtake both. He finds it very flattering that so many senior operators from rival firms have come in to their latest pub to see what the company’s up to and says he has already seen copycat menus, mirroring the British tapas offer that Yummy now sells at all five pubs, alongside 10 weekly specials.

But, of course, the Yummy journey has not been without some serious bumps. As well as nearly going bust in 2009, saved largely by good relationships with suppliers whose flexibility helped with cashflow, The Grove has been a particular thorn in the company’s side. Foster loves the country pub and the pantry concept Yummy has introduced there and has always believed it could do well despite its difficult location, too far out from Canterbury to catch the town’s passing trade and situated after a few other country pubs that could tempt hungry and thirsty customers first (plus, he says, economically and attitudinally, the area is 15 years behind Cornwall). But the biggest obstacle has been the relationship with the site’s landlord, Shepherd Neame who, to put it more diplomatically than he does, he has not found forward-thinking or supportive.

On top of this, the pub has suffered a triple whammy of fire, flood and theft of around £80,000 from a now incarcerated former general manager which almost brought Yummy down (it also led the firm to introduce a sophisticated CCTV and till management system across the pubs that allow the partners and off duty general managers, to check in on exactly what’s going on in the pubs by viewing live footage and figures via smart phones).

While this would be more than enough for most to get out, Yummy has continued to invest in the site and Foster says it is now showing strong growth, thanks to promotion of the site at the London pubs whose customers are increasingly going down to use its meeting facilities and six bedrooms.

He admits he regrets ever taking it on, however, and says he is only prepared to give it another year to 18 months and if things have not improved sufficiently it will be time to move on. If that is the case, he’ll be on the lookout for another similar site to serve as the country hub for the business, ideally near his home in Market Harborough, Leicestershire (he moved there partly because it’s where his other half’s family are, but also because Yummy and Charles Wells were in the process of buying another pub which fell through two days after he completed on his new home).

Foster says a new pub, probably in an up and coming area of London, is possible before the end of this year, maybe in partnership with Charles Wells. Beyond that he recognises that once the group gets to seven to nine sites it will need more investment and will need to decide whether to go further down the partnership route or to buy freeholds or maybe even buy another small operator. And despite the success of the Charles Wells partnership, he is also aware of the dangers of putting all his eggs in one basket. Yummy has also had offers from other owners and private equity but is not ready to consider either as an option yet.

Cultivating existing sites

For now the group is concentrating on cultivating the existing business – Foster reckons there is still 50% growth potential in the current sites. Yummy has an option to buy the freehold of The Wiremill, the lakeside pub where Foster says his heart is and is currently the group’s most profitable site, despite his admission that it has suffered from under-investment because it has just 29 years left on the lease.

There is a big push on technology – all external phone calls and emails now go to a central office via a management system that he believes will ultimately drive up revenue across the sites by 15% to 20% thanks to the time it will save staff on the ground. The Yummy branding is being pushed more, albeit in a discreet way, across all five sites, on menus and via a new company website that individual site managers can access to update info about their own pub.

It’s full on, but he loves it, which is what drives him. That and the legacy he hopes to leave for his family. His eldest child, Finn, has just started primary school but he’s a familiar site at the pubs where he knows everyone and likes to get stuck in, not

only in the bars’ cookie jars, but planting vegetables and tending to the animals at The Grove, which he refers to as “my pub.” Like father, like son.