Hickory’s Smokehouse is prepared to stretch its traditional site and location preferences in order to achieve the growth rate it is aiming for, managing director John Welsh has told MCA.

The business currently operates sites as far north as Southport and as far south as Worcester, and has had a preference for run-down pubs, with a bit of a history, in out-of-town suburban locations, however Welsh said he was prepared to look outside those areas as it has been a struggle to find the enough of those sites in the right locations.

“There seems to be lots of activity among the big players selling big tranches of sites to each other, but we only want one or two, so that’s part of the problem,” he said, adding that it has also been quite particular about what features it wants its sites to have sites have, “which is probably why we need to start thinking a bit more outside the box”.

The business recently opened a site in Poynton, south Manchester, which he said he “surpassed all our expectations in terms of trade”. “That area of Manchester seems to be working for us, so it will probably become more of a focus for us in the future,” he said.

Hickory’s also acquired The Boddington Arms – a former Harvester site – in Wilmslow, from Mitchells & Butlers, earlier this year, not far from its Poynton location, and plans to reopen it in March/April next year.

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Welsh said the restaurant was located in quite an affluent area, with lots of families, however as it is not too far from its Poynton site, it has decided to tweak the focus from being solely family-orientated to include an enhanced sport offering, with a dedicated space or room for watching American sports – something it has also done in Chester and Wall Heath.

Its next site is due to open in Shrewsbury, overlooking the riverfront at Victoria Quay, on 2 December. Welsh said due to its location in the town centre, which is different to its other locations, Hickory’s had opted for more of a focus on its drinks offering for the site, which will feature a horseshoe-shaped bar and a mezzanine level.

Plans are also ongoing to open a new build site in Staffordshire next year, but Welsh said that progress had been very slow. “Everyone is informally in agreement, but sadly nothing confirmed as of yet, which is very frustrating,” he said. “We’d love to do a new build as it would be an exciting opportunity and open up more possibilities for what we can do.”

While no further sites had been secured for its 2020 pipeline yet, Welsh said they were currently in discussions on three properties. “We are feeling very positive about the next couple of years. We just need to find the sites, but apart from that we are ready to go and start opening more. It really does feel like four a year for us is doable – our current pace has been three,” he said.

Internally the business has been doing a lot on work training and developing its area managers and getting its general managers in place ready for new site openings, as well as making sure its head office is structured correctly.

The business has a strong people focus and is currently developing plans for its latest roadshow, in which the senior management team visit all the sites and speak to staff on a one-to-one basis for feedback, as well as its annual BBQ research trip to the southern states for GMs and head chefs. Earlier this year it took them to South Carolina and Georgia.

Welsh said its work on engagement was becoming an increasingly important focus, and that they are seeing tangible progress. Hickory’s has been carrying out its roadshows for the past three years and has entered the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For, for each of those years. It featured as a One to Watch in 2018 and 2019, and Welsh said the company has just found out that it has been awarded 1 Star accreditation.

In terms of performance, Welsh said the first quarter (May – July) had felt a bit tougher, with the weather not helping sales. “But the following three months have been really good. There seems to have been a shift, a rejuvenation of people going out, so it’s actually made up for the first three; and going into Christmas bookings are looking really good,” he added.