Merlin Griffiths: "We’re artistic, resilient, adaptable – that’s hospitality!"

Originally written by Anna Jordan about Small Business

Welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk. Today's guest is Merlin Griffiths, pub owner, mixologist and bartender at Channel 4's First Dates.

We discuss current difficulties in the hotel industry and how you can reduce your costs.

We partnered with Smart Energy GB to bring you this episode.

Listen to it in the media player below.

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You can also watch our episodes with:

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  • The entrepreneur and former dragon Rachel Elnaugh
  • Businesswoman and Dragon, Deborah Meaden
  • The Apprentice 2005 entrepreneur and candidate Tim Campbell
  • Timo Boldt, CEO of Gousto
  • Jackie Fast, entrepreneur and The Apprentice 2018 nominee
  • Investor and former dragon, Piers Linney
  • Investment fund manager Nicola Horlick
  • Supermodel became an entrepreneur, Caprice

We have podcast episodes from the first series on the following topics:

  • How a business owner's mental breakdown resulted in her seeing trolls from her past
  • How one entrepreneur hired a videographer to follow every move and build their business brand
  • How financing a business led an entrepreneur to stress-related alopecia
  • The first professional public engagement of an entrepreneur
  • Adapt to life in the UK and learn English before starting a business
  • Securing seed capital financing
  • Find the perfect customer care manager
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  • Increase in customer numbers from 30 to 850
  • Starting a brand new company from scratch

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Would you rather read Merlin Griffith's podcast interview instead?

Hello and welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk. I am your hostess, Anna Jordan.

Today we have Merlin Griffiths, pub owner, mixologist and bartender on Channel 4's First Dates.

Merlin grew up in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He and his wife Lucille owned the Priory Tavern in north-west London. These days he runs the Maltsters Country Inn in Badby.

Cocktails are a specialty on Merlin's menus as he's been a bartender and mixologist for 20 years.

He first appeared as a bartender on First Dates in 2013, and the show is currently in its 14th series.

We'll learn a little more about him and the challenges facing the hospitality industry.

Anna: Hello Merlin.

Merlin: Hello Anna, thank you for having me. How are you?

Anna: Of course – I'm doing very well, thank you. What about you?

Merlin: Yes, yes, all in all I think yes.

By now, many of our listeners would recognize you as the guy behind the bar on First Dates. Tell us more about how you got into the hospitality industry and then the show.

Merlin: Hospitality – what a job! It's one of those things, isn't it? Are you planning hospitality? Do some people really do it? I do not think so.

I was quite young when I started working as a barback in the West End of London. I think I was lucky in getting to the right bar at the right time. This was exactly when the cocktail renaissance began in the mid-1990s. Yes, for me it was one of my first jobs in London. I was just happy to really have a job, to work all the hours and days or to do almost anything that was necessary. You know, it probably didn't take more than five or six years and you start to say, "I'm still doing this?" This is more than just a stopgap solution to a job, isn't it? Yeah, I think that's officially a career now. And yes, it is going there now with corporate funds.

I had a good time for five star India for Taj Hotels. I lived in Bangalore for a while. From there, I was sent to Bacardi Global as one of their global ambassadors for Bombay Sapphire Gin and Oxley Gin. That was a great experience – nearly four years around the world teaching people how to make martinis and from there pub owned. At this point we suddenly thought, my partner and I, we had looked at this, and especially in my travels – I've been to America – I got the idea that a good American neighborhood bar can still get you a really well-made Cosmo or margarita as well as decent draft beer. And I got the idea why you can't do the same thing in kind of a British pub, you know, the cocktail side of things, the beverage side of things shouldn't really be mutually exclusive. Cocktails and draft beers in the truest sense of the word. That's how we started cocktails and draft beers and no screens and no machines because I decided there were enough TVs in pubs by that time. Pubs should be social. And that's what led to it.

There was a job advertisement for Channel Four. They were looking for a bartender. That's it, it was literally advertised as a job and I said, "Okay, I think I might take a little time to try it too." And I was lucky enough to land it – it's a fantastic role that I really enjoyed.

