Enjoying an authentic Deep South experience in Chester may sound like a contradiction in terms but Hickory’s Smokehouse is one of those places that is full of surprises.
The business, on the banks of the River Dee, was founded from the owners’ passion for the food and hospitality they experienced in the southern states of America.
They set out to create a family restaurant replicating that vibe around eight years ago and have successfully expanded at a rate of more than one site a year since. There are now nine venues; spreading from its North West heartland down to the Midlands and across to North Wales.
Every year or so, the owners and selected members of the team return to the States for new ideas and to ensure they are remaining true to their original intent.
There’s something for everyone, with the smokehouse food at the heart of it all. Then there’s the touches that make it unique, such as the the free popcorn on arrival, the cinema rooms, and ‘build your own frozen custard’ for the younger members of the family.
And, of course, there’s sport too with TV’s located above the bar, facing a selection of booths styled to recreate a classic American feel. It’s done discretely so sports fans can choose to see what’s going on without it impinging on that important, quality family time.
Offering sport in a non-invasive way in a food-led venue is a neat trick in its own right, but Hickory’s Smokehouse has another string to its bow.
A set of double-doors beyond the bar in Chester lead to what Hickory’s has called it’s Sports Book.
This is essentially a private members club for invited guests. Beyond those doors they can enjoy a private bar, table service, a set-up designed for the business customers to plug in and crack on with work, and a wall full of TV’s for the pleasure of the discerning sports fan.
Company owner Neil McDonnell explains the concept.
“We looked at what was on offer in Chester and we thought everything was at a certain level. We wanted to take it up a notch.
“We felt there was a market where we knew who was coming in and who we were dealing with, if they wanted to eat, have a meeting or sit with a laptop. It’s a place where people can come in and enjoy sport in a relaxed environment.”
It started with Hickory’s rewarding loyal customers who they felt fitted the profile of what they were looking for. They have also successfully approached golf clubs and an American football team to create what Neil calls “a diversity of sport” within the membership.
There is no fee to join but the privilege of membership can be removed if guests do not behave in the manner expected.
“It’s incredibly fun but it’s also an environment where you would feel comfortable bringing a CEO of a business for a meeting,” adds Neil.
There are around 60 seats in the Sports Book and the idea is that it’s is always possible for members to sit down. They are encouraged to contact manager Brenden if they plan on attending and let him know whether or not they will be dining.
Major occasions such as The Champions League final are ticketed and will include food and drink options.
Playing home and away
And the benefits of membership extend beyond the walls of Hickory’s.
Various external events are organised every year for members, including golf and race days.
The Hickory’s team collects data from guests about their favourite sports as part of their membership application to ensure they are invited to the most appropriate event.
Just like membership to the Sports Book itself, it encourages guests to keep returning.
Neil continues: “It’s our thank you to members. We are giving them an experience which they might not otherwise be able to have. Then we bring them all back here with our business hat on and we try to retain everyone. More importantly we hope they’ve had a great day out and shake our hands and say thank you on the way out.
“Like any party you throw, it’s all about the people and getting the right mix. Creating the right blend is what makes those days a success.”
There’s a degree of flexibility to the way the Sports Book is run too. On quieter nights the doors to the club may be opened to non-members with interest in particular sports, or to newcomers to the venue from out of town who fit the Sports Book profile.
It gives them a glimpse at a concept that they may want to return to or to perhaps ask a local business near to where they live, why they don’t try something similar themselves.