Festive cheer for town’s venues

Trevor Davison

Restaurant and pubs across Tunbridge Wells enjoyed a festive boost, with some reporting a trade increase of more than 20%.

With an upturn in Christmas business, end-of-year celebrations compensated for weaker summer takings, as venues were affected by unsettled weather and increased competition.

Among the key factors for many restaurants in creating new season menus has been ensuring quality locally-sourced produce.

One of the area’s largest independent group of venues, Whiting & Hammond, which includes the Mark Cross Inn just outside Tunbridge Wells and The Little Brown Jug, Chiddingstone Causeway, is in buoyant mood after recording a 27% year-on-year increase in Christmas trade.

Its Langton-based managing director Brian Whiting welcomed the group’s strong festive performance.

He said: “We had a record Christmas on the back of a tough build up to it, so that was quite pleasing.

“There’s no doubt that there is increased competition out there, with a number of companies opening up branded operations such as Bill’s.

“But our figures for December were up 27% year-on-year in the group, which I think was down to the mild weather. With our venues being in more inaccessible places, we found a few years ago when it snowed that we virtually had to shut down.”

While the Christmas period had been a successful one, he added that New Year’s Eve had been disappointing across the group. Despite this, he said the company would be working hard within a challenging market to expand its portfolio of pubs, which stands at eight venues.

Though he explained the opening few months of the year often proved difficult in the pub trade, he was hopeful its focus on customer service would ensure it maintain its positive position.

He added: “We hope 2016 will be a good year and we will be focusing on our food offering and quality of service to deliver the best that we can. I think that competition is a good thing, with the winner being the customer.”

Meanwhile, on Tunbridge Wells Common, The Mount Edgcumbe has also reported an upturn of 10% over Christmas, with the venue favouring a classic British pub menu.

According to landlord Robert Hogben, the business was in a positive position going into 2016.

He said: “We had a busy Christmas season and we had a lot of bookings last month, so we are looking forward to the New Year.

“Though January and February are quieter months, there are some positive signs out there. We are working on our new menu now – It’s difficult to say what has been best-selling, but our chilli squid is one of the things we are famous for in the area, as well as our steaks.

“I hope we will have a good year this year, especially as we plan to open up six rooms for accommodation here, which is another positive.”

Among other independent restaurants experiencing a positive Christmas was Don Giovanni’s Italian restaurant in Calverley Road, Tunbridge Wells.

Jason Fanti, who runs the business with his brother and father, enthused it had been an extremely productive two years since the family’s business returned to the area.

It seems the festive season was no exception, with a number of party bookings ensuring a positive end to the year. The family said its upward trend in business is continuing into the New Year. This included increased trade from larger bookings from those who had been unable to arrange family and company social gatherings before Christmas.

Mr Fanti said: “We had a great end to the year, which we are seeing continue into January. We have been here for two years now and we’ve had some great feedback from customers.

“I think we have a good feeling about this year, with lots of new ideas. For the New Year we will tweak things and we always try and be as creative as we can with seasonal products that we can source.

“Though we have access to a lot of Italian products, we also source our meat and fish locally – there are really goods fishmongers in the area, and some great butchers in Tunbridge Wells too who supply us with venison.

“It has been a big challenge being part of the business, but I think Tunbridge Wells is a fantastic place to be based. It’s an affluent area, so in that respect some of our customers have travelled in Italy and have a real connection with our food.”

Another venue owner, Matthew Sankey, of the Sankey’s group, which includes a brasserie and pub on Mount Ephraim and venue in The Pantiles, explained his key focus has been to maintain a quality experience for customers.

While he conceded that summer trade had been challenging, he believed the group gained momentum towards the end of the year.

Mr Sankey said: “Events have gone really well over Christmas. The weather has been good lately which has given us a boost, with people eating al fresco for Christmas on The Pantiles, which was fantastic to see.

Our pub also had a good year, offering 23 draft beers and on the food side we worked really hard.

“We recognise we have been quite specialised with our seafood offering, which is pretty niche, so with our pub we have more traditional offerings including burgers, pies and sharing platters. We’re developing a menu that has more grazing snack options and are also trying to be more creative with the sandwiches that we offer.”

Owner of The Tunbridge Wells Hotel, Julian Leefe-Griffiths, believed his venues were set for a promising year after The Black Pig and the George and Dragon, Speldhurst, joined a select group
of sites to be listed in the UK’s Michelin restaurant guide.

He said: “Our venues had a really good December, which I think came from a wider optimism in the area – which was seen with quite a lot more staff parties than had been seen during the recession.

“One of the things that we have stood out with is the special game menu, including partridge and pheasant, both of which have done really well, as well as deer, which are from the Buckhurst Estate.

“We also talk to a lot of local farmers to see what meats are available, so we have always tried to source locally since 2004, as well as adopting the principle of field to fork of things being grown around the corner- much better than having something flown in from the Canary Islands.

“For the winter season, we have some lovely root vegetables on our menus including parsnips which are particularly sweet and taste great, while the cold winter seas are really good for scallops and Atlantic fish is also great this time of year. The game season also continues until February and March.”

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