Restaurant Plough Harborne on building from the bottom up

Since 2003, The Plough Harborne, a casual restaurant in Birmingham, has run on one simple rule. “We have a basic philosophy that we want to give the best service possible,” says owner Adam Johnson. “We want to give people a great welcome, a great food programme, and a great space.”

The Plough Harborne has created devoted customers in Birmingham and beyond and continues to earn rave reviews online. What does this restaurant do to create unique and memorable experiences for diners? Here, Johnson shares his thoughts about the success of The Plough Harborne and his role as owner, plus what advice he has for aspiring restaurateurs.

An investment in your team is an investment in your restaurant

“I’ve got great management and chef teams and they’re really invested in the business and it’s success,” Johnson says. “I can really rely on them to help move the business forward.” As an owner, he knows that it’s his team that will be the driving force of his restaurant’s success. “The market is so competitive now, a restaurant has to have a soul and a heartbeat and that heartbeat comes from a staff that cares. They have to care about the music, the lighting, the service.” Johnson says that he and his management team are always thinking about ways to take care of the staff so that they can pass that feeling along to their guests. “We’ve got about 100 staff members so we try to think about making them happy in whatever way that we can.”

Think about what events your customers want

While it would be easy for Johnson and his team to sit back and have the same menu all the time, Johnson says one of the reasons for the restaurant is successful is because he and his team are always thinking about what’s next. “We try to think, ‘how can we do something for our customers to keep them interested,” he says.

“We’re developing a taco night on Wednesdays, and we have a Cuban sandwich night inspired by “Chef” the movie.” It’s not easy or cheap to do but it pushes his team, keeps his customers interested and requires him to make sure he’s on top of things. “It means investing in infrastructure, staff training and design,” he says. The Plough Harborne team uses social media, a monthly email to fans, and the menu to make sure that guests know about the events. “On the back of our menu we share five to six events that are coming up,” Johnson says.

Go the extra mile…. even when you get it wrong

“We always try to go the extra mile with diners’ requests,” Johnson says. “If a diner has seating requests we’ll do our best to make that happen. We really try to listen to our customers.” Guests can even contribute ideas for the menu. “If a guest says, ‘oh, I would love to see this dish on the menu,’ we’ll listen to that and make a note. We’ll talk about it and if it makes sense we’ll add it and make sure that the guest who brought it up knows that we did that,” Johnson says. Making guests feel heard is a great way to make them feel like they matter in your restaurant.

It’s also about having empathy and putting yourself in the their shoes when something goes wrong, he says. “When we get it wrong we want to go above and beyond to make it right. If something goes wrong, we want to ‘wow’ people with how we fix it.” That means that guests that aren’t satisfied get invited back to have what Johnson calls, “the right Plough Harborne experience.”

Become a part of your community

Johnson sees The Plough Harborne as a part of the Birmingham community and wants to make sure that others see it that way too. That means offering to host meetings or provide space to neighbours. “Some of our events aren’t for profit. There’s a yoga studio next door so we’ll have them over and let them host an event,” he says. Offering the space builds on the community aspect of the restaurant.

Johnson’s advice for future restaurateurs

“Be prepared to work really, really, really hard,” Johnson warns. Also be clear on what you want and what you don’t want as an owner. “Have a clear vision for your food and service.” The Plough Harborne can’t be everything for everyone. “We don’t try and do things that we can’t do really well.” There’s no mixology programme at The Plough Harborne because they don’t have the bar space to do it really well, and that’s ok with Johnson because they focus on having great wine and beer programmes.

And remember that you’re human and your guests and the members of your staff are too. “We’re aware of the fact that we’re human and we make mistakes.” That’s where investing in your team can make the most difference. If they’re empowered and invested in the success of the business, they’ll do their best and take care of guests. “We try to always work on how our staff can be involved by like, noticing a table is celebrating a birthday and bringing a dessert or wine, for example. We try to think of nice human things that we can do to make the meal better.”

The future of The Plough Harborne

“Our review for this year is about food,” Johnson says about the future of his restaurant. “We’re constantly trying to make our food better and create a better experience.” Johnson says that his team is looking at ways to create different experiences using food. “We’re looking at sharing-style menus and meals for private dining,” he explains. “We want to pushing the food forward but still making our diners feel welcomed and not afraid of what we do.”

They’re also looking at developing an additional summer menu from the garden, Johnson says. “We’re really striving to be the best within our four walls. We look at what we do and ask ourselves if we can do it better.”