Successful restaurateur and first-time pub lessee Jack Sutton speaks about his latest venture with Star Pubs & Bars

Red Lion Shepperton

In August 2014, The Fish Club restaurant owners Jack Sutton, Steve Orme and James Thomson took on their first pub, the Red Lion in Shepperton. Together with Star Pubs & Bars, the trio spent £500,000 on transforming the riverside site into a fantastic foodled pub offering a fresh, seasonal menu. Now that he’s found his feet, Jack talks us through the changes.

Q: Why did you decide to make the move from restaurateurs to pub landlords?

Over the last 10 years our fish restaurants [two combined restaurant and fish shops, both called The Fish Club in Clapham, London] have become pretty well established. We’ve won awards with Time Out and the Observer, and were recently ranked one of the top three fish ’n’ chip shops in the UK by the Times. It felt like the right time to take on something new. We’d talked about running a pub together and Steve and James had their eyes on the Red Lion. It’s totally different to what we’ve set up in London. We can be more playful with food at the pub; we do our own smoking and curing, and love experimenting with new food types.

Q: How did you turn the pub around?

When we took over the lease, it was a bit rundown and neglected. First impressions of the exterior were that it was unkempt and unloved. Steve and James actually grew up in the area, so they’ve seen this pub change hands over the years and knew it had potential. It’s a riverside pub, with a lovely view of the Thames, in a beautiful part of Shepperton. We’ve opened up the bar area and have big, folding doors, which we open on a sunny day, so customers can see the river all the way around the bar. It’s gone from a slightly dingy pub to a bright, airy, welcoming establishment. The locals love it.

Q: Are you social media savvy?

Word of mouth did most of the work initially. Having said that, the local Shepperton Twitter page spoke very highly of us, and that was great for business. Our General Manager Sam is brilliant at tweeting from our account too (www.twitter.com/rlionshepperton). We’ve also started a Facebook account so we’ll promote things on there too. Now we’ve got something to shout about, we’re looking forward to planning our year and letting people know what we’re offering.

Q: What’s on the menu and how often do you change your food offering?

The menu changes every day. It depends what vegetables are in season, what our fishermen are catching and what breed our butcher is recommending. We’ve got great suppliers and a really good head chef, who we work closely with. We work around a core menu and vary our ingredients. At the moment, we’ve got a Jerusalem artichoke soup on the menu. We’ll keep that for a week or two and then we might change to spicy butternut squash or cauliflower and wild mushroom. We’ll always have a very good homemade pie; we just change the pastry from suet to puff and vary the fillings. We had hare and trotter recently, and rabbit and smoked bacon before that. Then we have our higher-end products as well; we always have steak and a couple of fish dishes on the menu.

Q: How important is sustainability?

Very. Morally, it just makes sense. In 20 or 30 years we’re not going to have the fish that we’re getting now. Most fishermen are very conscious of sustainability and of sourcing fish from Marine Conservation Society (MCS) waters. Our head chef uses organically farmed meat from local butchers, so everything is sensibly, sustainably done. It’s something that we’re very conscious of – nowadays, most chefs are.

Q: Do you still cater for people that just want a pint?

We’re more food-led than a lot of pubs, but we’re still a place that you can come to for few drinks after work. On a Friday night, our restaurant is fully booked, but the drinkers outweigh the diners. You can eat in the bar area as well as the restaurant and we’ve got a bar snacks menu too. It includes burgers, sharing plates, homemade pork crackling and Scotch eggs with runny egg yolk… everything’s cooked to order. You can be stood at a high table with your friends, drinking nice ales, lovely lagers, wines and cocktails. So we’ve struck a good balance.

Q: Have you any other plans for the near future?

Yes, we’re planning to create a river garden bar in time for spring – it’s going to be an amazing addition. We’ll have a little satellite kitchen out there, which will make it self-sufficient, and it’ll have a small bar as well. We’re just looking for people to sit there and enjoy being next to the river. We’ll also offer a variation on our bar snacks menu, serving skewered barbecue meats and mini pizzas, which we’re really looking forward to producing. So we’ve got plenty ahead of us!

Jack’s advice for new lessees

1. Know your demographic and recognise what the locals want and expect from you.

2. While taking that on board, don’t be afraid to put your own stamp on the place. Working with your local customers when introducing new ideas is the best way to strike this balance.

3. Never think you’ve cracked it. You should always push for more. You’ll never know it all, no matter how many years you spend working in the industry.