A FORWARD thinking Hampshire pub and restaurant group has defied the bite of the recession to double in size in the past six months.

Southampton based Ideal Collection has grown from three to six venues and increased its workforce from 70 to 150 employees in an industry racked in recent years with pub closures and restaurant failures.

No 5 Bridge Street, in Winchester, The White Horse Otterbourne, and The Boat House Swanwick, a concept developed for Premier Marinas, have all opened their doors in the past six months after half a million pounds of investment.

This is part of a growth plan that’s been carefully plotted by the group – with an eye to finding the right locations and markets.

And it is a sign of self-confidence when figures show that eight out of ten restaurants typically fail in the first two years, even in better economic times.

Ideal Collection managing director Oliver Weeks, a former manager of the White Star Tavern, Dining and Rooms in Southampton, was four years ago tasked by group owner Matthew Boyle with putting together a plan to grow the group organically.

The group, founded in 2002, was then made up of The White Star Tavern, Dining and Rooms in Oxford Street, The Bugle in Hamble, and Cantina Mexican restaurant in Bedford Place.

After waiting for the right venues to become available, the expansion has been rapid.

The wet weather may have hit trade in recent weeks, but Mr Weeks said the new additions to the Ideal Collection are already meeting forecasts.

And, despite the recession, he said the past two years saw the group increase both turnover and profit before the expansion.

Mr Weeks has made his staff a key element of the growth strategy, with his general managers given the job of putting personality into the venues not found in branded chain operators. Four out of six managers are “home-grown”.

“Everyone in our business has worked hard for it,” Mr Weeks said.

While not aiming for food accolades, they have come. The White Star has two AA rosettes. The Bugle and The White Horse, a village inn, have one.

Food is made from good quality locally sourced produce – most of the meat, for example, comes from award winning Uptons Butchers of Bassett – and the menus are unpretentious.

“The ethos of the business is about establishing great hospitality venues,” Mr Weeks said, who says trade has held up even as people spend less on going out.

“Value for money is not just about the price. We believe value for money is about the whole experience, the style, the service, the atmosphere.”

Mr Weeks said the aim of No 5 Bridge Street was to create something of a niche for the Winchester market that was more than just another gastro pub but that retained an informality.

The Enterprise Inn property has experienced a number of different names and owners in the past few years, beginning as The Cricketers before changing to the Blonde Beer Café, The Mikiki Lounge and then finally back to The Cricketers last year.

After an extensive revamp it became No 5 Bridge Street in December.

Big screen TVs and loud music are not part of the theme. Rather it has a stylish bar, a pantry style dining area with an open kitchen, a sunny courtyard, and six boutique rooms upstairs, all designed by local firm Focus Design.

Mr Weeks said further expansion of the group was planned and with the growing popularity of Mexican food, Ideal Collection is set to drive a roll-out of Cantina Mexican as a brand across the south.