At the end of 2011, Mark Askew left his post of executive chef at Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH), where he had worked since the mid-1990s, to help found privately funded pub company Cirrus Inns. He tells Neil Gerrard how the business will work, and how finding the right people will be key to its success
You have a background helping to run some of the most prestigious restaurants in the UK. What drew you to leave that and go into pubs?
It is something myself and Langy [co-founder Alex Langlands Pearse] have been discussing for many years and the timing came right to do it. We just saw the opportunity, with premium sites coming available.
It was good doing prestigious restaurants all around the UK, and all around the world, but for me it felt like time to do more of my own thing and be involved in something new and exciting and fresh.
How will the business work?
Cirrus is not a group of pubs - we're not trying to micro-manage or build a chain. Cirrus is really to be seen as the finance vehicle and the operational vehicle that gets the sites, gets the people and tries to marry the two together.
And what kind of pubs are you looking for?
What we are really focusing on is luxurious country inns. Each site will be different, although they will all be freehold. It will be a pub with a restaurant, and the basic model is around eight bedrooms.
When we find a site, we assess the local market and the competition, what sort of building it is, what you can do with it, how much work needs doing with it, and what we want it to end up being. From there we can assess the budget we need on renovation - if it needs renovation - and then what kind of person we want in there to run it. The landlord/partner is the key person in the business.
How do you plan to attract and retain the right people to run the pubs?
They will get a good salary and a high percentage of the profit share. In that sense it is a great package and we have had a lot of great people approach us who are very interested in it. We have quite a good talent bank and I said to Langy that was my main concern from day one. I have been in the industry a long time and even from what I was doing before, we still struggled to find good people. I was pleasantly surprised to see the kind of talent that was drawn to what we were doing.
Once we have the landlord in place and we run through what we have in mind for that site, then we go out and find them the rest of the team they need to support that.
It has previously been reported that you want to get to about 50 sites. Is that right?
When you start and you put a business plan together you need something to work towards. But we don't have to have 50 sites - that's a rough idea of the size that we are trying to achieve and what we are scaling towards. It's kind of finger in the air with the economy being the way it is at the moment.
Have you identified any sites so far that you can talk about?
We have got a long list but I can't really talk about them. The first site won't be too far away [from London]. We actually have a few sites but we are not shouting about them. We're not even advertising them locally yet because they are in the turnaround stage. It takes time.
Did you have any involvement with the pubs at Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH)?
A bit, although not that much. But I started off working in pubs - back when I was growing up in Yorkshire in the Dales. I started washing the dishes at 12 and then progressed to peeling the potatoes and cooking the vegetables on Sunday lunch, to then running the service on Sunday lunch by the time I was about 14 or 15.
That was the local gastropub before gastropubs existed - we are talking 25 years ago. And me and my brother and a friend of ours worked together there. We'd empty the bottle skips and paint the outside of the building, and do the cooking and the washing up - working at nights and at weekends.
This pub was a great operation. They had six bedrooms, a fine-dining conservatory restaurant and a ballroom in a barn where they did weddings. As a model it was exactly what we are doing now, although we are taking it to a new level.
How involved are you going to be in setting the food strategy for these sites?
Very much involved. The menus will be very flexible, according to the individual sites and chefs. I don't want to go to a site and tell the chef to cook something he doesn't want to cook. We are going to sit down with the landlord and the chef and discuss menus, our ethos and what we want to achieve before we hire the chef - and if the chef buys into that, then they are the right person for the job.
Will landlords principally be from a cheffing background?
What we have found so far is that the chefs have a good skillset but are missing perhaps a little too much of what it takes to be a landlord - the front of house and the business/finance side. I think the chefs will probably be phase-two landlords. Hopefully they can aspire to have their own business shortly if we take them on in this phase as chefs and develop them internally to become landlords a year, two years down the line if we have opportunities for promotion within the group.
Will you miss the Michelin-starred background, or can some of these pubs achieve a star?
I realised the other day that when I was working with Gordon we achieved about 19 stars over the years, which was quite incredible - obviously we had Jason [Atherton] and Marcus [Wareing] and Angela [Hartnett] and all those people as part of the group. But what I learnt from that was that it is not just about getting a Michelin star, it is about serving as good a product as possible, as well as possible, as consistently as possible. And if a guidebook or critic comes along and wants to rate you, then fine.
We want to put country pubs back into the heart of the village, offering good, fresh home-cooked food and then a certain level of quality in the bedrooms, so that there is a certain level of service and quality and consistency. We are not trying to achieve way up there, we just want a good product.
You had a huge amount of success at GRH but there were one or two concepts that didn't quite work so well. Did learn anything from those?
You probably learn more from the ones that don't work than the ones that do.
Is there anything that stands out in the memory as something you definitely wouldn't repeat?
Lots of things. I wouldn't want to name them but my main thing, and something that I identified very early on with Langy, is that you need to reward the right people. The catering industry in general is notoriously bad for false promises and not delivering on agreements. You want to get everything straight down the line and then people can really focus on their job and feel the business is partly theirs.
From what I have seen over the years, people take on roles and they get promised lots of things, they put everything into it for a year or two but when those promises aren't delivered it quickly turns sour. It doesn't matter how driven or focused you are - if you feel you aren't getting what you have been promised, you become frustrated.
What do you think the British pub will look like in the future?
I think they will continue to improve and move forwards. It is such a part of British history and culture. These places have survived for all these years, they are not going to disappear or change drastically. They adapt to the market and customers' expectations.
Food has moved on so rapidly in this country in the past 20 to 25 years, it has been a massive change. That is what has changed the pub world, along with the smoking ban, to make it more of a gastropub environment.
The sites that the pubs exist in are often fantastic - amazing sites in beautiful locations. It is so important for those to be improved and maintained, and keep them moving forwards.
The cirrus inns team
● Charles Butterworth Non-executive chairman, also MD at Experian and formerly chief executive of Vodafone Ireland
● Alex Langlands Pearse (Langy) Co-founder
● Mark Askew Operations director, formerly executive chef, Gordon Ramsay Holdings
● Polly Dyson Finance director, formerly chief financial officer of Geronimo Inns
● Ella de Beer Operations director, formerly of the Meredith Group
● Jean Taylor Property director, formerly regional estates executive of Punch Taverns
The Admiral Codrington
Cirrus Inns' first pub, and the only site the group is naming at the moment, is the Admiral Codrington in London's Mossop Street. The site was previously part of 333 Holdings, a company founded and run by Cirrus Inns founder Alex Langlands Pearse. However, despite being the first site in the Cirrus Inns collection, it is unrepresentative of the group as a whole, which will be more focused on countryside locations. Cirrus Inns is already thought to have several more sites lined up.