How do you get out of curiosity as a barman when hunting? What kind of things are you looking for and who will you approach?

It's strange you see because of the social media page. You go online these days and find a lot of really good bartenders across the country and around the world. Nowadays there is a really developed network. But we go back ten years and it wasn't as developed as we know it now.

For example, when I switched to the job of First Dates, I was very lucky thanks to the support of Bacardi Global. I was doing quite a few videos of online training and trivia for her at that time. If you were literally just looking for "find me a cocktail bartender" there were about three pages I made nice and dry martinis and Tom Collins (cocktails) and so on and so forth. So really, I think you know some degree of luck, but at the time. Nowadays you have to work really hard for it.

Anna: I imagine it's not only noticeable to throw bottles over your shoulder and set things on fire.

Merlin: No, but that's also fun. Obviously, I've never been a bartender with flair. For me it has always been about customers and customer service. This is the real key for me as a people business. And that's what I always said. The hints in the name of hospitality: We are hospitable. And that's exactly what we're doing here. It's not about how well you can mix a martini or how well you can keep your draft beer. At the same time, how you interact with people is really important. I don't like to use the word "customers" – "guests" are better. You know how to interact with your guests who become friends too, with your local community, especially in pub play.

There is a lot to think about when it comes to running a pub. When you took it over Maltsters, it was in pretty bad shape when you assumed it was. How did you turn it around without breaking your budget?

Merlin: Slowly but surely, divide the task piece by piece, otherwise these places can become. Anyone who's taken an old pub or an old, an old rundown pub. Why not name a premium size? Anyone who has taken this trip knows what I am talking about when you have to split the task or it can get overwhelming. Most of us don't unless you have unlimited budgets and contracts to do it all in one big success. I know that at the small business level we tend to work our way up.

First things first, yes I am doing it right, which is obviously what I need to keep the kitchen clean, comfortable and hygienic. Once you do, what we need is a simple bar and trading zone. So these are the first two things you look at. Then we start upgrading the function room. Then we start with the garden design. Then we can go into renting the rental space available here and things like that.

Slowly but surely, we have only been on our journey here for a little over three years. Its a lot to do. But you just take it piece by piece and make it manageable.

One of the things that struck me while looking around was that the TripAdvisor reviews, before you took over (the Maltster), weren't great either. They were usually a star. How can you recover from such bad TripAdvisor (or other similar platforms) reviews?

Merlin: I don't really know. I don't really have that side in mind. I'd rather keep an eye on the people who come in and the customers I have. I think it's a small business, it's a whole different job to manage online and deal with managing reviews in particular. Some people do this very well, my hat goes to them. I decided my efforts would be better placed elsewhere in the business, taking care of the people I can see in front of me and the people who call me here to make bookings.

Anna: Do you think it was worth hiring a separate person to deal with this side of things?

Merlin: If you can afford it. I do not know if I can! I mean this is just right for the work I did with Smart Energy GB with this guide. I mean, budgets are tighter than ever right now. Crikey.

You spoke on Twitter about how the government dealt with measures affecting the hotel industry during the coronavirus pandemic. What do you think of the measures taken and what measures would you like to see?

Merlin: To be honest, I don't think it's my job to say yes or no. It's too easy to take a point of view people might have right now or an approach that has been realistically taken as a small business owner, to be honest, so much of that is beyond our control. And so much of it is ultimately out of my control whether or not I agree with things.

And in all honesty, I've been really paying attention to what I can control since March and until now because it's so easy to feel helpless in those situations. It really is, you know, when you face higher and higher hurdles to jump and to traverse ever more burdensome laws. But even with the help of my peers, I stay in contact with a large network of customs officers these days. In one of our groups, about 250 of us are talking. And it's nice to let ideas ricochet off each other and get advice on how to do things. This honestly helps you feel more in control. This is really useful. Otherwise it is very easy to disregard the whole thing, angry and screaming or just generally depressed and withdrawn. And yes, it's hard. I am not going to say that it is easy. However, when you approach this with the idea of ​​what I can control, you will feel a little bit better.

