Seafood and pubs—it’s in the blood

Seafood Pub Company has thrived in its home county of Lancashire, but now it is ready to go further afield. Tom Holman meets founder and CGA Peach 2020 speaker Joycelyn Neve

Fishing is a family way of life for Joycelyn Neve, who hails from generations of fishermen. Chris Neve, her father, turned a man-and-a-van fish delivery operation into a huge wholesale business, Neve Fleetwood, now part of the Direct Seafoods group. It seemed the logical next step for his daughter to take all that seafood into pubs. 

“I grew up in and around catering and everything was focused on great produce and fish – it’s just how life was,” she remembers. She picked up a good university degree but soon returned to work in bars and restaurants. Later, after eating her way around South America for six months, she came home to scour the area for her first pub, which cameintheformof aThwaiteslease in Feniscowles, near Blackburn. Thwaites put up money for a refurbishment, Neve remortgaged property to free up cash and her father injected cash, too. The venue opened as the Oyster & Otter in early 2011 when Neve was just 25. 

Despite her youth, she was clear about what she wanted when she was even younger. “When we went out as a family when I was growing up it was either to a fancy restaurant or a scruffy pub, and there never seemed to be anything in between. The Seafood Pub Company literally came from my two favourite things: seafood and pubs,” she says. 

Help came from dad’s contacts including Andrew McLean, who built the Devonshire Pub Company into a major business before selling up and retiring. A request for brief advice led to McLean becoming executive chairman. “He moans that it started with 10 minutes of his time and has ended up with him working seven days a week again,” Neve says. 

With McLean ready to invest alongside local entrepreneur Matthew Riley, bank money followed and a roll-out could begin. Next came a private lease on the Assheton Arms in the conservation village of Downham, near Clitheroe, which opened Christmas 2011. 

Growing pains
The concept of the first few pubs was an immediate hit, but things were far from straightforward in operational terms. Neve remembers with a shudder the challenge of opening a second pub while still trying to run the first. “We’d have people waiting hours for a table, which was fantastic, but there were only really three of us. We’d be doing service all day, staying up all night to prep food and then going into service again,” she says. 

“Going from one to two sites is definitely still the hardest thing we’ve ever done as a company,” she continues. “It’s the chicken and egg situation—you’ve only got one income stream so you can’t employ a second big team straight away. But whenever anything is hard you have to make it a learning experience.” 

Another important lesson was around the need to get locals on board with her plans—to convince them that their pubs would still be somewhere to go for a pint as well as a special occasion. She quickly found that people have long memories when it comes to pubs. “Anywhere that has sometime traded with a great reputation, however long ago that was, is so much easier to bring back to life because you’re still on people’s radars.” 

The company’s third opening, the Fenwick, in Claughton, marked a transition from leases to freeholds. The Farmers Arms in Great Eccleston joined it in 2013, while 2014 brought the Derby Arms in Thornley and the Barley Mow, by Pendle Hill. The Town Green Brasserie, in Aughton, is the most recent pub to open, earlier this year. Neve says freeholds are the way forward. “You know what you’re getting into with a pub lease, and without that first site we wouldn’t have been able to test the concept as we did – but freeholds are what we want.” 

Distinctive
All seven pubs are within Lancashire, but the market varies from town to town and valley to valley as county- born-and-bred Neve understands. Despite the company’s name, she knows that a solely seafood restaurant would not be viable, and adapts the pubs’ offers to local markets, valuing the variety. “They’ve all got a point of difference. If you’ve got a group and they’re all the same then you’ll just go to your nearest one, but there’s genuinely a different reason to use each of them.” 

The company still does what it says on the tin though, Neve says. On seafood, her father’s connections give her a head start, especially on price. “We want it to be busy. Rather than inflate our GP [gross profit] because I get it cheaper from my dad, let’s have bums on seats. If it costs 15 quid but eats like 20 quid then people might eat with us a couple of times a week.” And she is clear that her venues are still pubs rather than restaurants, noting that customers can visit in T-shirt and jeans and have a fish finger sandwich and a pint, or “really go to town” at the weekend. 

Big catch in North West
They are all destination pubs, popular with locals but relying on visitors for the bulk of trade. That presents challenges that are very different to those of town or city pubs and restaurants, not least on recruitment, and has prompted the company to tempt people on short breaks with accommodation in three sites, with more to follow. 

Neve knows she has to sweat the assets hard to sustain trade at quieter times. “I don’t agree with that old idea of ‘build it and they will come’. Maybe at weekends, but everywhere is so competitive now. From Monday to Thursday you’ve got to go out and find the business and bring it in.” So the pubs run midweek events like wine dinners and meet-the-brewer evenings, and work hard at corporate contracts and outside catering. “It’s looking at every inch of the business and asking ourselves what else we could do.” 

Together with the likes of Nigel Haworth’s Ribble Valley Inns and a diverse range of native producers and suppliers, the Seafood Pub Company is transforming the reputation of the North West as a foodie region. Neve welcomes the competition. “The more good operators you have in an area the better it is for everyone.” 

And she understands the importance of local know-how. “Proper local knowledge is so important. We’ll go out further, but while we’re getting established it’s good to open in areas we know really well.” The group’s next two sites will be on Lancashire’s fringes, one likely to be trading before the end of the year and the second to follow at Easter. But it will then start to fan out, with Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Cheshire the first targets. “The areas are all identified and we know what we’re looking for—it’s just a question of what comes up first,” Neve says. 

There is clearly a lot of ambition here, and Neve thinks the Seafood Pub Company can more than double in size without too much difficulty. “The only restriction we’ve got is supply because we’re very produce led. “I want to control everything because it’s in my nature but I don’t see why we can’t get to 18 or 20 sites and still have that oversight.” She is learning to cede control, albeit reluctantly. “The biggest challenge is letting go and understanding I can’t do everything. Once you do start to let go it’s fine, and you realise that people are actually much better at some things than you are.” 

PEOPLE PROBLEM
Recruiting skilled pub and restaurant staff is hard enough in the big cities but doing so in rural Lancashire is even tougher. Neve responds by trying to persuade people to build careers rather than take stopgap jobs. She promotes from within and gives her kitchen staff flexibility and responsibility. They can move around the seven pubs if they like, and they can devise specials for the menus. She says: “If you want quality staff you can’t expect them to come in and just cook by numbers every day.” 

With a no-nonsense Lancastrian approach to career progression, Neve encourages people to follow her own energy and ambition. “We want to show that hard work will pay off. Get your head down and anything’s possible. You don’t need to do one sort of job for a couple of years, then another and then another. Just show me what you’re made of and how much you want it and you can have it.” 

Her enthusiasm has led her to do some work for the Academy of Food and Wine Service as the industry attempts to kill off negative stereotypes and promote hospitality as a place to work. She says: “This is a great career and you can be very successful. There are all sorts of opportunities, especially with companies that are growing fast like us.”