Why entrepreneur Chris Hannon is determined to bring back ‘great British pubs’

Growing a pub company in the middle of a pandemic is no mean feat but Chris Hannon is confident about the future, writes Lizzie Murphy.

Chris Hannon, managing director of Coastal & Country Inns, at The Owl, Hawnby in North Yorkshire. Picture: James Hardisty.

It takes a determined person to try to grow a pub company in the middle of a pandemic when restrictions are tightening and takings are plunging, but Chris Hannon is up for the challenge.

The pragmatic and self-described driven managing director of Coastal & Country Inns is on a mission to create ‘great British pubs’.

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He founded the company in 2018 after leaving his corporate hospitality career behind and now operates a chain of four country pubs in the north of England, including two in Yorkshire, employing just over 50 people.

While the group’s headquarters are in Derbyshire, Hannon says Yorkshire is a key region for the company and its flagship pub is The Owl at Hawnby, on the North York Moors, where the group holds the long leasehold on behalf of landlord Mexborough Estates. It is currently spending £150,000 on its refurbishment.

“It has everything that we want,” says Hannon. “And we couldn’t asked for a finer landlord. We have a joint vision of what we’re trying to make Hawnby.”

He adds: “We see our pubs as a real centre for the local community both socially and economically because we employ people from the village. We also buy what we can from local suppliers. All our meat at The Owl will come from the estate.”

Coastal’s latest acquisition is The Crown Inn, a 16th century coaching inn, situated the North Yorkshire village of Roecliffe, near Boroughbridge.

The pub, which went into voluntary liquidation last year, has been refurbished and is set to return to its former glory.

The other pubs in the portfolio include The Devonshire Arms at Hartington, near Buxton and the New Inn at Great Limber, near Grimsby. There are a further two in the pipeline in the Peak District and Snowdonia. Hannon is also keen to open a pub on the North Yorkshire coast.

“We see Yorkshire as the jewel in the crown. It’s where our two flagship properties are located,” he says.

Experience is at the heart of the business model and the strict criteria of Hannon’s acquisitions is more important than ever as he navigates the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Each inn must have the opportunity for multi-revenue streams, which he says is the key to the survival of the business. All the pubs, which are a mix of freehold and leashold, need bedrooms, a strong food and drink income and the ability for events. Open fires and pretty beer gardens are also on the list.

A geographical spread is essential. “It’s been proven with Covid, local lockdowns and different economies that that needs to be a key part of our continued growth path,” Hannon says. “We need to have many different revenue streams and many different customer bases, market segments and geographical bases too so it spreads the risk.”

Sales at the pub in Buxton are 111 per cent up on last year but Lincolnshire is down compared to last year. Turnover for this year was forecast to be £3m but has been revised down to £2.3m. The group as a whole is profitable.

“Different locations will give us different opportunities,” Hannon says. “If we look at the group as a whole, it levels out all the peaks and troughs.

“We know that Lincolnshire will do well come harvest time and the Peak District will do well in the summer trade, whereas Hawnby will do really well during the winter with shooting parties.”

The current rule of six and restrictions around wedding guest numbers are particularly problematic for the company which is keen to make events a key source of income.

“It’s not the revenue stream it used to be but you have to think it’s going to come back and therefore we have to diversify,” Hannon says.

“You have to spread the net and work incredibly hard to make that extra pound in this business.”

Being a food-led business means the current 10pm curfew doesn’t have a huge impact on the group.

When it comes to growing the business, Hannon says he’s cautious but not put off. “It’s put a delay into plans but long term growth is very important to us.

“Pubs have been through plagues and wars and they’re still here and I think they will remain a part of the British way of life and good pubs will always work.

“We’re excited to be in the trade. Normal life will resume at some point and we want to be there when it does.”

In the meantime, Hannon has made a significant investment in PPE, blankets and outside heaters to encourage customers through the winter months. “We’ve had to think creatively about the space we operate in,” he says.

He is reluctant to say how big he wants the pub company to be but reckons 12 pubs would be a good number.

“We’re not looking to be a massive pub co. We want to keep it small so we keep the quality and control of it because we’re a very small team,” he adds.

Being part of a small team is a relatively new concept for Hannon. As someone who spent his career climbing the ladder at large corporate hospitality companies like DeVere Hotels, Compass, and, most recently, hotel group Shearings, it’s taken a bit of getting used to.

“It’s been a very rude awakening but it’s fantastic and I wish I’d done it years ago,” he says.

“You become the delivery man or the furniture removals chap, the painter, the decorator, and wash dishes in the kitchen, whilst still trying to retain all of the ideals of running the company. It’s all-consuming. People tell you that but you don’t realise it until you do it.”

He believes his first job as a chef on the Orient Express in the UK was the best grounding for a career in hospitality. “We weren’t based in Europe - it wasn’t Murder on the Orient Express - but it was the same company,” he says.

“There was a very strict hierarchy in the kitchen. You only got to the next level by putting in years of hard work. It was a great broad education in how to cook and that’s never left me. It was exciting. You were on show and you were performing.”

The married father-of-three grown up children is a keen beekeeper at his home in Formby, Merseyside. But there isn’t a lot of spare time at the moment.

“This year is very much about survival. Next year is when we start to grow,” he says.

Curriculum Vitae

Title: Managing director and founder of Coastal & Country Inns

Date of birth: April 26, 1964

Education: Cardinal Allen Grammar School in Liverpool; Liverpool Hope University

First job: Chef for the Orient Express Group

Favourite holiday: South of France or North Yorkshire

Favourite film: Avanti! Starring Juliet Mills and Jack Lemmon

Favourite song: The Summer Wind, by Frank Sinatra

Last book read: Seville Communion, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Most proud of: My children and still being open for business

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James Mitchinson