Outgoing award-winning pub owner reveals secrets of 78% margins and success

By Tom Tanner, Sustainable Restaurant Association

Almost exactly three years on from lifting the coveted Sustainable Business of the Year Award at the 2019 Food Made Good Awards, Ollie and Lauren Hunter are leaving The Wheatsheaf Chilton Foliat as a thriving village pub – transformed from when they took it on in 2015. Ollie took time out in his last week in the Berkshire pub to share his highlights, lowlights, lessons learned, advice for his Masterchef-winning successor, and his own mushroom growing plans for the future.

You talk on The Wheatsheaf’s website about you vision of ‘the future pub’ – what is that? 

I think the future pub will be full of contradictions: it can be modern thinking but respects its heritage. It has to think globally but act locally. It needs to be independent but yet give the community what they want. It has to be sustainable and regenerative, but somehow still feel like a pub without the preaching or fear mongering. It has to be evolving, and yet “part of the furniture”, as if it’s always been here and always will be. It is a place that is strongly connected to the local area through its suppliers, its customers, its building materials, its art, its music, its expression – a place for everyone and anyone. We’ve always said that we do the sustainability so the customer doesn’t have to.

The Wheatsheaf’s wood-fired oven

What sustainability innovation at The Wheatsheaf are you most proud of? 

Going completely wood fired after the first lockdown was pretty cool – removing the 3-phase oven and floor standing fryer. It also saved money. This was a case of changing the menu and cooking technique to suit the most sustainable energy. If you asked the customers, they’d probable say the homemade crisps – we became iconic for them and we eliminated over 15,000 plastic foil packets being made and binned in the last 5 years. Keg wine has also been a great success.

Was there a nagging challenge you never quite overcame?

I wish we had always worked out how to and invested in using the waste heat from the pizza oven to heat a back boiler for all the hot water in the building. I think if we had kept the pub for longer, we would have gone full on plant-based – we have to lead the way for our customers to become more plant-based.

A crisp, simple pizza made in The Wheatsheaf’s wood-fired oven

What’s been the biggest lesson of the last seven years? 

The challenge of sustainability is creative, optimistic and really exciting, full of new flavours and new ideas. However it takes time to convert customers – we can counter this with good team knowledge and passion as well as ensuring that the product is always delicious. I think for me the thing to take away generally is that we knew that sustainability works as an economic model – we achieved 78% margins through the concept of Zero Waste even though 75% – 95% of our produce was organic or regenerative. 

Sustainability can happen anywhere, anytime. When we took over in 2015, the building was awful, and the business non-existent…so anyone can make change, and it can happen very quickly. We’re still incredibly positive about the movement.

What do you wish you’d known then that you know now? 

It gets easier! There are two ways to make change in sustainability – systematic and capital. Systematic change can happen very quickly and is relatively cheap and often free. Capital change is expensive but is an investment for the future. Prepare yourself and the business for both, try to make five systematic changes for one capital change to help balance cash flow. Sustainability also makes you unique – we found that it is the process by which we became unique.

What was the secret of your success in winning the Sustainable Business of the Year category at the 2019 Food Made Good Awards? 

Haha… we were young and naive! We had our sights set on trying to win and we listened to the SRA framework and guidance to adapt our business.

Ollie and Lauren celebrate their 2019 Food Made Good Good Awards success with SRA President Raymond Blanc OBE

For a pub that’s not quite as gastro as the Wheatsheaf, would you recommend the Food Made Good framework? 

The Food Made Good Framework is an incredible guidance for whatever business – we can only make change by asking questions, observing and analysing our business, and then innovating to make change. The framework helps anyone to do this. Sustainability shouldn’t be just for gastro – it can exist in any supply chain of any hospitality businesses.

What are you going to do next and why? 

We are starting a regenerative farm just outside Hastings which will be holistic and broad. We are also starting a mushroom business (because they’re the future), growing them and turning them into plant-based products. And we will also have a strong focus on education to help young people learn more about the soil. The soil is everything – which we realised during our pub journey – so if we want to make change it has to come from the soil. I will still be doing consultancy for businesses and schools with regards to their sustainability and help them achieve better results and better margins – anyone can contact me at [email protected]. 30 Food has been working with Raithwaite Sandsend for the last 18 months who went on to win “Most Sustainable Hotel” at the Hotel Cateys.

The land in Sussex where Ollie and Lauren will plough a new furrow

What advice would you give your successor, 2020 Masterchef winner Thomas Frake? 

All the suppliers, systems and customers are there waiting…. you just need to keep it up! I encourage to keep innovating, and when they come to building the 8 rooms that we achieved planning permission for, that they really think about the most sustainable way to build them and use the lack of international building materials to their benefit and innovate using locally sourced. For example walls made from Mycelium! Or lampshades made from Seaweed.

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