Reflection of Success
Celia Till traces the fortune of Geordie, Joe Robertson, who first made a million out of pub mirrors before turning his talents to owning a chain of pubs in Newcastle and London.
Entrepreneurial flair has made 37 year old Joe Robertson a millionaire. A Geordie, he started his working life in an accountant’s office, supplementing his income as a part-time nightclub DJ. He was a waiter on a cruise ship, a pop group manager and a hair salon owner before striking rich with a multi-million pound pub mirror business that lasted from 1974 to 1980. Since owning Pumphrey’s he has acquired and revitalised eight more in Newcastle and two in London. He has built up other businesses too. His City Leisure Group includes a property company, design services, a coffee shop and a shore repairer.
Newcastle upon Tyne pub owner Joe Robertson explains his expansion into London as “a natural progression”. Last month his City Leisure Group, which includes design and property businesses, added Macey’s in Duke Street – formerly the Bunch of Grapes – and Dukes in New Cavendish Street – formerly the Duke of York – (both in Westminster) to its five strong Newcastle pub group (Caterer & Hotel-keeper, 2 January).
“You have to know your area to operate well. After Newcastle I know London best. And it only takes 50 minutes to get to by plane from Newcastle,” he said.
How much impact Joe Robertson will have on the capital remains to be seen, but if he follows the same formula as in the north-east he’s unlikely to go wrong.
The former pop group manager, nightclub DJ and pub mirror manufacturer caught the young people’s imagination when he opened stylish Pumphrey’s in Newcastle in 1979.
Four more Newcastle pubs quickly followed – Rick’s cocktail bar and City Vaults in 1980, Brahms and Liszt in 1981, Legends in 1982 and Sloanes in 1983. Each offered at least a dozen cocktails and 12-18 wines.
By 1984 turnover was more than £3 million. Allied offered 2.3 million for the lot, an offer Robertson couldn’t refuse.
By the end of last year he was back on the Newcastle scene with four more establishments: the Brandling Arms (a joint venture with Vaux), Berlins cocktail bar, Masters bar and diner and Macey’s. A fifth, the Sennet, is due to re-open this month with a new name and American décor.
“My first propriety is to identify the market for a pub and profile the establishment to that. I knew Newcastle and knew the market was changing, so I concentrated on a specific type of trade – young, evening drinkers,” he said.
Vigorous and often flamboyant marketing has played a large part in Robertson’s success. He publicises openings by distributing posters and leaflets to nearby shops and offices. He prefers to spend £1,000 on free cocktails or a free buffet than to buy advertising space. “Happy hours” in Berlins and the London Macey’s feature a spinning wheel which gives customers the chance of free or half-price drinks. Elsewhere it’s a double for the price of a single, buy a pint and get half free, or buy triple spirit measures for £1.
“The trick is to get people in. These activities give them a reason to come,” Robertson said.
Service is another priority. “Business is built on service. My staff won’t just give someone a cigarette, they’ll light it for them,” he said.
Staff at all levels go through a continuous training programme covering all aspects of service, from opening Champagne to judging whether to bring food to a table. They are paid to attend a 3½-hour session once every four weeks, and lose a week’s pay if they don’t.
Food, while accounting for about 30-40% of lunchtime takings, doesn’t feature in the evenings – when 90% of takings are made – but is a vital part of the package.
“Food is a pre-requisite of a pub at lunchtime, although I don’t believe people necessarily come in for food. They come in for a drink and the ambience it brings. But when they see food they buy it – so it’s important that it’s well presented,” said Robertson.
All his pubs, except Berlins, which has a snack menu, display home-cooked food such as steak and kidney pie, roasts, casseroles, shepherd’s pie, fish pie, lasagne, chilli con carne and chicken dishes, plus, in summer, a range of salads.
Robertson is to broaden the menu. “There’s a market for more esoteric food and we are trying out potato skins, clam pies, enchiladas and taramosalata,” he said.
As in Newcastle, location dictates the style of the London pubs. Macey’s, opposite Miss Selfridge and close to Coconut Grove, has a small, ground floor cocktail bar with a dark wood bar, wicker armchairs, plants and mirrors, offering more than 80 cocktails and 40 wines. A larger basement bar has a deep-piled carpet, Chesterfields and modulated lighting. The pub is designed to appeal to a wide range of customers.
Dukes, in a quieter area, is more traditional, with parquet floors, Persian-style rugs, stained glass, polished wood and waitress service. It has a large upstairs bar with a high lunchtime sale of food. In the evenings, live jazz is a draw.
“Dukes has a good local trade which I want to retain. It’s the most traditional of my pubs but still a challenge,” said Robertson, who plans to open a further four London pubs by the end of March.
Despite his rapid progress he says he is not empire building. “I operate a hands-on system of management and don’t expect my pubs to go much above single figures,” he said. “I’d rather have a small turnover and large profit than a large turnover and small profit.”
At Berlins cocktail bar there are “happy hours” on some evenings when drinks are free or half price on the turn of a spinning wheel.