Steven Bennett: Cooking up custom

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He may let his two daughters talk him into spending money on holiday extras like flight upgrades and a high-end hotel in Mexico, but the Lincolnshire Chef Steven Bennett, 38, is no pushover in the kitchen and business.

He believes that by treating each supplier like a customer, a business can go a long way. Proving this system has worked for him, since creating The Comfy Duck at The Oaklands Hall Hotel near Grimsby in 2012, Steven has more than tripled the turnover.

Steven has always had an interest in cooking the old fashioned way, just like his granny taught him. “My granny was a keen cook, and she was a cook where nothing would get wasted. We learned from a very young age that you don’t waste anything. Watching my granny when we were growing up, she wouldn’t even waste the veg water. She would save that water to make her gravy.”

The passion for food was passed on in the family. Steven’s mother owned a bakery and his uncle owned the local butchers, but even though he helped out when he was at school, he didn’t want to go into the family business.

Instead, he went to college for a GNVQ in hospitality and catering management. “Part of my work experience was going to The Brackenborough in Louth to do a month’s placement and learn all aspects of the hotel, and from there I got offered a job in the kitchen. That’s where I started my career path.”

He worked in a few other places to broaden his experience, becoming a head chef at 22, getting his first rosette at 25 and then returning to The Brackenborough to become an Operations Director at 26.

Having already changed the fortunes of one hotel and helping it to achieve a turnover of just short of £1.3 million, Steven seemed like the ideal person for the job of taking the reins at The Oaklands Hall Hotel in Laceby to pull them back from the brink.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Having a nose for business

When Steven first arrived at The Oaklands Hall Hotel, he knew he had his work cut out for him. “When I first came here, it was probably the worst hotel in Grimsby. It had a very poor reputation for food, it was known as a functions hotel.

“They contacted me to come and help. I remember sitting in here and watching the residents come in with their own takeaways, their own beer and asking for a plate, a glass and a knife and fork, and I thought ‘this is going to be a tough one.'”

After rectifying staffing issues and cutting the outgoing costs, Steven turned to look at the food trade and created The Comfy Duck as a separate entity to the hotel, but based inside of it. He gave it its own Facebook page and a separate website from the hotel. Over £1 million has been invested into refurbishing the ground floor and incorporating the restaurant so far.

“Hotel restaurants are renowned for being impersonable and they are known for the general public not going into them very often. I knew that we would only get 46 covers from our residents because we have 46 bedrooms so the only way to increase that is to make the restaurant accessible to people.”

Steven took a bold decision to launch a Tastecard which provided visitors the ability to try the restaurant at a 50% discount, bringing in the initial custom needed to build up the reputation of the business. After six months he was able to swap the Tastecards for VIP cards, which meant customers could still get a discount (but just not 50%) and the business grew at a substantial rate.

“The first year we did £620,000, in 2013 we went to £1.2 million, last year, 2014 we went to £1.98 million and this year we are on target to do £2.2 million. Technically these peaks should have been over five years.”

Not only did The Comfy Duck bring in general custom from the locals and visitors to the area, but within a year from opening, they started to refurbish the function room to be able to start selling more attractive wedding packages. The hotel is looking at catering for over 100 weddings next year, when only three years ago, it was doing 20.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Championing Lincolnshire

Steven’s girlfriend Charlotte Hay created the idea of The Lincolnshire Chef in order to put him at the forefront of the sales pitch. He is known for championing the county and showcasing the produce and the talent that comes from around the region, down to representing Lincolnshire at the Food and Drink IFE in London this week.

“I do promote Lincolnshire products because that is what it is about. Lincolnshire is the county that you drive through to get to Yorkshire, and we have the agriculture – we grow more vegetables than any other part of the county. You only have to look at the cheeses, they are gold award-winning, they have beaten all of the French cheeses.”

From field to fork, the Lincolnshire Chef knows where every part of the produce that he serves comes from. For The Comfy Duck, Steven uses local suppliers as much as possible to help out the local economy. “We have a close relationship with our suppliers, what they have got and what is coming in. The reason that we have rabbit on at the minute is because our game supplier was going out and getting loads of rabbits.

“I have a veg supplier who has just planted all of our seeds for us for the summer. He has two autistic children and a plot of land. His sons manage and grow the vegetables. What he is doing for us is planting throughout the whole of the spring and summer and we have given him a list of about 30 different seeds that he is going to grow. You know where it has come from and it is literally six miles down the road.”

“Your suppliers are as good as your customers. Your suppliers aren’t there to hammer down on all the time, they are to be treated like a customer because they will be an ambassador to you. They will get you out of trouble, if you are short they will go out of their way to help you, they will help you out on costs if you ever need it, or if you have a cashflow problem then they will help you in that aspect.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Cooking up a treat

The kitchen at The Comfy Duck is a very calm one, even when they do 300 covers a night, which is a big change from when Steven was working and training in a Michelin Star restaurant and they had to speak in French all of the time due to the chef being Swiss.

“I won’t stand there and not do anything that the other lads are doing. John Lidguard who was at The Brackenborough says you always lead by example. You have to be the best, but be the best while you work twice as hard as everybody else. It means that you are twice as quick as everyone else, it means that you are twice as loyal as everyone else, and you’ll go far. That is something that I have always taken going forward.

“The biggest success is The Comfy Duck because we have no spa, we have no gym, we had no function room to actually sell, so the only thing we had to make sure of was that our restaurant was the best restaurant.

“A lot of people think that we have been established a lot longer than we have. This restaurant is only two and a half years old.”

With the restoration of Lincoln Castle, and with Stokes Coffee revamping The Lawn in Lincoln, Steven feels that now is the time to expand.

“Over the next two years we would like another restaurant, and I would love it to be in Lincoln because it’s the centre of Lincolnshire, the capital of the county. We have a name created, but we are waiting for the right opportunity.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 22 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.