Young landlords who took the hard road to success

Richard Hayward and Sam Elstone outside the Bucks Head.

Richard Hayward and Sam Elstone outside the Bucks Head. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Tessa Allingham meets the young entrepreneurial team at the Bucks Head in Thwaite

Nutter. Richard Hayward uses the word a lot – and it captures him in, well, a nutshell.

How else to describe someone who, aged just 19 and with a 19-year-old partner and new baby, thought it was a good idea to sign the lease on an uninhabitable pub that had festered for three years, empty, on the side of the A140, and set about trying to build a viable business?

Drill down and the full nuttiness of his and partner Sam’s madcap project emerges.

“There was nothing here at all, doors were blocked, the kitchen was just a filthy space, no equipment at all, outside was a mudbath, the upstairs living area was awful.” But?

“But I could see potential immediately,” says Richard. With £60,000 from a generous private backer, the couple started to strip the place out, deep-clean, decorate, buy equipment, dining furniture and curtains. They re-opened the doors of their 16th century roadside freehouse to 400 guests for an opening party in July 2012.

Two years on, and still just 21, Richard is glad he and Sam took the plunge. He cooks and she is often front of house at weekends, though at the moment she’s more focused on caring for the couple’s children – Lily, a sister for two-year-old Archie, was born in March.

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“It’s going really well. Passing trade during the week can be a bit up and down, but the weekends are full.” Plenty of the regulars come to the Bucks Head from surrounding villages and nearby Stowmarket and Diss for what is essentially pub food done well. Attempts at offering innovative restaurant-style food were quickly shelved in favour of cooking what customers seemed to want to eat.

“This place isn’t about satisfying my ego as a chef,” Richard says, with the level-headedness of a man twice his age. “It’s a business, we’re here to provide what people want. If we do that, people will keep coming back and if that happens then we will make a living. It’s simple, but a lot of chefs make this mistake.”

And so Richard has created a straightforward menu that includes bar snacks and sandwiches, and that is cooked to order using ingredients mainly from local suppliers.

“It’s not complicated food, but it sells. Portions are hearty and I make everything bar bread and ice cream here, even the barbecue sauce!” The ‘I’ is literal. Richard is alone at the stove, with pot wash and some prep help from two local lads.

You could start here with smoked salmon fish cakes with pickled cucumber salad, or a mushroom and Stilton tart. Mains might include a homemade burger with triple cooked chips, or roast pork belly with caramelised apple, or a piece of sirloin with all the trimmings. Vegetarians are well looked after with a whole separate menu – leek and mushroom wellington is a popular choice – and Richard keeps the chef inside him content with a weekend specials board that might offer deconstructed beef wellington in the form of onion puree, twisted slices of Parma ham, mushroom rillettes, a piece of fillet steak and criss-cross of pastry with a red wine sauce, triple-cooked chips and vegetables.

To drink? Local ciders, lagers and ales from the likes of Calvors, Adnams, Greene King and Woodforde’s keep thirst at bay, the freehouse status meaning Richard can pick and choose suppliers at will.

So just how did he and Sam get to this point so young? Sam’s support and enthusiasm has been crucial all along, Richard says, and the small team around the couple is invaluable. Sam Patterson who runs the bar is the only full-time employee, but there is a trio of waiters who work shifts, Lorraine who keeps the whole place spick and span, and huge support from both sets of parents – Sam’s mother, Andi, also works on HR, finance and marketing.

“We wanted somewhere we could make our mark,” says Richard. “I’ve always been ambitious. The opportunity came and we grabbed it, but we couldn’t have done it without this level of support.

The couple’s entrepreneurship has already been noted by the judges of the Future 50 awards, run in association with the East Anglian Daily Times to recognise entrepreneurial talent deemed to have ‘exceptional potential’ for growth and local job creation.

“I guess being young makes us braver and perhaps we have more energy and optimism. We’ve gone into this in order to run a successful business, not to spend some retirement money or to fill time.”

Leaving school early meant Richard put several years of work under his belt well before many of his contemporaries. “I started working in kitchens aged 15 – the Mulberry in Thetford, Fredericks Fine Foods in Diss, and on the pastry section at the Ritz in London.”

A couple of formative jobs later (he ran Steve Kembery’s kitchen at the Burston Crown, Diss, when he was just 17, before heading up the team at the Four Horseshoes, Thornham Magna), Richard found himself working for Mark Blows at Il Divo, an Italian restaurant in Diss.

“Mark does food at festivals so I ran the kitchen alone for six months of the year. I thought ‘why don’t I do this for myself?’”

The rest is recent history. It’s far from a case of ‘job done’ however. The couple want to improve the al fresco dining space, create a proper children’s play area and, long term, possibly erect a marquee for functions in an adjacent field.

Looking yet further into the future, they would like to have more than one pub. “Maybe when we’re a bit older, when we’ve got the systems and staff in place here,” Richard says, the first hint of caution and restraint to emerge in our conversation. He pauses, the nutter in him perhaps not comfortable with the cautious tone. “No, you’ve just got to crack on, haven’t you, just get on with it.”