Normally I would ask what small improvements the hospitality industry can make to get better and grow, but unfortunately the situation is different right now. What advice do you have for these business owners to help them get through this period both professionally and personally?

Merlin: I'll start with the personal one. You know, to be honest, you do some non-work activity for me at least once a week that you enjoy. In all fairness it really feels like we're hardwired to work 24/7, but it's important to try and do the one thing that's just for you, no matter how much you convince yourself, that there is no time. I ride a bike – that's my thing. I take a few hours every week and do a long drive. I will be really sorry. I'm one of those crazy people who dress up in Lycra.

Anna: Oh no, I'm an avid cyclist myself – no judgment at all!

Merlin: I don't know what age you will be, what do you call it, a MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra)?

Anna: You still have time!

Merlin: Fine, thank you. But honestly, seriously, what I'm saying, do just this one thing that you enjoy, even if it is so easy to drag yourself to the local park, right, sit on a bench with a cup of calm tea or Coffee and reading a book or doing the crossword puzzle, whatever it takes to step away for a moment. It's incredibly important.

I think, whether people realize it or not, there is this underlying bubbling stress and tension, and it is even more so than small business owners these days. In the survey we conducted here, 69 percent of the changes in their financial situation resulted in a negative impact on their mental health.

So all of this has to be done somehow before it overflows. You can't hold onto it. Talk to people too, you know, really use your peer networks. Friends are really wonderful when you have a good friend and you will listen. But sometimes there are industry-specific things and company-owner-specific things. It helps to talk to other people in the same boat in the same situation. Try to get involved with some of the groups that are out there, maybe just to get a little breath and get it off your chest.

Anna: Yes, I think as a business owner you sometimes tend to put other people, namely your employees, first.

Merlin: Always employees. You are like a small family. To be honest, they're an extended family. Every small business owner knows that they are the greatest asset in your company, your team, your employees and your employees. You have to take care of them.

I mean, in March that was the first thing we got stressed out – what are we going to do, the stuff we need to make sure they are looked after? Like many of us, we looked at our cash flow and thought, "Oh, Crikey". Well, it will be a while before we get the vacation payments to pay for them. How do we go about it without going bankrupt? The real way to take care of my co-workers is to make sure they have jobs to return to, too. You know, and so we had some very frank and honest conversations with our staff and they were absolutely brilliant. You worked with us and understood everything. I think we were incredibly lucky to have the team we have, we really are. I love them all down to the last detail.

We saw on the website that as the layoff rate increases, more and more people are interested in starting their own business. What would you say to someone looking to start a hotel business?

Merlin: It's hard work, but do it. Honest. Enter the hours and you will receive the rewards, openly. It's a great deal. I think it's an absolutely great deal. I've been there – behind bars for 25 years and involved in some form of hospitality. And ten of them as a landlord. It's absolutely enormous. I would say that's great. Do it. According to ONS statistics, 99.6 percent of UK businesses are classified as small to medium-sized businesses.

Anna: Most of them are also very small businesses.

Merlin: Yes, most of them are usually very small businesses. So the best part of six million. It was Napoleon's quote that said Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, wasn't it? Yes, that hasn't changed. You know the small business makes this country tick. It absolutely does. It's so incredibly important. Absolutely important. And it's not just that, and it's not just the standards we hear about, you know, jobs in business and so on. These are families, livelihoods, children, the socio-economic impact here at the macro level is really big and incredibly important. It's really easy these days to get an idea that the UK is dominated by big companies, but of course they have marketing budgets and that's why you hear about them. But as you can see from these stats, it's 99 percent small to medium – everyone welcomes the little boys.

I'm going back – we started with that or with advice for small business owners. Let's have a look. What else did we recommend to people? Actually, I wanted to address the control of taxables. Rent, this is really big, but you have to talk to the landlord, right? Trust me, staying calm is difficult, but you have to stay calm and do this with a flat head.

Yes, again staff to control. This takes the best possible care of them. And now, if you did this in addition to changing your business, hopefully you could find other ways to gain some hours for coworkers once you've explored the opportunities to go.

