Pubs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and can cater for all our needs on a night out. From the good ol local that is the hub of the community, to destination gourmet pubs that are more like fine dining restaurants. The Red Lion & Sun in Highgate village, north London, probably sits somewhere in the middle. A pub that has a wine list that would be the envy of any master sommelier, and you’re likely to bump into Liam Gallagher ordering another pint of Guinness. Whilst 1000s of pubs have been shut over the last three moths, the Red Lion & Sun has really come into its own thanks to the drive and imagination of its larger than life owner, Heath Ball, who has made it the go to place for Highgate locals looking for fine food and wine to deliver or collect and enjoy an escape from lockdown.
Richard Siddle chats to Heath Ball about how he has kept the Red Lion & Sun on the front foot all the way through lockdown with its wine and food collection and delivery service.
No matter how good your local pub is you have to go to the Red Lion & Sun in the heart of Highgate Village, in leafy north London, to see if it compares to what it can do. After all it has a demanding local customer base of film and rock stars to keep happy – which it has been able to do all the way through lockdown by switching itself over night to a wine merchants and premium food takeaway service.
There was no way its owner, the always entertaining – and inspiring – Heath Ball, was going to sit back and shut the doors just because the government had told him to. OK, it has stopped being a pub in the sense you can go in for a pint, a plate of sausages and mash and enjoy a game of darts. But you can still turn up and take your pick from a wide selection of fine wines and get far more than just bangers and mash to take away.
In fact so successful has its move to delivery and collection been that it is now running with a full time team of seven and pulling in enough money to cover all its costs – and a little bit more – and ensure the 18 staff it has put on furlough will be able to return post lockdown.
Ball was certainly in an upbeat mood when I caught up with him last week for our latest video interview on The Buyer. You can download and watch the full interview here or read on below and pick out edited highlights along with some shorter clips where Ball explains what he has been doing.
He says it has been a case of “all hands on deck” and “mucking in” to do as much as it can over the last three months. Which means it is open six days a week from midday for drinks to takeaway and then it is serving food for pick up or delivery from 4pm to 9pm Monday to Fridays, midday to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday 12 to 8pm (4 minutes 30 seconds).
The team has set up what is effectively an open air wine merchants with all the bottles outside to choose from. It’s even become the northern hemisphere cellar door for New Zealand winemaker, Paul Pujol and his Prophet’s Rock wines, with big posters promoting his wines (12 minutes 52 seconds) “Every day has been getting more elaborate and it’s really working,” he says.
But then that success also stems from how important the pub has become over the last decade or more to the local community since Ball and his wife took it over 13 years ago.
In that time he has taken it from a pretty run down affair – or a “local pub that no-one went to” is how Heath describes it – to what he calls a “wine focused” pub with “sensible, really good quality, well sourced food”. In fact so big has the turn round been it was winner of the Best Pub in the Country and best Wine Pub 2016 & 2018 at the Great British Pub awards (6 minutes).
It was certainly not an overnight success, with Ball saying he spent the first few years “haemorraghing” cash. But slowly but surely things turned round and the customers and the awards have followed (7 minutes 30).
It’s the food and wine offer that has really won the locals over, with fresh fish, meat, cheese and produce coming in from top producers all over the country (8 minutes 15) to the extent 60% of its turnover is on food. “We just try and do good honest pub food, maybe with a bit more attention to detail than most pub food.”
The switch to delivery and pick up
Here Ball explains the switch he made to delivery and pick up and how it has worked.
The combination of being able to offer good, well prices wines and quality food is what has made the takeaway pub service so popular (9 minutes 20 seconds). Word of mouth across the local area has helped get the message out that is open and running this takeaway style offer. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it,” he adds.
“You need to have staff who are on board with it as well. You need to know your neighbourhood and what works. Choosing dishes that travel well. It’s been a baptism of fire and we’ve learnt really hard and really quick.” (21 minutes 30 seconds).
He has also been helped by working closely with John Graves at his main wine supplier, Bibendum, and in setting up a wine retail offer and switching on-trade trade prices over to what Ball says is “really keen” retail prices (10 minutes) on which he places a 30% margin.
