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Rapid innovation in a traditional sector

The crew at the Victoria Inn have been making deliveries throughout the coronavirus crisis

Lockdown for business owners Mark Holden and Tom Jenkinson mandated a period of rapid innovation  and a glimpse of an interesting new world. 

What makes Mark Holden’s decision to transform his three pubs in Cornwall into home-delivery and takeaway food outlets all the more surprising is that he’s managed this dramatic pivot from his home. 

Mark has a medical condition which puts him in the coronavirus high-risk category, so he has leant on Zoom, WhatsApp and cloud-based file systems to orchestrate the successful transformation of his small pub network into thriving hot food business. The spring of 2020 will surely be remembered in the annals of the company’s history as its most innovative period ever. 

“We’ve developed a brand called Deliver Pub Grub,” said Mark. “The business has pivoted so that we are now not a public house, but a takeaway and delivery hot food pub grub company and off-license. This is now the focus.” 

Seeking new revenue streams

What this rapid change of tack has done is give Mark two new income streams – powerful ones, it turns out – during the months that his pubs have been unable to welcome customers in the traditional fashion. “These new revenue streams will remain as we go forward,” he added, “and will hopefully allow us to survive when we open, as they will compensate for the potential loss of clientele that might not return.” 

The new initiative has gone way beyond posting an announcement on the pubs’ websites and asking a couple of staff to turn up in the kitchen. Now, two-thirds of Marks 60-plus team have been drafted to support the business’ new direction. No less than 40,000 flyers were printed and hand-delivered across the pubs catchment areas and a fleet of four electric cars were seconded from local businesses to help with deliveries. Additionally, a new call centre was created to deal with orders, while logistics software was introduced to help optimise delivery routes and cooking schedules. 

The list goes on – and Mark even thinks he may have created a model that is eminently franchisable. 

Anticipating reopening 

While all this has been happening – with orders hitting a peak of 2,000 hot meals per week – Mark has been trying to anticipate what he might need to do in order to re-open his premises to the public, a possibility which now seems to be just around the corner. 

As well as creating new staff training videos and trialing a long-lasting germ-killing coating that can be sprayed onto any surface, he’s speaking to various partners about potential solutions for physical social-distancing screens and barriers. One of his best leads, he explainedcame from a recommendation through his local Be the Business network. 

“We’re doing lots of collaborations and lots of modelling so that we’ll be ready,” he added. 

Sitting still, not an option 

Tom Jenkinson (left) with his brother and parents

When the lockdown hit, Tom Jenkinson of the family-run Chiltern Brewery in Buckinghamshire saw not just one, but both of his businesses come to a screeching halt overnight. Not only were there no longer any pubs open to take delivery of his award-winning alesbut Chiltern’s own pub, The King’s Head in Aylesbury, had to turn off its taps too. Sitting still, however, was never an option.  

“We set up a number of things,” said Tom. “We started a drive-through service at our brewery shop where people could ring us up or order online and we’d load up their boot in a contactless way – that has been hugely popular – and we also decided to deliver. We’ve got our brewery van that we normally use to deliver to pubs, so the team have been redirected to deliver to customers’ houses instead.” 

The pub, meanwhile, found a way to continue trading by transforming into a food hall, and offering takeaway beers and meals for collection and delivery. 

Incredibly, Tom said that trading during the lockdown period has been slightly ahead of where it would have been if it was business as usual. “It has been nice, to be honest, and a welcome changeWe were contemplating a horrible situation back in March, so we’re extremely grateful.” 

The success of the operation, he feels, has a lot to do with the Chiltern staff, who have embraced their new roles and been happy to contribute ideas. Customer demand has been instrumental, too. “I think people were desperate not to see us fold,” he added. 

Technology has had a role to play as well, with the company’s website adding new plugins to help with online orders. One particularly useful new function works out the minimum spend required for free delivery, based on a customer’s postcode. “We also want to integrate our website into our general retail EPOS system, and that’s going to need some investment. 

Going forward, the modified Chiltern Brewery business model will last as long as the demand is there. As pubs re-open, the business will, inevitably, return to supplying thirsty pub-dwellers with the cask ales they love, and Chiltern’s own pub should be back serving pints soon. 

“Whatever happens, I do think there will be some new opportunities that come out of all this,” revealed Tom. “We’ll go wherever the demand is.” 

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