I usually serve some food or drink, but all of a sudden you look at your website and say, "I have a licensed A3 room, it's a commercial website." What else can I do with it? Hopefully this will bring new work, new workflows, new ways of working, whether it is local groceries, whether you are setting up as a sub postmaster, you could be doing local deliveries there, hot takeaway, cold takeaway there are so many different things going on. There are operators who even prepare full meals to cook at home from their kitchens. The bathrooms are shipped so there are so many different things.

However, these are great ways to insure your business so that you can set up the hours for your employees. And then you look at utilities, get an overview of utilities, and frankly, they're an important part of your job here too. And here you come to this marginal profit idea. I am a huge fan of minor profits. They're a great thing as a long-tail effect because if you do enough of them they actually add up to a significant win for your business.

Anna: If people want to make these marginal profits, how would they do it?

Contact your utility company to see if you can get a smart meter. I think it's a really good and sensible thing. Up-to-date information on how your business is doing and how much things cost is more important than ever.

This is more than just turning off lights. You could begin to control your inventory, your commitment, and that kind of sense. Tighten up your menus to focus on the crowd pullers and profitable dishes, etc.

I want to know how much it costs to run now, I really do. I suspect that I'll be able to save a fortune on extra kitchen extracts and some electrical appliances in the kitchen, in particular, you know, I'm interested to see when my chef turns this one over when he gets it turns off, it is actually necessary in certain places. If I can save eight to 12 hours of electricity every day and trust myself, then we're talking about high-kilowatt devices. Ronnie, you know, he ran an electric pizza oven, for example, they know this is a 12 kilowatt machine. Yeah, these aren't the little beans we're talking about anymore.

That way, you will be in control of what you can, knowing that you have cut the fat and made your business leaner. All of these little things, in turn, are little things that go on.

They also tend to be during normal trading hours, tend to take a back seat to those things – "Oh, yeah, I must have looked at this one point" or they have a whiteboard in the office or a post-it note somewhere or a to-do list or what do you have? And at some point you somehow come to them. Now is the time to get into all of these things and get a really good idea of ​​what you are doing and how you work and are ready to change as well. We all have to adapt.

Anna: Yes, it's also amazing what some small business owners have been doing to add new types of services.

Merlin: Yeah, it's fantastic for the rural side of things. I think it's great that, for example, many rural pubs are rebuilding lost village services like post offices and shops. The fantastic thing is when you look at them as things in their own right, I can see why they have been mostly closed in many small villages. It is very difficult to make a profit as a small village business nowadays, given the cost of renting a building, etc. If you've been doing this as a pub and have the opportunity to expand into a retail offering, this is a given win right now and you can now engage with your community in new ways by restoring the services to Fantastic.

Let's not forget that many rural communities also have people who offer protection in certain ways, or you know that they only largely shut out the way of society. The chance for her to literally just walk to the end of the street and get a bottle of milk or something else without having to go into town is huge for her. Absolutely huge.

Anna: Would you like to add anything else?

Merlin: I'll say what I'm going to add. Really join these hospitality networks, the industry networks, get advice on where to get them, and talk to your accountant. If you don't have an accountant, get free financial advice from your bank as they will be happy to pass it on. Take advantage of this advice wherever you can. The more people you address, the more suddenly you realize that you are not alone in all of this. And there are still ways to keep the glass half full, even if it looks half empty, if I can be that open. But we are, as I said, creative, resilient, adaptable, that is hospitality! Challenges are something that we routinely face and that we can handle very well in this business.

Anna: Well, that seems like the ideal closing note. Thank you for joining the podcast, Merlin.

Merlin: Thank you for having me with you, Anna, thank you.

Check out Merlin on First Dates on Channel 4's catch-up service, All4. You can also visit smallbusiness.co.uk for more information on COVID-19 measures and how to run your hospitality business. Remember to like us on Facebook @SmallBusinessExperts and follow us on Twitter @smallbusinessuk, all in lower case. See you next time, thanks for listening.

Merlin Griffiths: "We are creative, resilient, adaptable – that is hospitality!"

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