After two decades in the biz and five years at their gastropub the Kentish Hare, chef brothers James and Chris Tanner have a desire to hop into another pub site when the right opportunity arises.
Two minds really are better than one – a cliché brothers Chris and James Tanner hold true. Celebrating more than 20 years in the sector with restaurants in Devon and their award-winning gastropub the Kentish Hare in Tunbridge Wells, which they launched in 2014, there’s no denying the duo hold one another responsible for their success.
After such a long time working in kitchens together, some would be forgiven for thinking Chris and James would be tired of each other. It would be rude to ask, but at an exclusive Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs regional dinner, hosted at their pub, the pair worked meticulously in sync with one another and the rest of the brigade without a hitch throughout service. For those who are crying out ‘but how do you know when they were in the kitchen?’ Well, the pass is open and near 40 other chefs and gastropub owners had a perfect view.
The pub has been a labour of love for the duo since its launch almost seven years ago, with every inch of it retaining that just made look, while also being homely and inviting. “The site that we’re sat on now was actually to be knocked down completely and flats to be built on it,” explains James. “We’re in a lovely semi-rural village, close to London and close to two big towns. We saw a market for commuters and for locals.
“The site is beautiful now, but it needed some serious TLC. And I mean serious. We thought can we do it? Shall we do it? And we did and I’m so pleased that we did.”
Working together on launching the pub and improving it over the years was aided, rather than hindered, by the brothers’ different views, as Chris explains: “Two minds are better than one really.
“We both have different views on the way things should be laid out, but the good thing with this site is because we literally opened it from scratch, we were able to cherry pick where we wanted everything to go.”
He continues: “And I think that was important, especially from a chef’s point of view, because sometimes kitchen functionality gets overlooked by architects. But we didn’t have a massive space to work with, we were unsure of the cover count. I’m glad we did what we did. We’re still stretched for space like everybody, as you evolve, and you get bigger. But right from the beginning, we had a vision with what we wanted to do with the site.”
And the brothers have been exceptionally practical with the kitchen, fitting in all of the mod-cons that any decent brigade needs to cook and serve a menu as delicious as the Kentish Hare’s, but with room for a Big Green Egg too, of course.
The pub is split almost 50:50 into dining and bar space, which has been done purposefully so the pub can have a real community feel. There’s also a generous garden at the back with ample seating, but the focus is mostly on the food, which makes sense as that’s where the brothers’ talents lie, but that doesn’t mean drinks aren’t important to the business.
“Let’s face it, to run the business as a whole, in its entity with regards to your turnover, you need the food and you need the drink too,” says James. “What we’re sat in now [the pub] cost a lot of money. And a lot of money comes in and lot of money goes out. You need the food, the dry and wet sales to go hand-in-hand to cover your costs and to boost the business forward.”
It’s about using every inch of the site to its full potential, he continues, which is what any savvy business owner as well as the most successful operators in the on-trade do. But that’s not just about a nice dining room and clean toilets, he adds, it’s also about whether there’s enough parking and if accessibility to the pub is adequate for those with additional needs.
But the food, the food is what most people from far and wide travel to sample, so how do the brothers describe it? “How to describe our food? I suppose… is the term modern British? I’m not sure,” James says trying to define the pub’s style. But one thing he is certain on is that there’s a trusted trio of fresh, seasonal and local ingredients used in the kitchen, as well as using products with a unique selling point to the brothers. “Of course, we use a lot of ingredients from Kent – the garden of England where we are,” James says. “But because of our ties with the West Country, and also our great connections with suppliers down west with stunning produce, we actually cross the ingredients from this area and the west.”
And now for that burning question, what does the next 20 years hold for the Tanner brothers and the Kentish Hare?
Expectedly, there are plans to push the pub further and continue to succeed, but there’s also a desire to avoid becoming stagnant, the brothers want to continue showcasing the skill set of the talented team in the kitchen as well as their own. They’ve already become successful restaurateurs and now pub owners, but as well as that, the Tanners have launched into events catering for private dining and other occasions that suit their style.
Opening a gastropub could also be on the horizon, as Chris says: “We’re always getting approached [with new sites]. Will we rule out doing a pub in Devon? No, maybe finding in the right site.”
The question of whether a second gastropub is truly on the cards comes down to location, as James says: “I think it is do with the area and the site. I mean there could be opportunities for us up in the south-east and the Surrey region as well. Some people think it’s weird because you’ve got one site at one end of the country and one at the other, but it really does work. There’s two of us and we’re hands on, but we’ve got the fantastic crew too.”
Chris continues: “I think the next site’s got to be right, the area’s got to be right. Ultimately, the numbers have got to stack up.
“Let’s face it, you see failures, there’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment. No one knows what the outcome is going to be with the Government and so we look at the economy and the business side of it and the figures side of it. And what people can afford, what we can afford and what we can spend, because we can’t do it for nothing, we need to get a return on it and that’s the hard bit.”