10 minutes with: Michael Ibbotson, Provenance Inns

The  Staff Canteen

Michael Ibbotson is co-founder of Provenance Inns, a group consisting of seven Yorkshire pubs which has this year won Pub Group of the Year in The Good Pub Guide 2015.

He has worked in all areas of the industry from front of house, a chef in a sports bar in Lanzarote to 5 star hotels in London, sneaking royalty and VIPs up the back stairs into parties. Now Michael is back to his roots as operational managing
director for a group he runs alongside business partner Chris Blundell.

With 31 pubs closing each week clearly Mike is doing something right, he said:

Mike Ibbotson- .charlottegalephotography.com

Michael Ibbotson

“In four years we’ve gone from 60 staff to 245. We opened in November 1999 and we’ve been developing that business for 15 years, we’ve never had more than two years in a row where we haven’t done something there.”

Diversifying appears to be the key ingredient for Mike’s success and is something that he agrees causes many businesses to close.

He said: “Everybody thinks that it’s just for the hospitality industry but it’s key for any business.

“Village pubs need developing they need to stay on the ball and keep ahead of the times, when the recession hit we diversified and now we’ve got our marque as a permanent function room, we’ve extended rooms and we’ve just done things when there have been gaps in the market.”

He also explained that delegation plays an equal part in the business. “One of the hardest things is to master delegation,” said Mike. “The key thing is to be confident and to be confident in the people you are delegating to as you’ve got to worry about your reputation. The issue you’ve got is that it’s impossible to be in more than one place at a time and it’s a catch 22 if you haven’t got a good team. Fortunately we’ve got a fantastic management crew and I use the term crew, as I’ve always maintained even when I only had the Ox (and I know it’s cliché to say) that I might steer the ship but it’s the crew that gets us there.

The Oak Tree“We are a people industry both sides of the bar,” added Mike, who believes that service needs to be on a par with the food. “Even Heston Blumenthal said service and the atmosphere is equally if not more important than food.

“When you go out with family or friends you want it to be a memorable experience. If you go somewhere and the food is great but the service is poor then you’re not going to have that great experience and vice versa.”

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Although Provenance have classic dishes that can be found across the group Mike says he encourages the chefs to be passionate and individual.

He said: “Some of our customers go from one site to another and they [the classics] need to be the same”. With classically trained chefs across the board Mike very much believes that good food doesn’t need to be complicated and is something that he’d like to spray paint across kitchen walls.

He explained: “Each site creates its own recipe file which we then monitor how well it sells. Some chefs are much better at things than others, some more creative; it’s a melting pot of people and people is something that we are big on.”

This is something Mike abides by when recruiting for his pubs as he has experienced first-hand a divide which he wanted to stop at the first opportunity. “As I was growing up I have worked in those kitchens where there was distinct front of house/kitchen divide,” said Mike. “I worked both sides in The Punch Bowl Private Dining Roomthose days and thought then, when I’m in a position I’m going to stop this.

“I’m a really easy going guy in my business but the one thing that will really send me over is bullying. I remind our chefs of this. It’s ultimately about having a laugh and having fun, we take it seriously but we do have fun. If you don’t have fun how can your customers have fun?”

Having worked in both front of house positions and as a chef Mike has over 20 years experience but doesn’t claim to be an expert. He said: “I’m not going to be arrogant and tell you that I’m the best but I can say I am always trying to be better at it all the time.

“I still have the passion and the drive to want to learn more about the industry and that’s something I try to get through to all of our guys.”

For Mike this passion started at the age of 17, he knew then this was the industry for him. In his early career he completed a stage at The Capital Hotel in London where it was common practice to help VIPs and royalty into dinners up the back stairs of the hotel.

He said: “I remember the principles of being a London barman, it was before social media, and even with those things now I still wouldn’t have disclosed it.

“There were lots of VIPs and international business men and Fergie too but you never really discussed it, there was an un-written rule and loyalty that you respected. I’ve been lucky to have worked for some fantastic people that have really drummed in some basics.”

The Crown and CushionBasics that Mike credits to two people. Firstly Graham Thompson at Chez Max. Although it was over 20 years ago Mike said: “It was the first job I had that wasn’t working for high end hotels, Graham was the first person who really showed me the simplicity and importance of cuisine.

“Chez Max was very classical cooking and I worked front of house and in the kitchen too but it was the fact that it didn’t matter which part of the business you worked in you understood all of it. It was one of those places that the menu was bullet points and as a maître d you told everyone what was in the dish.”

The next influence came from a family friend Peter Grub who owned a sports bar in Lanzarote. Mike said: “My career all points towards five star before I went to work for Peter, he taught me a phenomenal amount, probably more than anyone in my career.

“He taught me how to market myself in a very short period of time and he taught me how to immediately engage people to spend their money in your bar. He was one of the first men I ever worked for that was an absolutely un-patronising mentor, he was so full of enthusiasm for young people. He was a cigar-smoking-terribly-posh chap who you wouldn’t think would have owned a sports bar in Lanzarote but he owned three of them.”

Mike explains that it was Peter who really taught him how to run a business. He said: “He taught me that if you are in control of your product and your product doesn’t work then change it. Don’t be stubborn. "

Running a business was always something that Mike had in mind he said: “My ambition was to be self-employed, I toyed with bar and restaurant and never thought about a pub but knew it had to be in Yorkshire.

“I was getting sick of London and to open a business in London you needed to have the most ridiculous amount of money. I felt safe financially in Yorkshire in an area that I understood as this is where I’m from.”Yorkshire Board

With the local pub The Durham Ox under receivership it seemed the perfect opportunity to put his plan into action. Mike explained: “I heard the Durham Ox was looking for management and I was asked to manage it, I said no, but six weeks later we bought it.

“The Durham Ox was an iconic pub it had been around for years, my father remembers drinking there when he was 18, it had just fallen off a little. It was my first and I didn’t think then that I would be running six similar businesses in the last four years. All of the pubs we’ve bought have been knackered and we’ve done them up. I didn’t think what I’ve done at the Durham Ox would set me up so much in experience.”

By Aimee Davis

Have you eaten or stayed at one of Provenance Inns' properties? Let us know over on @canteentweets

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th November 2014

10 minutes with: Michael Ibbotson, Provenance Inns