Joycelyn Neve on building a dining legacy in Lancashire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 May 2017
A young woman with a passion for pubs has made the red rose county the inn place. Roger Borrell reports
When Joycelyn Neve gained an impressive degree, potential employers from the world of finance weren’t slow in coming forward. As a commodity analyst, she could expect a top salary and job security.
Instead, she went to work in a kitchen. ‘I did get offered a good, well-paid job,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t want to end up in middle age regretting the fact I’d never followed my dream.’ That dream involved running her own restaurant and, a little further down the wish list, was the desire to host a Lancashire Life lunch. Both boxes have been ticked several times over.
As a child, she had attended our magazine lunches with her parents – her dad Chris is a highly respected Fleetwood supplier of fish to top chefs across the country.
It has been six years since she opened her first dining pub, the Oyster and Otter, at the tender age of 25 and, from those relatively small beginnings in Feniscowles, near Blackburn, her Seafood Pub Company has expanded at what seems a breakneck rate of knots.
There are now ten in the group, many of them award winners, and her success led to Joycelyn picking up the Food Hero trophy at the 2015 Lancashire Life Food & Drink Awards. She also picked up a Catey, a prestigious national awards judged by her peers.
She and the team have obviously found the right formula. While each venue has the same core values and style, they’ve been allowed to retain and develop personalities of their own. You wouldn’t be bored going from one to another.
Now, backed by £18 million of investment from Penta Capital, a private equity investor, the group is expected to at least double in size over the next five years with the latest moves taking the business into Yorkshire. The company expects to have three open there this year and the Lakes is likely to be next.
‘I love my job and I feel incredibly lucky that people believed in me from the start,’ says Joycelyn, citing dining pub guru and executive chairman of the Seafood Pub Company, Andrew McLean, executive chef, Antony Shirley, and dad Chris, ‘who I always idolised’.
She adds: ‘I had people who supported me straight away – they bought into what I had wanted to do.’ While pubs have been closing with frightening regularity, Joycelyn and the team have been breathing new life into the trade, taking ailing inns and transforming them with upmarket contemporary cuisine side by side with pub favourites and good beer. Décor has also been important – tradition mixed with a good dose of modernity and sophistication. The group includes some landmark inns such as the Derby Arms near Longridge and the Assheton Arms in Downham, which she took over despite competition from Marco Pierre White.
‘The growth has been organic and planned, but we have always taken advantage when the right opportunities have come along and we have been physically ready to take on the challenge of another place.’
Another key factor has been the introduction of rooms so guests don’t have to go home after dinner. ‘We get people who live 15 minutes away and people who have come from all over the country. Food tourism is getting bigger all the time and we are helping to spread the word about the beautiful countryside we have in Lancashire.’
Despite having ten businesses to look after with her operations team, Joycelyn is determined to keep close to each of them. ‘If I don’t have any meetings in the diary, I’ll work in one of the pubs. In fact, if there’s an unforeseen crisis I’m more than happy pulling pints or waiting on tables.’
Her early training taught her the business inside out. ‘I grew up watching my dad working and I can fillet a fish as well as anyone,’ she says. ‘I worked in a Japanese restaurant and that taught me how not to do things. That was a very important lesson.
‘I also went travelling in South America. I ate my way around for six months and kept a diary, a real fund of stories about their produce, the way they cook and the style of restaurants.’
This thirst for knowledge is something they instill in their staff, now numbering several hundred. ‘We have people with impressive CVs – they need to be talented. We could be doing 500 covers in relatively small kitchens and we don’t do boil in the bag. It’s fresh local ingredients prepared for our customers.
‘The message is train, train, train. Standards of service are very close to my heart. In return we have incentive programmes and, because we have grown, there are regular promotion opportunities. We have several people in senior positions who started their careers with us.’
One of the recent developments has been a partnership with Roaming Roosters, the farm and produce business near Fence. It’s a neat fit which sees them supplying the group with meat – despite the company name they don’t just serve fish – and Joycelyn’s company running the bistro next to their farm shop.
It’s a career that doesn’t leave much time for leisure, although she now has a smart French bulldog to take for walks. ‘I’m not one for big parties,’ she says. ‘My idea of fun is to eat and drink with small groups of friends and my mum and dad.’
She will be taking a break in the autumn when she gets married to her partner who works in the restaurant and hotel trade in the Middle East. ‘He’s a Londoner but he loves it up here, especially the countryside and the brilliant views we take for granted. He’s also quite keen on the local beers – especially Moorhouse’s White Witch!’
So will the time come when she cuts loose from the business? ‘I can’t ever imagine not doing this job,’ she says. ‘It’s in the DNA and, besides, it’s such great fun.’