The Bell Inn – An Inn Profile
The Bell Inn set in the lovely historic village of Horndon on the Hill, is a 15th Century Coaching Inn run by the same family for over 75 years. The Bell is featured in all the ‘serious’ guides and has won numerous industry awards including being recommended in The Times Cool Hotel Guide 2014 and The Sunday Times Food List as one of the 10 best gastropubs in the UK. They have won the best country dining pub award for a very impressive 6 years in a row! Proprietor John Vereker tells us more.
Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you got into the industry?
I left Naval College and went straight to sea as a navigating Officer in the Merchant Navy. I have no doubt this phase of my life taught me many of the skills, including managing people and taking responsibility and control when needed, that I would later use as an Innkeeper. I had no idea that was where I was going to end up at this stage though. It was just my good fortune that I married the landlord’s daughter! And when I found the woman I loved, I also found the industry I loved.
Run us through an average day running the Bell Inn.
I always try to be in the office by ten to seven in the morning. This gives me the opportunity to get a space at a desk, and a few quiet moments to do some important admin, like reviewing the previous day’s figures and some stock checks, before the busy day ahead. It gives me the chance to peek in on breakfast service and see some of our guests.
At 8.30am I get my gloves on ready to drop the weeks Beer & Wine deliveries down the cellar – this saves me the cost of a gym membership!
The rest of the morning can vary hugely from participating in meetings around all sorts of topics from food and drink, to the hotel and restaurant, training and staff, and looking ahead to make improvements for the year to come. I also take some time to catch up on the news and sport. We are a people business and I think it is important to be able to engage and converse with customers on a reasonable array of subjects.
Lunchtime service begins at midday. Midweek is just as busy for us as we accommodate a lot of corporate/professional customers.
At around 4:00pm things quieten down a bit again, and this is my chance to take a break. I am relatively religious about taking a ‘power nap’ late afternoon, then a quick change of clothes to sharpen myself up for the evening performance at 6pm.
We regularly serve 80-100 covers, as well as a busy bar. We usually lock up and cash up around midnight and call it a day.
How do you rate your team’s success on a daily/weekly basis?
Strong sales figures, Bums on seats, repeat business and regular smiling faces. Some of these may seem anecdotal but they are the life blood of a successful Inn.
What are your views on tipping and how do you manage your gratuity system?
The tips are distributed by the staff not management, and are shared by all those working that shift – this has been the case, certainly since 1970 when the restaurant opened. It is one of my bugbears that our industry is viewed as poorly paid. We have exceptional professionals working in pubs and inns, and they should be correctly remunerated for their hard work and skill.
In your view what makes a great chef?
Well all our great chefs seem to have gained their initial love of cooking from their nans!
I think they need ‘craft’, by that I mean, an artistic side to their personality. I am also always happy if earlier in their career they have been in pastry – I believe this gives them precision.
A good nose and a natural feeling for flavours will stand them in good stead. And a strong work ethic. A professional kitchen is no place for the feint hearted or the work shy.
Do you use local produce where possible?
Absolutely, it is what we are about. We have a kitchen garden and all our chefs take a meander to pick fruit, veg and herbs regularly in their week. Our chefs often comment that they enjoy the relaxing element of this part of the day.
You have won dining pub of the year 5 times in a row – that is very impressive. What do you think makes you stand out from the competition?
The Bell has been in the family since 1938, and we have remained a family run business with long serving loyal staff. We currently have five members of the family working in the business. Our General Manager joined us when she was 16 and is still with us almost 33 years later! We have at least 10 members of staff that have been with us more than 15 years.
We have a daily changing menu with local and seasonal produce. We have six real ales on tap and an extensive wine list. We have made a focus on making sure that our hotel and other parts of the business are sympathetic to the history of the buildings, yet are able to accommodate the needs of our modern guests.
Finally, what would you say is the best idea you have implemented in the last six months and why?
Increased communication across teams, as well as celebrating success of teams
We have traditionally always worked split shifts – and we have made a huge effort to look at working patterns to create more availability to work straight shifts.
One of our senior members of staff has been on an intensive cocktail course and has introduced cocktails in our second eatery, The Ostlers Bar & Restaurant.
We continuing to upgrade our outside eating spaces – which has worked very well over this summer.