The Stokers Halt – a nod to Belfast’s industrial past and a place where the eponymous stoker can take a break from his work and relax. Except it’s not just a place of recuperation for stokers. For Phil Patterson, founder of The Approachable Group, which now has two venues in Holywood and Ballyhackamore – which won best pub in Co Antrim at the inaugural National Pub & Bar Awards – his venues are for everyone in the community.
The Approachable Group, the overarching company, is not solely concerned with this model either, with a convenience store and pool hall in Bangor, as well as a village pub in Moira that’s in the process of being sold. What unites the different styles of venue, however, is all in the word ‘approachable’.
“It’s a three-way thing,” states Patterson. “Staff have to be able to approach each other; partners and suppliers – whether that’s energy, consumables, waste, drinks or food – they have to be approachable and create a two-way conversation. And then there’s our consumers. They have to be able to approach us and give feedback to us. So it’s a 360° approach in everything that we do.”
Patterson managed operations at a 10-site company for three years before taking on The Four Trees in Moira in 2014, but he has plenty more experience with the on-trade, having been a drinks salesman with AB InBev and Bacardi Brown Forman. However, he knows that there are people who know more than he does. With this in mind, he has surrounded himself with qualified people – indeed, while we eat lunch at his latest Stokers Halt in Holywood, he is talking to a senior figure in the drinks industry about getting him on board as chairman.
“I just want to get people who are experts in their field to work with our company to help with our company,” says Patterson. “It’s that strategy that entrepreneurs use, which is to get people who are better than you doing what they love to do and letting them do it.”
Before lunch, Patterson took me on a tour of Belfast city centre, visiting the vast array of different operations succeeding in this evolving scene. From huge food-led outlets to smaller bars centred around a particular spirit. From bars with no food at all to restaurants and Belfast’s first street food festival, the diversity on offer is impressive. However, a thread ran through it all that Patterson wants to see in his estate as well.
“Consumers are looking for a sense of honesty,” he says. “They want somewhere to call their own, to be acknowledged, to be respected. And we can do that because we’re hospitality-led, not accountancy-led. We have a very sharp focus on our accounts, but it does not always dictate the journey of the business.”
With that in mind, while Patterson is mindful of trends, he doesn’t want his venues to be too fashionable or cutting edge. If Stokers Halt is to be successfully rolled out as he plans, then he wants a consistent offer that can be replicated rather than reinvented every 12 months. The menu might feature nods to the Americana revolution, for example, but it is resolutely pub food.
“Our food offering is not flash in the pan; it’s stable, modern pub food that is comfortable and accessible – timeless really,” says Patterson. “It has twists, but we have a proven model that works and we’re going to do it really well and consistently with adjustments along the way.”
With this less forceful approach, Patterson is edging Stokers Halt into the breakfast market, but he is keen to do things gradually. The pubs currently open at 11am with the food focus on lunch and dinner. Once that is established, he will push back into brunch and institute that before looking to breakfast. In addition, all the staff are trained baristas and the company has just invested in its own coffee brand – Stokers Halt coffee.
“We’ll do takeaway coffees for commuters,” he says. “We’re here, paying our bills, so we might as well be selling. But we’re going to grow into it. We’re not going to stretch people, otherwise we’ll burn them out.”
The same is true with the spirits and cocktail offer. From his Bacardi days, Patterson knows that cocktail lists and bartender advocacy are critical to bringing a spirit to life in the eyes of the customer. And while the cocktail offer at Stokers Halt is simple – 12 cocktails – Patterson wants it to be really good before he starts experimenting further.
“We want to produce them consistently and build slowly,” he states. “We have a great bar manager who wants to bring in a smoking gun and do an Old Fashioned with smoke coming out of it. We’re not there yet. We will be in time, but we’ve got to remember that we’re a good pub. There’s a place for that in society still.”
