Blind Tiger Inns operator profile

Chris Tulloch, founder of Blind Tiger Inns, talks about growing a leasehold business, a career in hospitality and how it helps to be a little crazy.

P&B: Thanks for talking with us, Chris. Let’s kick off by asking how you’d summarise the Blind Tiger Inns business?
CT: Blind Tiger Inns formed in 2017, with the name coming from the prohibition era in the US where customers would pay to go and see a ‘Blind Tiger’ and receive a complementary drink. The Blind Tiger never existed of course, but the free drink did and we are here for this kind of cheekiness.
The business now focuses on strong community pubs, whether traditional pub buildings or town and city centre bars – 100% wet-led with a real focus on live entertainment, sport and pub teams. Around 90% of our pubs have beer gardens too and this is something we really strive to develop into incredible, year-round spaces.

All of our pubs are heavily invested into, with a five-year refurbishment cycle to keep our offer on-trend and ahead of our competitors. We combine our pubs’ physical offer with great people delivering quality products in a safe and fun environment.

P&B: That sounds like a solid offer. You clearly understand pubs – how did you end up running them?
CT: You could say I was just unlucky. Or maybe lucky. It depends which day of the week you ask me! It was almost 20 years ago now, when I applied for a job with a fruit machine operator after being turned down with an application at the local cheese factory. At the time, the fruit machine company operated four pubs too, and I was asked to stand in for a couple of weeks, as the MD was off sick, and I was the only person who knew where all the pubs were. Those two weeks turned into 11 years, and we grew that business from four pubs to 35, which were a mix of freeholds and, latterly, some leaseholds too.

Chris Tulloch of Blind Tiger Inns

P&B: Speaking of leaseholds, you’re a fan of the leased model – at what point did you realise there was scope for a whole business to be based on it?
CT: Following a management buyout of the previous business I was involved with, myself and then business partner decided to go our separate ways. Her plan was to make money, but I just love operating pubs, and as we know the two don’t always go in hand in hand! We had 25 freeholds and 10 leaseholds when we split the pubs, with my ‘share’ being the leaseholds.

Having been through the crash in 2007 and seen property values rapidly end up under water compared to borrowings, I liked the idea of having less focus on bricks and mortar, and more on actual pub operations. Working with Star Pubs has been a great journey and we now have 18 pubs with them.

P&B: How are you finding recruitment and retention at the moment?
CT: Our recruitment is helped by our retention. We have one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the industry, both in our venues and within our head office team. I am a strong believer that consistency builds profitability and we work hard to support our people to keep this labour turnover low.
In terms of recruitment, it’s a busy place out there. We pay well, which certainly helps, however it’s not just about the money. We invest in team days, training and other rewards to keep people engaged. Our people are our number one asset, which is an easy phrase to use, but we genuinely try to show people how important they are to us.

Our bonus scheme is second to none. It rewards managers on achievable targets and helps them really become business people, as they strive to understand and hit their KPIs. We have added to this with incentive trips, which each year every single manager can go on, should they hit their targets. We have taken managers to Las Vegas, New York City and this year the team are aiming to win seats on the plane to Dubai!

A party atmosphere at a Blind Tiger Inns event

P&B: So, you would recommend a career in hospitality to someone who’s sceptical of the sector?
CT: I believe they say if you want to make a small fortune working in pubs, then you need to start with a large one, but maybe this is not strictly true. If you work in hospitality and get ‘the bug’ then it really is the best industry to work in. For me it’s the variety. You can start your day counting stock, then be watching videos to book the best Elvis tribute and by lunchtime sampling a new product with a supplier. 

Combine this with meeting countless amazing people, seeing great events and being involved in special occasions in people’s lives. For too long people have seen hospitality as part-time work or a stepping stone. You just need to look at how big an employer the sector is, and how many great careers are forged within it to see that it really is an incredible sector to be a part of.

P&B: What products are currently selling well across the business? 
CT: Post pandemic, we saw a clear switch towards more premium products and this has remained. We are a wet-led business and saw people gravitate towards premium products in all categories. We have helped this continue, particularly in wine, where we increased our range and invested heavily in premium glassware. 

P&B: What are some of the USPs behind Blind Tiger Inns?
CT: Nothing is off limits in terms of ideas. We have WOW meetings as a team where there is no real agenda other than to come up with plans that are, put simply, a little bit nuts. Seven years in and the team are all now well versed in the fact that ‘Chris will probably say yes’ and the more ridiculous the idea, the more likely it is to be a yes.

We don’t like saying no, and have a mantra that if we all agree something will be fun, and there is a decent chance of a return, then let’s do it! That’s why we have an estate that is so diverse, as every pub manager can come up with their own craziness and get the full backing from head office. That’s why we deliver everything from bungee jumps and ice rinks, to wreath making and bottomless brunches, Christmas markets and music festivals. Community is always the focus, and our communities seem to love a little craziness, so we deliver it!

The White Horse in Irlam, Greater Manchester

P&B: What are some of the ways you’ve absorbed cost increases over the past couple of years?
CT: Like all businesses, we have seen costs rocket, and by more than we can pass onto our customers. Energy was, of course, the biggest challenge, but most other things seem to be tracking around 10%. It’s simply not possible to add 40p to a £4 pint in a community pub, and that’s before looking at the increases from the brewers.

We took the view that the energy would be a cost that would hit our profits. We know lots of people tried to make cuts to absorb it, but we didn’t. It’s no fun making less money, but it is fun delivering great experiences and providing value for our communities, so we took the hit of a couple of hundred grand. However, with other people making cuts, this allowed us to drive volumes and still be proud of what we do. 

P&B: What does the future look like for Blind Tiger Inns?
CT: The future is very exciting, as we look to continue seven years of consistent growth. We get asked a lot about what’s the target number of pubs. Put simply, there isn’t one. We are in a very fortunate position that we have no shareholders – it’s just me. Equally, there is no debt and no investors. Everything we do is self-funded, and everything within our venues is owned outright. 

This is great, as we don’t need to chase pub numbers based on the goals of a VC. If we see an amazing opportunity we will go after it, 100%. However, if there is nothing that makes us excited, we are happy to focus on our existing amazing business. We would like to grow, particularly to grow the head office team on the back of more pubs, to allow the career development of this team. I am sure this will happen over time, but we won’t rush until we see the right opportunities. These can be L&T opportunities, freeholds or other commercial opportunities. 

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