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Eat Out With...Kevin Charity
16/01/2017 - 11:57
The Coaching Inn Group specialises in finding high quality inns and revitalising their food, drink and accommodation offer to attract tourists as well as local and business trade. Maria Bracken caught up with founder and chief executive Kevin Charity to find out how he plans to take the business forward
What's your background?
We have always been a multiple operator. About 20 years ago, I and my brother Paul Charity (currently managing director of Propel Hospitality) started a company called Bulldog Hotel Group.
We built up a portfolio of 25 businesses. They were all very diverse. We had a mixture of pubs, gastropubs, nightclubs and temporary bowling centres, but none of it really made any sense. So, to cut a long story short, we wanted a clear vision so we sold each business, one by one. We had a couple of Coaching Inns in our portfolio which were performing really well so this is where the coaching idea was born. So we renamed the company from Bulldog Hotel Group to Coaching Inn Group last year. The idea was to find top high street locations in market towns. They had to be the best buildings in town. This was key. We also wanted another revenue stream, which is where the bedrooms came in to play.
So what is Coaching Inn's business model?
It's a very simple format. Fundamentally we are food and beverage operators. We offer three star mid market coaching inns. Each sites averages around 25 bedrooms.
And what are your expansion plans?
Some 18 months ago we did a business deal with Business Growth Fund. They invested £4.5 million into the business and since then, with additional bank funding, we have bought another six sites and have three more in the pipeline. This will take us to a total of 15 sites.
We are also weeks away from securing another deal with Business Growth Fund, where they are putting in a further £8 million into the business. This will allow us to grow to 25 sites before March 19. It's a lot of growth.
How do you split your time?
I spend 40% of my time focusing on the existing business and 60% thinking about future plans. To grow a company you have to spend time looking for sites, and predicting issues going forward.
Is finding sites one of the challenges?
It's certainly one of the hurdles, but there are thousands of market towns in Britain. That's a lot of choice out there. It's not easy and it takes a lot of negotations but it's all doable.
The biggest hurdle for us going forward is how fast we can complete refurbishments because it is becoming more and more work intensive.
Who is your target audience?
Our target market is pretty much anybody - from elderly couples wanting a late morning coffee to the yummy mummys.
How do you describe yourselves?
We like to describe ourselves as 'premium'. Although we are a casual dining operation, we don't like to call ourselves casual. If you look this up in the dictionary it means 'lazy'. So we like to be referred to as premium informal dining. Our uniform also reflects this with our twee waistcoats with blue jeans. Our concepts are very much a modern twist on an old coaching inn.
Is the coffee and hot beverage side of the business important?
It is. We now have coffee servery and patisserie units in seven of our sites. We have massive sales in afternoon tea. We are also hosting a number of hen nights, baby showers etc.
Have you stayed true to your original ethos?
If anything, I think we are more focused than ever. We are all about offering British fusion. All of our food is homemade. It's about food being served well, displayed well and presented well.
We have also installed a pizza oven at one of our venues which has gone down extremely well. So this is something we are going to look at growing going forward. This is great for the summer months. During this period we were knocking out 200 pizzas a day from the outside area.
Can you identify some of the up and coming trends?
One thing we have seen growing, which we have been doing for the last two years, is British tapas. We call it sharing grazing. Without doubt, there are no rules with tapas. There's no starter, main or dessert anymore. All of that is gone. This has been a huge growth area for us. We have also started to see items such as curry on menus decline. However, fish is still a big seller for us.
Has Brexit had any impact on your business?
I hate to sound blase, but no. I think there are some real issues which are going to come up and affect some of the large British companies. With small operators such as ourselves, we will still fundamentally keep serving and delivering to our consumers. So on a day to day level, if your offer is good enough, I don't think there will be any impact. The only thing that does worry me is interest rates being so low. I wonder if they will finally start to rise. If we start getting a heavy rate rise, operators will know about it.
As operators we all face challenges such as the national minimum wage, but it's about finding ways to conquer it. The Brits always do.
Is delivery something you want to get into?
I think we should be doing it. We are not set up for it yet, but when I read some of the experimental stuff like PizzaExpress trialing it, I think it is a no brainer. And with apps like Just Eat, Deliveroo etc, why wouldn't you want to put that square footage of kitchen in its best possible use. But you need the skills to be able to cope with it.
We would have to do a review of the business to consider delivery. What concerns me is how we would cope with the peak times; trying to get the food out faster.
What are the opportunities and challenges for the sector?
I think the opportunities are endless because of the amount of choice out there. Just when you think you have seen it all, something else comes along and it never stops. The industry is always evolving. You can be anybody now and do it. Anybody can have a go. Pop ups are a great example of this.
With regards to challenges, I think if we're not careful we may start to oversaturate some areas. I think we are already starting to see it.
What's next for Coaching Inns?
We are going to move to 25 sites by March 19. We also have our eye on becoming a national brand. It's a big claim, I know, but I believe we can pull it off. You have to have a goal.
Do you worry about standards and consistency whilst growing?
Just about every minute of every day! Consistency is key. We have really gone all out on our training and we visit all of our sites to train our staff not only on how to serve customers and make cocktails, for example, but also on the culture of Coaching Inns.
So yes, we do worry about the standards and the culture of the company, but we are always thinking ahead all of the time.
How important is staff retention?
We constantly communicate with our staff and customers. We look at TripAdvisor a lot and I personally thank any team members who get mentioned and praised on the site. We also do Hero of the month scheme. This is about rewarding someone who has been absolutely brilliant and heroic in something they have done, not just for guests but also for other team members. Everyone across the estate nominates a hero of the month. They all love it. They all wait for the email to arrive. There's a £50 bonus payment for it. There is then an overall winner at the end of the year. The 'Hero' then receives a weeks salary as a thank you. I don't think we will ever get too big to continue doing this.