The Stokers Halt brand features similar furniture and décor, a place where the customer feels comfortable coming in any and every day of the week. Wingbacked chairs, corrugated iron, vinyl prints of historic Belfast, wood panelling – all of these will be hallmarks of the brand. Patterson and his team developed a menu that migrates from site to site, minimising pressure in an area where staffing is a national issue. The ethos of the brand is also expected to resonate throughout the estate, with staff feeling ‘part of the tribe’ and pulling in the same direction.
“We truly believe in promoting from within,” says Patterson. “It’s a cliché, but it means we have someone who knows the DNA of our brand and who we are, and can get that through to the next generation of junior staff coming in and keep building that. That’s the tribal mentality.”
Patterson points to his manager at the Holywood site, Gary. A Wetherspoon-trained manager, he is there not only to run the pub and look after the customer, but also keep that Approachable dream real and thriving within the team, maintaining that tribal ethos. He is a link that connects Patterson at head office with the day-to-day operations.
As well as building tribes within his company, Patterson is keen to build them within his communities, establishing his venues in their areas. In Holywood it was a gradual transformation from the original Tates cocktail bar, with its segregated bar and restaurant, to the all-welcoming Stokers Halt. Similarly, his first site – The Four Trees in Moira – is currently being sold on, as part of Patterson’s strategy to buy, develop and sell on for profit before moving to the next thing. However, when he arrived there in 2014, he went to great lengths to weave the site into the fabric of the community.
““At one point I was being called the Mayor of Moira because I was doing so much and getting involved with everything, too involved perhaps,” he explains. “We’ve got that track record now and those testimonials from people translate to ‘These are the guys that did that there’. That’s good for me.”
Then there is the approach to hospitality. As Patterson stresses, in the hospitality industry people are supposed to be hospitable, and this forms a key part of his staff training. He compares a customer coming into his pub to someone visiting his house and he expects his staff to treat every encounter as though the customer is a treasured guest in their own home.
“You’re going to clean your house before someone comes, you’re going to have something nice for them to eat and drink, you’re going to welcome them, you’re going to make them comfortable and you’re going to say thank you and good night, safe way home on the way out,” he explains. “There’s something in that that people can replicate. But these are things that people know.”
Patterson’s aim is to have five Stokers Halts, although he admits that number could rise as long as he continues to reach his financial targets. He hired a business development manager to find new properties, but if the site isn’t right then he won’t go for it just for the sake of it. Besides, the two Stokers still require investment and development – a rooftop garden in Ballyhackamore, and an outdoor garden and an upstairs function room in Holywood.
“I’m more proud of the times we’ve said no to business opportunities than the times we’ve said yes, because it means we’re getting smarter, making clinical decisions that are right for us to grow the right way,” he says.
He is in negotiations to acquire two more sites – one in the new development area around Belfast harbour, where a Marriott Hotel will be constructed, and the other which will become a convenience store with a community bar above it. Neither will be Stokers Halts. Both will be acquired according to Patterson’s try before you buy philosophy, where he rents for three to five years with the option to then buy the freehold.
“We put our own resources into refitting and refurbishing a site,” he explains. “Then we take the product on one year’s trading to financial institutions or brand partners and say ‘A year in, this is what we have done. With your support we could do this and this. This is safe money for you. You will get a return from it.’ We’re not just asking for £800,000 to buy a pub out of the blue.”
The pub scene in Northern Ireland is a changing one and while expansion fits with Patterson’s ambition, the dream is for him to create a Stokers brand that is both reassuringly similar and chain-like, but nevertheless embeds itself within its individual community. With his other pub styles generating income and teaching him valuable lessons about the sector, Patterson holds close to the twin ideals of hospitality and consistency.
“It’s about consistency, making sure that the passion that I have for everything is translated through to our consumer whether it’s a Sunday night at closing time after a really busy weekend or 8pm on a Friday,” he concludes. “Everyone who comes through our door is valuable. There’s a painting on our wall that says ‘Everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be nice.’ And that’s the challenge.”