Top of the pecking order

Quirky Lisburn venue, The Speckled Hen Pub and Dining Room beat off some very stiff competition during the eighth LCN Gala Awards recently to take the title of LCN Pub Food of the Year for 2018.

Owner, Martin Caldwell, along with wife, Eileen and daughter, Kellie, took the venue on in February 2014. There has been an inn of some description at this site on the Derriaghy Road since around 1660 and prior to the Caldwell’s arrival, there had been a dilapidated old pub there called The Travellers’ Rest.

Martin says he spent around £200,000 on giving the premises “a fresh start”. The bar was renovated and the lounge, which had been shuttered by the previous owner, was opened up and converted into a dining room with space for 66 covers. Another smaller dining area, called ‘The Snug’, was also created with walls covered in old photos and pub memorabilia.

The food offering at The Speckled Hen is described as “traditional pub fare” to which the Caldwells have added their own signature flair. In July last year, they introduced a new ‘pizza pod’ oven to the venue, creating a range of fresh, stone-baked pizzas which are available to eat in or take away.

“Originally, we did try different types of fine dining but early on, we realised that wasn’t really for us,” says Martin. “We’re a traditional pub and people come here for things like a traditional Sunday roast or turkey and ham.

An extensive daily menu is available – the same menu is served in all areas of the Speckled Hen – with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, many of them sourced locally.

Adding to the general quirkiness of the venue, there are ‘beer cabanas’ available – colourful little sheds akin to the wooden changing huts that were once a common sight in seaside resorts. Inside, there are tables and chairs and customers can enjoy a drink or a bite to eat should the weather turn inclement.

“In terms of business at this stage, we are out of loss and into profit,” Martin told LCN. “I think we could still do better but I think it’s like any pub business at the moment, we’re all struggling with certain things. The location we are in dictates the food we do, the prices we charge and the hours that we work. For instance, we don’t open Monday and Tuesday until 3pm because there is no lunchtime trade worth talking about on those days. But we are doing much better now that we used to.”

The diverse offering at The Speckled Hen also includes produce from The Black Mountain Brewery. Located right next to the pub, it produces a range of beer and spirits which are only for sale in The Speckled Hen.

“Our thinking was that in years gone by, this pub would have had its own brewery, so we wanted to bring that tradition back.”

As well as Black Mountain, more than 60 other brands of craft beer are also served in The Speckled Hen.

Martin’s family background is in hospitality. At one time, they owned a group of pubs as well as the Royal Avenue Hotel, across from the original Grand Central in Belfast city centre. However, Martin didn’t immediately follow in the family tradition. Instead, he trained as a solicitor and spent 25 years in practice as a specialist in intellectual property.

His day job changed, however, when his daughter, Kellie, approach him with aspirations of getting involved in the hospitality trade and the pair decided to take on The Speckled Hen together.

“We were delighted when we won the LCN Award,” said Martin. “We did think that we had a chance but we knew there were five or six good venues in for the same award.

“You just can’t buy this type of publicity. The recognition that you get bolsters yourself and your staff and gives everybody a lift because your achievements are being recognised. And more to the point, they do have an impact on the level of business. We definitely saw an impact on the number of people coming in after we won the LCN Award.”

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