Oakman Group has put the growth of its Seafood Pubs business on hold in order to focus on its core Oakman Inns brand, CEO Peter Borg-Neal told MCA’s Pub Conference.

Oakman acquired Seafood Pub Company in a pre-pack administration in 2021 in order to trial operating smaller footprint pubs.

However after a strong first year growing the Joycelyn Neve-founded business to 11, Borg-Neal said its performance had more recently fallen off as cost of living pressures hit the North West.

“The idea was to see if we could run smaller pubs, and mix our estate up a bit,” he said. “We normally run quite substantial pubs, which cost lots of money to acquire and put together.

“We’ve given it a go [with Seafood]– but we’re not convinced it’s the right thing for us. We’re still working on it, but our focus is on Oakman Inns.”

Inflation when applied to smaller pubs make it much harder to be profitable, he said, while the fixed cost elements with larger pubs are higher but easier to manage.

“We haven’t given up on smaller pubs, but we would rather be in larger sites, with larger volumes.”

The core Oakman Inns estate has average weekly sales of £43k net, with plans to expand the estate where available cash allows.

The group has forthcoming sites in Gerrards Cross and Ludlow, another in spring next year, and three or four more, which Oakman “can’t afford to develop – which is quite frustrating.”

The group will get the keys to Bush Hall, part of Gascoyne Cecil Estates, near Hatfield in Hertfordshire, (a project that was first mooted in 2018), in August, with hopes it can become a £100k a week pub like The Royal Foresters in Ascot.

Oakman has “great assets”, which are the “bedrock of business”, and is in the “right part of the market”.

However the group needs to build back profits and restructure its debt in order to be positive about expansion, with a view to a possible exit next year when the market conditions improve, Borg-Neal said.

“I’m comfortable with the position of the business. We’ve got it about right – but we need to keep on evolving.”

With its base in the shires, Oakman is not a “trendy London business”, he added.

“We need to move with our market – not at the front of market. It’s about gentle evolution.”