After ten years gaining invaluable experience cheffing at the likes of The Fat Duck, Gidleigh Park, 1884 and The Hand and Flowers, Chris Harrison felt ready to do something special. Something new and exciting. Something that he could call his own. And less than two years after making this life-changing decision and starting up street food business Shoot the Bull, he found himself running the The Old House, a quirky old pub in Hull.
Since then, Chris has continued to run the street food business, he’s opened a coffee house, catered weddings and private parties and hopes to open a bakery, a second coffee shop and a restaurant soon. You might agree that that’s an impressive resume for just three years’ work.
Chris recently took the time to talk to us about the pressures of running multiple food businesses, a terrible experience that nearly forced him to quit, and the most important things to concentrate on to make it work.
Chris, thanks for taking a bit of time out from your busy schedule to talk to us. We don’t want to waste your time so let’s get straight to it! You’re one of a small number of NCASS members who run a pub. Tell us, what’s the most challenging part of running The Old House?
The biggest challenge with The Old House is definitely the kitchen size! We have very small kitchen to service a popular pub. It’s a fun challenge though and the quirky building is a great attraction. Up until now we have also used The Old House kitchen to prepare food for the street food business. We are literally just about to open a kitchen in the newly refurbished Trinity Market in Hull. This will become our central production kitchen and also serve a daily changing street food menu to the public.
So there’s rather a lot going on! How is the management of the business set up?
I have a great team which makes the whole growth of the company possible and my job manageable. I employ a general manager and I have a senior chef for both the pub and the street food business. All of the staff are integral in what we do and I wouldn’t be without any of them.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned since you started catering?
I’ve learnt some big lessons in business; sometimes the hard way. Trusting the wrong people made the beginning of my company difficult. During my first year of business I discovered that my partner at the time was actually stealing from the business and committing fraud. This left me with nothing after 10 months in business and made me question whether or not to carry on.
I am thrilled that I did and have to thank all my friends and family and the team I now have for the success. Of course, what I went through is a rare occurrence, but it taught me some critical lessons and has helped shape me and the business to where we are now. I think the biggest lesson to learn is the importance of having the right staff. Without the team there is no business.
Another positive lesson I’ve learnt is to have confidence in my dishes. I once put a pigeon dish on at a street food event and was really worried it wouldn’t sell. Guess what? It sold out first on our menu! People are willing to try things that are a little different which allows us now to give literally anything we fancy a go. Brawn and tongue are two of our most popular starters at the pub now and have gone down great on the street too!
Mmm! You’ve mentioned your staff a lot. So what’s the answer to that question that irks event caterer: how do you find and retain a decent team of staff?
It’s not always easy. Everyone in catering knows there is a shortage of talented chefs. However, if someone shows us passion then we are willing to give them the time and attention they need to develop. I have a great team and many of the staff had worked for me before I started my own business so I was thrilled when they wanted to join.
I believe retaining good staff is down to being a fair boss. We pay fairly and have a company bonus scheme. We work hard and play hard. I try as best as I can to make sure my staff get a good work-life balance. We have recently introduced a new rota system that means some weeks staff work four days and have three off. Plus, we have great staff parties and if the company does well, the staff do too.
Cheers Chris! Last question now: how can other pub owners have success in a market where pubs are in a steady decline?
I think the food is the integral part to modern pubs. If you are a freehold pub I believe you have to have a good food offering, coupled with a good drinks range. We are known for our food and I believe that is what makes our pub a success.
People also expect to see value. Value doesn’t mean cheap though and we have found that people will pay for quality and understand that certain foods do come with a price tag.