He started off with a small wine list for takeaway, but as it has grown and become more popular he has added more wines to the list and worked with Bibendum to offer customers access to fine wines that could be ordered in advance. “It’s got more and more elaborate and it’s really taken off and it’s working.”
“I’ve always had a really good and strong relationship with the guys at Bibendum. They’ve always looked after me and its reciprocal (11 minutes). We are almost testing both of us to see what we can try and what we could do. It’s been a real learning curve for everyone.”
He started out offering wines from small, family independent producers – wines with a bit of a story about them. “People are also asking for stuff from our normal list as well.” (12 minutes).
They have even been able to deliver wines to locals who have called in from Hampstead Heath and asked for bottles of rosé to be sent there.
Ball was also one of the first to sign up and use the Local app that has been developed by C&C Group, owners of Bibendum and Matthew Clark, to help him promote his delivery and collection service which he says has been a big asset. It’s also going to help him continue the delivery service even when the pub is open as it has become such an important part of what it can do (28 minutes 20 seconds).
Ball believes the lockdown and offers like his means the gap between on and off-trade wine ranges are going to get even smaller. “Gone are the days when you would be worried about if you saw a wine in a supermarket. It’s going to be more about brand, and being able to deliver a really quality product wherever it comes from (12 minutes 20 seconds).”
It also comes down to trust and his customers knowing he is not going to try and sell them “duff” wine (14 minutes 45).
Running the delivery and pick up service has also been nice, both for his and team and his customers, to have a chat and catch up at the same time. “Life feels a bit more normal, which it hasn’t been for a long time.
How the on-trade can return
Ball is a bit less upbeat about the prospects of opening up his pub and welcoming guests inside if there are still the social distancing rules in place – particularly the prohibitive 2 metre measure.
Watch this clip here in which he explains what the issues are for him, and what steps he is likely to put in place.
“I think we’re dreaming…it’s not going to work and it’s going to be a disaster,” is his damning prediction (16 minutes), but he also stresses the need for pubs to be able to open soon or many are not going to be able to survive.
Because he has been doing his delivery business then he is confident he can “flip” it quite quickly and get staff back in and re-open. But he’s certainly not going to rush and be one of the first, and would rather wait and see what works, and what he is able to do rather than having his staff in face masks and protective equipment.
Even just opening with outside space is not that practical when you consider the UK weather and what do you do with a list of food orders if people are sheltering from the rain, says Ball.
“I don’t want to be first out of the gate. I want to see how other operators handle it (19 minutes).” The only solution is to take it day by day and not get too far ahead of yourself, he adds.
One area he can plan is food menus and drinks lists where he says the onus needs to be on “playing to your strengths” rather than trying to put on big fancy tasting menus. So for the Red Lion & Sun that means a selection of its best selling, classic dishes. So a smaller, more targeted food offer. But he won’t be making any changes to his wine list as he feels it is the right length in any case. (23 minutes).
Close bond with suppliers
Ball was also keen to praise the work and response of his suppliers – both food and drink – and he particularly liked the fact there has been a “unity” between them during this time. “We are looking after each other…The service has been great. And we’re paying them as well which feels good as well and we’re not running up debt.”
He’s also been able to forge new ties with suppliers – like the Five Points Brewery in Hackney – which has been able to supply him with some beers for his takeaway service. “It’s a horrible situation and a challenge, but I love a challenge.”
He said it’s also been a good time to re-evaluate what you are doing as a business, and the suppliers you are working with (24 minutes 50 seconds). “It’s a good time to sit back and look at your whole business.”
Ball also looked ahead and what he and the rest of the on-trade can anticipate in the months down the road. “It’s going to be incredibly tough. I won’t lie. If you stand still you are going to die. You’ve just got to be keep on moving forward. (29 minutes 26 seconds).
Watch this clip here where he sets out his predictions of what is likely to happen in the coming months.
Finally Ball reflects on what he and his team have been through in the last three months (31 minutes 20 seconds):
“It’s been really educational. I have really learned a lot in the last few months. It’s been hard. I have not had a day off. It’s been quite brutal. But I have learnt a lot about myself and my staff and everyone has worked really well under pressure. I’ve really enjoyed it some weird way and it’s brought everyone closer together.”